The importance of vocabulary in high school academic achievement

A research chat with PhD graduate Geoffrey Pinchbeck

Tell us about your research project.

My thesis work examined the relationship between written vocabulary use and academic achievement in academic-track high school students in Alberta.

With jobs shifting away from labour-based sectors, and with the demographic changing and becoming increasingly diverse, there has been more discussion in Canada about how to teach academic language to the students who might eventually go on to enrol in post-secondary studies. Even if you exclude the subject-specific jargon, the vocabulary and structure of the English used in academic settings is very different from the English we use in everyday conversation, and I wanted to see if students who got high marks in school also used more academic language in their writing.

Alberta Education gave me two kinds of data, which I was very happy to use for my thesis research.  First, they gave me 1508 provincial exam essays written by students in Alberta’s academic-track grade 12 English Language Arts course (ELA 30-1).  This is the one course Alberta students need to attend any university program.  Second, they gave me the provincial exam scores of other courses for the writers of all those essays.

I examined how the vocabulary that each student used in their essay related to their academic achievement in different areas: their score on the ELA 30-1 essay, their mean score on both the ELA and Social Studies diploma exams, and their 30-1 Math score.  More specifically, I looked at how sophisticated and varied their word use was, and whether previous status as an ESL student had any correlation with their achievement in grade 12.

Tell us about your research project.

The lexical sophistication measured in students’ writing could explain 30% of both the score of the ELA essay, and the mean score of the ELA and Social Studies exams, whereas it explained only 7-8% of Math scores.  High-achieving students’ vocabulary profile was more similar to that of academic English.  In comparison, low-achieving students relied on more common, everyday terms, and their vocabulary profile was similar to that of spoken English.  Additionally, with the exception of very recent (< 3 years) immigrants, students who had had at one time received ESL instruction – i.e., multilinguals – were at no significant academic disadvantage over those who had not.

The findings suggest that knowledge of academic vocabulary varies considerably even among students in academic-track programs and that this knowledge is strongly associated with achievement in courses that require academic literacy, as opposed to that in Math.  The fact that there were no significant differences between native-speaking English students and multilingual students suggests that academic language is not something that can be acquired incidentally with more time in English-speaking school environment.

Academic English is not anyone’s first language.  Students of all backgrounds have been shown to struggle with academic English – native speakers of English, as well as multilingual students; helping all of our students understand and use it is important to their success throughout their education, both in high school and as they transition into post-secondary. Designing tools and ways to incorporate general academic vocabulary into the content course curricular framework can help enable all students engage with the difficult language of secondary and post-secondary programs.