Vocabulary Expansion Accelerator (VEA) - Instructor Guide

Many students would benefit from support to improve their academic reading and writing ability but they don't come forward for help.  So, we can try to address this need by embedding some measure of support - Vocabulary Expansion Accelerator (VEA) with course Quercus to enable students to self-accesss support acccording to their individual needs, 24/7.

Instructors could deploy this interactive online tool with minimal effort and strategic steps to engage students in language development using course materials they should be reading anyway.  VEA was developed to enable easy use by instructors involving only “small teaching”(Lang, 2016) to establish usage and structured practice by students.

Small teaching…an approach that seeks to spark positive change in higher education through small but powerful modifications to our course design and teaching practices.”  (Lang, 2016,  p. 5)

Features of VEA that help your students engage better with your course:


To support reading

Skill Builder

To support development of writing skills

Language Challenge

To achieve fluency and language usage competence

  • Highlights Academic Word List words and other essential words common in Academic texts
  • Instant lookup of meanings + pronunciation


  • Students train for writing in their discipline by reconstructing selected parts of course readings to gain familiarity with topic
  • Instant feedback to students on their “usage” efforts
  • Students train with authentic academic text samples that improve their mastery of the Academic Word List
  • Instant feedback and “game-like” quality engage students optimally.

As an instructor who has many students with Academic English needs in your course, you are likely concerned about the following aspects of your students’ Academic English ability to cope with course needs.


  1.  Are all students able to keep up with the volume of course readings every week?
  2. How efficient are they in comprehending content?



  1. Do students have the language proficiency to summarize/paraphrase?
  2. Can they write in academic English to meet academic integrity expectations?


  1. Are students able to understand lectures and take notes given some of their language challenges?



  1. Do students have sufficient linguistic resources to participate in class discussions?


Actions Needed from Faculty:

  1. Activate VEA in Quercus so that it appears on course menu for students to seamlessly access it to support them in reading course texts which are in digital format. To enable VEA in Quercus, please follow this guide.
  2. Have weekly reading materials that are in digital format so that students can gain better language skills through reading with the scaffolding provided by VEA.

According to research (e.g. Andersen, 2015), faculty expectations for academic reading include: 

Understanding course content; applying new knowledge; Preparing for lectures or labs; Engaging in critical thinking; Synthesizing information; Understanding genre-specific information; Learning and using vocabulary; Demonstrating knowledge through writing; Understanding research; Conducting research.

If students lack vocabulary or knowledge of academic discourse, they are unable to meet the expectations above.

Since students need to know 95%-98% of words in a text in order to understand the text (Nation, 2006), and analysis of readings of courses at UTSC show a need to have at least 10 000 word families (Khoo & Kang, 2017), it is important to address students’ vocabulary needs.  Based on some words students look up, it appears that for some students with limited vocabulary, a paragraph of academic text might have too many unfamiliar words and appear something like this:

Thus, supporting students in their academic reading and helping them expand their linguistic and content knowledge capital through extensive reading is extremely important.  Enabling students to keep abreast with their reading every week leads to their being better able to listen to lectures the following week and understanding the lectures.

Some mini-studies done with VEA at UTSC have shown:

  • More practice on VEA correlated with higher midterm and final exam grades
  • Low English proficiency students who trained with VEA in the first few weeks of the semester were able to catch up in performance with their peers who started with higher levels of proficiency
  • Students whose training/practice on VEA resulted in a VEA score of at least 12,000 points within one semester reported greater confidence with Academic English usage

How you can strategically leverage VEA in your course to achieve high impact:


To support reading

Skill Builder

To support development of writing skills

Language Challenge

To achieve fluency and language usage competence

  • You can easily see what words students are looking up and identify the “hot spots” of lack of comprehension, and you can address these areas in the next lecture
  • You can motivate students to use Highlighter by indicating that your midterm and exams will be freely using words that normally get yellow-highlighted in VEA  (Goal: By getting students to become familiar with all these yellow-highlighted words, exam questions become easier for them to understand—see finding below on old exams).
  • Draw students’ attention to particular concepts that they need to ensure they can explain, and encourage them to look for sections in their course readings where these concepts are explained.  They can paste these sections into SkillBuilder and train to reconstruct the text.
  • Encourage students to practice on Language Challenge as if it is a game of Sudoku in words.  The familiarity they will gain in academic writing will make them write more effectively in their essays and exam responses—makes grading the work easier!
  • Set them a goal to achieve an increase of at least 1000 VEA points per week, and at least 12,000 points in a semester.

Language Challenge practice is key to helping students gain valuable practice for writing Academic texts:

A study of Language Challenge texts used by a cohort of 24 students who exceeded the score of 12 000 VEA points within a semester showed that these texts provided a robust exposure to help students gain mastery of the Academic Word List (AWL) (Coxhead, 2000). On average, each student had worked through 179 Language Challenge texts (length of texts on average was 114 words).  Since these Language Challenge texts are samples extracted from authentic academic texts in order to provide students with the exposure and practice to help them familiarize with academic discourse and the Academic Word List, each student had processed 14, 900 words, of which there were 3418 unique words.  This indicates that there were many instances of repetition in the use of words, thus reinforcing the sense of usage of these words.  Of these words,  10.6% were from the Academic Word List. 40% of these words were encountered twice and 27% of these words were encountered at least 5 times.  In other words, encouraging your students to do Language Challenge texts is a quick and easy way to help them gain Academic language usage competence needed for academic writing.

Good news for instructors:

Now that there is a tool to help students to improve their vocabulary through course readings, you can confidently feel less constrained in the language for setting your exam questions since students have a chance to train to master a large vocabulary—10 000 word families.  The table below shows our random selection of exams from the UofT’s Old Exam Repository, and the percentage of words highlighted indicate above 80%.  So, you might like to take your previous exams and paste into VEA Highlighter, checking all 3 boxes, to see what the percentage is for your exam and communicate with your students what your exam's VEA percentage was.



Total number of words in text

Number of highlighted words

Percentage of words highlighted






Aboriginal Studies





School of Environment















Astronomy & Astrophysics





Trinity College




















Since this tool is being constructed in stages as funding becomes available, please send your suggestions for improvement to Dr. Elaine Khoo: khoo@utsc.utoronto.ca

Andersen, J. (2015). Academic Reading Expectations and Challenges. In N. W. Evans, N. J. Anderson, & W. Eggington (Eds.), ESL readers and writers in higher education: understanding challenges, providing support (pp. 95–109). New York: Routledge.

Coxhead, A. (2000). A New Academic Word List. TESOL Quarterly, 34(2), 213. https://doi.org/10.2307/3587951

Khoo, E., & Kang, S. (2017). Online Support to Facilitate Students’ Academic English Development through Course Readings. Paper Presented at the STLHE 2017 Conference. Presented at the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Halifax, Canada.

Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning (First edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Nation, I. S. P. (2006). How big a vocabulary is needed for reading and listening? Canadian Modern Language Review, 63(1), 59–82.