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January 2013
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Free TESOL Journal Article: "The Use and Misuse of Academic Words in Writing"
by Andrea Marie Cons

This article first appeared in TESOL Journal, Volume 3, Number 4, pgs. 610–638. TESOL members can access all issues for free here. To become a member of TESOL, please click here, and to purchase articles, please visit Wiley-Blackwell. © TESOL International Association.

This study investigated the specific ways secondary English learners (ELs) and redesignated fluent English-proficient learners (RFEPs) use academic vocabulary that assesses interpretive reading and analytical writing ability. The research examines how ELs and RFEPs, formerly ELs, differ in use and misuse of academic words. The study extends Olson's (2007) work by analyzing how secondary students use academic words correctly and incorrectly. The results indicate that although both groups rarely used academic words, RFEPs used significantly more academic words and made fewer academic word errors than ELs. Qualitative analyses reveal that RFEPs used academic words to add cohesion, details, and precision in their writing to a greater extent than ELs. Findings have three pedagogical implications. First, ELs need more exposure to academic words in writing. Second, ELs need explicit instruction on how to effectively use academic words in writing. Third, ELs need more writing practice in general to become more comfortable with the act of writing so that they will feel more comfortable using more words overall, specifically academic words. Thus, writing should be assigned often. Also, because ELs and RFEPs used few academic words in their writing, both groups need more exposure to and practice with using academic words in writing.
doi: 10.1002/tesj.36

Effective vocabulary development has become a burning issue, not just in reading research but also in writing. Composition experts emphasize the critical role of vocabulary in analytical writing (e.g., Astika, 1993; Cortes, 2002; Hakuta, 1974). Analytical writing requires students to be

able to produce an effectively organized and fully developed response within the time allowed that uses analytical, evaluative, or creative thinking. Their writing should include details that support and develop the main idea of the piece, and it should show that these students are able to use precise language and variety in sentence structure to engage the audience they are expected to address. (Loomis & Bourque, 2009, p. 10)

Unfortunately, the number of students in the United States who need extra help learning vocabulary has burgeoned in recent decades. All available research demonstrates that they are often limited in their knowledge of words in analytical writing. In 2007, for instance, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) administered a writing assessment to approximately 165,000 public and private school students in Grades 8 and 12 throughout the nation (Salahu-Din, Persky, & Miller, 2008). Fifty percent of public school students in each state (except Connecticut and Massachusetts) were considered nonproficient (at or below basic). The NAEP data also confirm large and consistent gaps between the writing performance of English learners (ELs) and native English speakers.

High-stakes tests such as the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE), which all California high school students are required to take and pass prior to graduation from high school, can have serious consequences for students who do not pass. There are negative consequences of failing to do well on national and state tests, such as placement into remedial courses and even failing to earn a diploma.

There is a dearth of research on the academic writing of secondary ELs. As seen in the 2007 NAEP scores, more than half of all secondary students tested were considered nonproficient in writing (Salahu-Din et al., 2008). It is important to consider such data and to learn more about the academic writing of secondary students, specifically ELs.

A major reason that students fail to do well on tests like the NAEP and CAHSEE is that they lack proficiency in vocabulary (Fraser, 1998) and are unable to use academic words effectively in analytical writing (Zamora, 2011). Using a word effectively in this type of writing requires a breadth of word knowledge, entailing, among other things, knowledge of a word's literal meanings, connotations, the grammatical and lexical environments in which it occurs, morphological features, and semantic associates (e.g., synonyms, antonyms). ELs' vocabulary problems increase when they reach secondary schools, where they are exposed to large numbers of academic words and required to use them accurately (Chall, 2000). In fact, at each grade level vocabulary expectations increase dramatically (Nagy, Diakidoy, & Anderson, 1993). ELs who enter school with limited vocabulary knowledge face larger language obstacles than their peers who have rich vocabulary knowledge (Baker, Simmons, & Kameenui, 1997).

Do ELs have the vocabulary proficiency they need to succeed in English language arts classes? What about former ELs who become redesignated fluent English-proficient (RFEP)? What is known about these two groups' abilities and inabilities to use academic words? This article explores such questions, specifically focusing on ELs and RFEPs. In the context of this study, ELs are defined as students who are not yet ready to participate in mainstream courses due to limited English proficiency and require language learning support. RFEPs, on the other hand, have gained enough proficiency in English to read and write at grade level, are placed into mainstream courses, and no longer receive language support (Ragan & Lesaux, 2006).


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This article first appeared in TESOL Journal, 3, 610–638. For permission to use this article, please go to
doi: 10.1002/tesj.36

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