It is vital for our pupils to possess a wealth of academic vocabulary if they are to succeed in school. 

For most of my teaching career, this issue was tacit and flew beneath my radar. Vocabulary issues were often hidden in plain sight. In the last few years, however, developing academic vocabulary has become talked about much more (given countless teachers have related the issues of their pupils). 

It is now broadly accepted that breadth and depth of vocabulary knowledge is needed to make the academic language of school better understood. It is a complex combination of knowing lots of words, along with their many layers of meaning, as well as how words relate to one another, such as their families, roots, and more. 

Given most academic words are complex and polysemous (that is to say, they have more than one meaning) just sharing word lists with pupil-friendly definitions is typically inadequate. ‘Thesaurus syndrome’ can ensue, as pupils fill their writing with seemingly-superior synonyms, but end up with confused sentences.

Limited word knowledge is exposed in the classroom when polysemous vocabulary confuses familiar everyday meanings with specialist academic word meanings. One such example is ‘cracking‘ in science. I use ‘cracking’ in my everyday speech: ‘it was a cracking match’ or ‘what a cracking dinner’.  However, if you are studying GCSE chemistry, you need to know that ‘cracking’ is a term for breaking large hydrocarbon molecules into simpler molecules. 

The process of ‘cracking’ in science

The mere familiarity of many polysemous words means that misconceptions can develop easily in the minds of pupils. They can self-report confidence in their vocabulary knowledge, but on closer inspection it proves misplaced. Not only that, it is hard to select the right meaning when pupils are searching through a dictionary for answers.

We should consider: what words in each subject discipline are most prone to such misunderstanding? 

Here are 10 examples of commonly confused academic vocabulary:

  1. Factor. In maths, factor means a number or algebraic expression that divides another number or expression easily (with no remainder) e.g. 2 & 4 are factors of 8. In history, factor is most likely linked to causal arguments. In our wider culture, an X-factor still holds sway. 
  2. Interception. In geography, interception describes precipitation that does not reach the soil (it is intercepted by leaves etc.). Whereas in PE, and in our wider culture, we commonly associated an interception with a pass being seized by the opposition.
  3. Force. In science, force has a precise meaning to describe the push or pull of an object that causes it to change velocity. In history, force may commonly describe an army battalion or similar. Whereas, in our wider culture, you may quickly get mixed in Star Wars!
  4. Bleeding. In art and textiles, bleeding is a specialist technique describing the loss of dye from a coloured textile in contact with a liquid. Everywhere else bleeding stems from a wound and similar. 
  5. Moment. In physics, a moment describes the turning effect of a force. Everywhere else, it is to do with a moment in time and nothing to do with gears and levers.
  6. Culture. In biology, it describes the propagation of microorganisms. In sociology, and in our wider culture, it describes the language, beliefs, values, and more, held by members of a social group.
  7. Attrition. In geography, this describes the erosion process – whereat rocks gradually wear away at one another. In history, and more commonly, attrition is a broader reduction in strength, such as a loss of staff in schools, or the saying ‘war of attrition’.
  8. Abstract. In art and design, abstract is quite specific in describing art the intentionally does not attempt to represent external reality. In describes a branch of algebra in maths, but most commonly, it describes something that exists as an idea and not a concrete reality. 
  9. Tone. In art and design, tone describes the relative lightness or darkness of a colour. In English or drama, it means the general character of writing, or the quality of a voice – its pitch and quality. 
  10. Depression. In geography, depression has a specific meaning a sunken landform or subsidence, such as a river valley. In history, we may leap first to the Great Depression. In everyday life, depression more broadly describes feelings of dejection (often clinical). 

To avoid confusion and potential misconceptions, being explicit about the specialist language of our subjects is essential (it is the stuff of ‘disciplinary literacy’). The differences can prove subtle. Explicit vocabulary instruction can of course help, as well as simply tackling word meanings, and layers of meaning, head on in explanations and discussion. 

Akin to studying the earth in geography (or chemistry), we should pay attention to layers of meaning, digging into words, making rich connections, and thereby discovering their rich histories, parts and meanings.