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8 Strategies for Teaching Academic Language

"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.


Comments (21)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

zep's picture
Education Specialist

Hmm, whose version of language composes academic language? See, How Y'all, Youse and You Guys Talk - Interactive Graphic ...How Y'all, Youse and You Guys Talk

Dec 21, 2013 * What does the way you speak say about where you're from? Answer the questions to see your personal dialect map.

Try this quiz and then reflect upon the premise that there is one "correct" form of English, or even an "academic" form.

Jennifer Rabold's picture
Jennifer Rabold
Advanced Doctoral Student, Boston University; Instructor, Salem State Univ

Check out this resource for some great heuristics for teaching academic reading and writing:
Graff, G. & Birkenstein, C. (2006). They say I say: The moves that matter in academic writing. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

A more complex look at academic writing here:
Snow, C. & Uccelli, P. (2009). The challenge of academic language. In D. R. Olson & N. Torrance (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of literacy (pp. 112-133). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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

Thank you for these resources, Jennifer!

Peneverdant's picture
Student of everything language-related; professional translator

I hope you'll forgive a little terminological correction: "metalanguage" is (specialised) language used to discuss language; academic language is better described as a linguistic register. Everyone needs to master a number of different registers to function in different social contexts; academic language is a prime example.

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


I appreciate the distinction and opportunity to think more about what academic language is and is not. By calling academic language a meta-language, I was referring to how academic language can constitute using language to understand language (especially in my field of literacy). Moreover, with such phrases as "in comparison, similarly, likewise, and in the same way constitute examples of the metalanguage that students need to learn to 'communicate information, ideas, and concepts for academic success' (...). This metalanguage is part of what we understand as academic language, a necessary ingredient for academic literacy." - From Jill Lewis' Essential Questions in Adolescent Literacy Essential Questions in Adolescent Literacy Google Books (http://bit.ly/1gA3y3I).

Heidi Butkus's picture
Heidi Butkus
Kindergarten Teacher and Owner & Founder of HeidiSongs.com

These are great suggestions! I would love to see this brought down to the primary level for Kinder, first, and second grade students, etc. We need to foster the use of academic vocabulary from the very beginning of our students' education for it to become second nature and part of their working vocabulary. I personally use music and movement to teach academic vocabulary in both math and language arts, but I would love to know other techniques as well.
Heidi Butkus

Michael Berger's picture
Michael Berger
Professor of English, Cincinnati, author Writing Well in School and Beyond

Good topic, Todd, thanks. I would second Jennifer Rabold's recommendation of They Say/I Say. It is in a second edition and comes in a version with readings. It's for college writers but articulates principles (and probably some examples) that are very transferrable down the grades. It focuses directly on sentence frames and discourse routines that support students getting comfortable with and using academic phrasing and the rhetorical logic that it expresses, with lots of examples and explanations. Here is a link to it:

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

They Say/I Say:

I've got that book on my shelf. A doctoral student I know even found it useful. Thanks for the endorsement and for taking time to comment. - T

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