“Change your language and you change your thoughts.” —Karl Albrecht
Academic language is a meta-language that helps learners acquire the 50,000 words 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, axiom in math, class struggle in social studies, and atom 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. Banana daiquiri is a term that most first graders cannot define, but it 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 to complete 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.
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, literature interpretation, 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 Strategies for Building Students’ Academic Language
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, or guides for summarization. Some examples:
- 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.
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.