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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.

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Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

I liked the idea of summary frames..For middle school-level students, summarizing main ideas can prove to be difficult, especially for those with low vocabulary and language acquisition skills. I noticed that teaching summarization as a reading strategy increased students abilities.

Leroy's picture

I was especially pleased with this introduction by Todd, "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...No student comes to school adept in academic discourse -- thus, thoughtful instruction is required." As a part of the idea that no one comes to the classroom adept at using academic language standards, I found #3 to be a helpful tool for bridging that gap: translating from social to academic language and back. Very similar to a tactic used by Williams in "Preparing to Teach Writing." Thanks, Todd.

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AnElstrom's picture

I'm interested in that Williams piece, Todd. Details (page, quote?) about where I can find that tactic?

AnElstrom's picture

Thanks, Todd!

My mistake, there; I actually meant to ask Leroy about the Williams idea, which I believe is from this book: Preparing to Teach Writing: Research, Theory, and Practice
by James D. Williams?

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?

Amanda F's picture
Amanda F
7th and 8th Grade Language Arts Teacher

Explicitly teaching academic language is something I am just beginning to understand and do with my students. One way my school will be working on teaching academic language is by using a trial unit of the free vocabulary instruction program, Word Generation. This program provides cross-curricular academic vocabulary instruction. I am very excited to see if this program will be beneficial to our students, and their understanding of academic specific vocabulary.

The 8 specific strategies identified here were very affirming in some cases, and in other cases enlightening. One strategy that I currently use in my classroom is reading diverse texts. We are reading a lot of non-fiction text at the moment, and students are being exposed to many different topics and words.

Something I found enlightening was your use of summary frames. I was only just introduced to this strategy a week ago. I love the example frames that you have shared, and I look forward to having my students work with them in the coming week.

Thank you for sharing your strategies in an easy to understand format. It makes it much easier to evaluate them, and put them into action.

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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.

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Leroy's picture

I was especially pleased with this introduction by Todd, "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...No student comes to school adept in academic discourse -- thus, thoughtful instruction is required." As a part of the idea that no one comes to the classroom adept at using academic language standards, I found #3 to be a helpful tool for bridging that gap: translating from social to academic language and back. Very similar to a tactic used by Williams in "Preparing to Teach Writing." Thanks, Todd.

(2)

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