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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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"Change your language and you change your thoughts." -- Karl Albrecht

Understanding Academic Language

Academic language is a meta-language that helps learners acquire the 50,000 words that they are expected to have internalized by the end of high school and includes everything from illustration and chart literacy to speaking, grammar and genres within fields.

Think of academic language as the verbal clothing that we don in classrooms and other formal contexts to demonstrate cognition within cultures and to signal college readiness. There are two major kinds: instructional language ("What textual clues support your analysis?") and language of the discipline (examples include alliteration in language arts, axioms in math, class struggle in social studies and atoms in science). No student comes to school adept in academic discourse -- thus, thoughtful instruction is required.

Where to Start

It would be a mistake to think that academic language is a garbage pail category involving any word, depending on the context. A banana daiquiri is a fine adult beverage that most first graders cannot define, but is not an example of academic language. Nor do Tier 1 words such as and or house fit the category, although these basic words are important to teach English-language learners (ELLs).

If you are new to incorporating academic language into your lessons, a good place to begin is with Tier 2, high-frequency, general instruction words (such as paraphrase, summarize, predict and justify) that learners need to know for completing an activity, but that are not a lesson's primary learning objective. These words are critical to students' successful processing of academic tasks and appear in the Common Core State Standards and on standardized tests.

Teaching Academic Language

Academic language requires that students move away from social language, with its more simplistic grammar and Anglo-Saxon vocabulary (body, chew, mellow), to sophisticated grammar with Greek and Latin words (aesthetics, ctenophora, heuristic). However, do not ban informal communication from the classroom, because this relaxed discourse is critical for social bonding, cooperative learning, interpreting literature and information processing. Students should be taught to look at and through both registers. "Think in terms of uncovering the subject -- that is, making the ways of using language and the ways of thinking in the subject explicit to your students," writes Pauline Gibbons, the author of three books in the field of English language education.

8 Specific Strategies

1. Encourage Students to Read Diverse Texts

Reading and then thinking and talking about different genres is a robust sequence for learning academic language.

2. Introduce Summary Frames

Summarizing is a simple and fail-safe approach to academic language activities. Students read a section of text to themselves before verbally summarizing the passage to a partner. Alternatively, learners can complete sentence frames -- guides for summarization. Here are some examples among many others created by Miss Hultenius:

  • If the main idea of the paragraph is problem/solution, use the frame: "_____ wanted _____ but ______ so ______."
  • If the main idea of the paragraph is cause/effect, use the frame: "_____ happens because ______."

3. Help Students Translate from Academic to Social Language (and Back)

Model how to say something in a more academic way or how to paraphrase academic texts into more conversational language. Provide students with a difficult expository passage, like the inventor's paradox, and have teams reinterpret the text using everyday language.

4. Have Students Complete Scripts of Academic Routines

Some discourse routines seem obvious to adults, but are more complex than NASA for young learners unless you provide scaffolding, like these speech examples:

  • "The topic of my presentation is ______."
  • "In the first part, I give a few basic definitions. In the next section, I will explain ______. In part three, I am going to show ______."

5. Dynamically Introduce Academic Vocabulary

Repeated encounters with a word in various authentic contexts can help students internalize the definition. They also benefit when teachers make their first encounters with vocabulary sticky. Use the word in a funny or personal story. Show a short video from VocabAhead that features 300 SAT words and categorizes vocabulary by grade level.

6. Help Students Diagram Similarities and Differences

When students generate a list of similarities and differences between words and complete a Venn diagram, like this one comparing and contrasting moths and butterflies, they are working with one of Robert Marzano's high-yield instructional strategies.

7. Have Students Write with a Transition Handout

Formal academic writing challenges students of all ages. Before students write, give them a handout of transitions. Model where transitions fit, and describe how they help the reader.

8. Teach Key Words for Understanding Standardized Test Prompts

Kechia Williams teaches 10 Terms that help students understand prompts and ace standardized tests.

In the comments section below, please share how you teach academic language.

Was this useful? (4)

Comments (36) Sign in or register to comment Subscribe to comments via RSS

Garnet Mayo's picture

The summary frames are one of my favorite methods when it comes to new vocabulary. It really helps them think about the whole word. Also, the majority of my students are ELL, so even the teaching the standardized prompts is a great help for them. If anything, it helps to level the playing field a bit more. Great suggestions and practices!

Sarah B.'s picture

Great suggestions! I'm noticing just how important the introduction of academic vocabulary is as we begin to prepare for PARCC testing here in New Jersey. While students may have been familiar with thesis and support, we need to make sure that claim and evidence become second nature to them. I'm going to try some of your activities to make it a more natural part of their vocabulary.

Matt M's picture

We have been working hard to make Tier 2 words part of our teachers and students vocabulary on a daily basis. I have seen a couple of different word lists. Does a definitive Tier 2 word list for high school students exist?

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

Hi Matt, I don't think that there is a definitive word list. Or, better, I haven't come across one. I've heard a couple of experts--namely Robert Marzano and Marlee Sprenger--who have suggested taking the tier two words from the vocabulary of the CCSS. The rationale for that can be found in Robert Marzano's Teaching Vocabulary for the Common Core. Search for "Tier 2 Vocabulary" in Marzano's text for an explanation: https://books.google.com/books?id=e2AXBwAAQBAJ&pg=PP75&dq=Tier+2+Words&h...

Let me know if you come up with a list you like. -tf

Matt M's picture


When I originally did my search I came across this list that was researched and published for the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at the University of Wellington in New Zealand. This was interesting because our push was to familiarize students with words that they were most likely to see at the collegiate level. This also included many words that were used in standardized college prep tests such as the ACT. No research to verify how often these words were used in those tests, just our test results were impacted in a positive way. We focused on how often our teachers were using them and then how often our students were using them correctly. Here is the link to the website that produced the list: http://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/resources/academicwordlist/information

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

Hey Matt, thanks for the link. That list is new for me. Appreciate it! -tf

kisshaninja's picture

Mr. Todd Finley, this is so helpful to me as an English Major student. This is an advantage for me. Some strategies are somehow not applied in my language class (not yet, i guess). So now that I have read this, I will not wait for my teacher to tell me to read discourse texts or to use summary frames etc. Thank you so much for this!

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

Hi Kisshaninja,

Many of these ideas were new to me until fairly recently. Glad you found them useful! -tf

John Edelson's picture
John Edelson
Founder of VocabularySpellingCity.com and Science4Us.com

Todd, I'm not sure that I agree with your categorization. It's sort of a semantic question but it raises the question of what the current focus on academic vocabulary should be about.

You say that Academic Vocabulary has two groups: instructional language and language of the discipline.

From what I've read, there are several categories of vocabulary: General purpose, content- or discipline-specific, and academic vocabulary (ie instructional language). In short, I'm saying that Academic vocabulary does not include content vocabulary, it solely means the language of instruction.

General purpose vocabulary: the words we use and read daily
Content vocabulary: Math vocabulary, science vocabulary, etc
Academic Vocabulary: Analyse, compare and contrast


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