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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

"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 (29)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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

Matthew Patulski's picture

Comparing anything in education to the most widely distributed automatic weapon in the world is bad choice for a metaphor and shows poor judgement on the part of edutopia.org

2. Introduce Summary Frames
Summarizing is the AK-47 of academic language activities -- simple and fail-safe. 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:

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

Matthew - Sorry that my less than imaginative simile gave offense. The intent was to make an absurd juxtaposition. -Todd

Matthew Patulski's picture

Fail-safe means that a device will not endanger lives or properties when it fails. How does that apply to an AK-47?

I am just a parent, not a teacher or a writing professional. But I know your metaphor is muddled at best. I would ask that you re-work it.

Lori Skurka's picture
Lori Skurka
CEO at EleMental Learning Tutoring

Liked the idea of Summary Frames to help students "get to the point" without having them get hung up on the structure for communicating what the point is.

Paige's picture

I agree that it is important to dynamically introduce academic vocabulary; however, it is also equally as important to explicitly teach it. In order to support English language learners, bilingual learners, and struggling readers at our school, we often teach vocabulary as a pre-reading strategy by carefully selecting Tier 2 vocabulary (words that are critical for understanding the text or material). This is also supported by Isabel Beck's work on choosing vocabulary words. We use a 7 step approach to explicitly teaching a vocabulary word.
Step 1: Say the word.
Step 2: Have student repeat the word 3 times (e.g., have students mimic voices, repeat the word at different volumes, pitches or tones)
Step 3: Read the word in context.
Step 4: Provide a dictionary definition.
Step 5: Provide a kid-friendly definition or synonym.
Step 6: Have students engage in a quick meaningful activity with the new word (e.g., turn and talk using the word in a sentence, act out the word, or generating synonyms)
Step 7: Highlight grammar or spelling features or patterns (e.g., identifying the part of speech, discussing if it is a multiple meaning word, or identifying spelling patterns)
Teachers encourage students to identify the new word during the reading by giving a thumbs up. It has become the culture of our school to have students wear the word as a necklace or paperclipped to their shirt. Other teachers notice this and stop to ask the student about the word. The word is always added to the classroom word wall and students are praised for finding the word in their independent reading or using the word in their speaking and writing. We begin the 7 step vocabulary approach at the kindergarten level so this might be helpful for you Heidi Butkus.

elvee62's picture
First grade elementary teacher from Norfolk, Virginia

I agree with having students complete a script of academic routine. Working with younger students, it is necessary to continuously model, repeat and remind students of what is going on.

Larissa's picture
Elementary teacher in Title 1 school

To Paige: I really like the steps you have posted! At our school we have a similar school-wide concept for terminology that is used throughout Common Core Standards. We have a term of the week that students keep track of. They write the word and definition on the first day, then write a given sentence using the word on the following day, then copy down given synonyms, and finally they visualize and draw a picture of the word.

Do the steps above occur all in one day?

I like the details of the steps you have provided. I am going to add them to our weekly requirements so that my ELL students can really sink their teeth in to the terms and acquire new vocabulary.

Thank you!!

Paige's picture


I am glad that this strategy might support your students. We have found this strategy, along with other SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) strategies, to significantly close the achievement gap between our ELL students and our non ELL students. The 7 step vocabulary process is relatively quick because nothing is written. Definitions are given orally. The word in context is read directly from the book to the students. Therefore, the steps can easily occur in one day. We choose no more than 3 words and the entire 7 step process with all 3 works takes between 7 and 10 minutes total depending on the grade level and how long the activities are. I hope that helps. Good luck!

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