Academic Language: What is It and Why Teach It? | Imagine Learning

January 17, 2017 9:50 am

Academic Language: What is It and Why Teach It?

Acquiring academic language is critical to the success of all students — but especially to those who are learning to read, speak, and write in English.

students working in a lab

Every day in American schools, teachers welcome more students whose first language is something other than English. According to the Pew Research Center, this demographic trend will only grow exponentially in coming years.

In fact:

Pew estimates up to 93% of our population will come from immigrant populations and their children by the year 2050. What do these numbers mean for schools?

Here’s the short answer:

Schools will need better ways to teach language generally, and academic language in particular. Why the importance? When students don’t master academic language, they’re at greater risk for falling behind or even dropping out of school.

The Language of Textbooks

Learning to speak, read, and write in English can be challenging enough.

But without knowing academic language (e.g., general-instruction words like “summarize,” math words like “times” as another way to say “multiplied by,” or science words like “hypothesis”), English language learners can quickly fall behind in their progress.

Teachers of ELLs should ask these basic questions before they integrate academic language into instruction:

  • Can students demonstrate understanding of instructional language in the texts they read (or in verbal instruction)?
  • Are students successful in the use of discipline-specific vocabulary during math, language arts, science, and social studies?

If not, it’s time to incorporate a strategic plan for academic language in the classroom.

Of course, each English language learner’s language proficiency is different. Once teachers understand a student’s level of language development, they’ve cleared the first hurdle.

For example:

An ELL may know how to speak a few words of English and use basic social greetings–but they make mistakes often. These students are at the beginning level of English development.

Those with intermediate skills have a better grasp of grammar and English pronunciation, but they’re missing a few rules here and there.

Finally, ELLs who are consistent in their vocabulary, use of idioms, grammar, and oral fluency are at the advanced level of language development.

How to Begin Teaching Academic Language

Beginning early in the primary grades, ELLs need to transition from social English to academic English. While informal discussion is always necessary, student growth and confidence depend on successfully understanding more sophisticated vocabulary.

But where to begin?

There’s no magic list of academic vocabulary words floating out in the ether. But you can follow these six tips:

  1. Use Tier 2 words that students frequently encounter in general instruction (e.g., “predict” or “assess”). Examples of these words can be found in state standards, including the Common Core.
  2. Introduce a wide variety of texts and teach students how to summarize what they read. If students are logged into a literacy supplemental program like Imagine Language & Literacy, they will automatically encounter both of these things.
  3. Teach key vocabulary associated with statewide tests (also common practice in Imagine Learning programs). Once students feel confident about prompts they’ll see later on tests, they are one step closer to taking action and solving problems with confidence.
  4. Reach out to other ELL professionals.
  5. Make sure you receive adequate time for professional development on teaching academic language.
  6. Devote a specific time block toward teaching academic English in your classroom.

By following these tips, you’ll not only help your English language learners become more proficient in the academic tools of the trade–you’ll also feel greater satisfaction at the end of the day.