George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Editor's Note: This blog was co-authored by Katie Hull Sypnieski. Portions of this post are excerpted from their book, The ESL/ELL Teacher's Survival Guide: Ready-to-Use Strategies, Tools, and Activities for Teaching English-Language Learners of All Levels.

Helping English-language learners develop proficiency in academic language has always been a priority for K-12 educators, and its importance has only been heightened with the advent of the Common Core. To better understand academic language, let's examine the distinction between two terms introduced by Jim Cummins, basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP), that have impacted both policy and practices in second-language education:

  • BICS (also called communicative competence): listening and speaking skills that students tend to acquire quickly in a new language (within the first couple of years) in order to communicate in social situations, such as asking someone for directions.
  • CALP: academic language and cognitively demanding skills required for classroom success. CALP usually takes between five and seven years to develop -- longer for students with less native language proficiency. Lectures, class discussions, research projects and skills (summarizing, analyzing, extracting and interpreting meaning; evaluating evidence; composing; and editing) require CALP.

More recent research has extended CALP to include the following three dimensions of academic English:

  1. Linguistic: knowledge of word forms, functions, grammatical elements and discourse patterns used in academic settings
  2. Cognitive: higher-order thinking involved in academic settings
  3. Sociocultural-psychological: knowledge of social practices involved in academic settings

Now That We Know What Academic Language Is,
How Do We Help Students Learn It?

We have two main sources for identifying what words constitute academic language that we must explicitly teach. The first source includes words and usage that are required by units we teach. After identifying critical vocabulary in, say, a persuasive essay unit -- convince, reason, counter-argument, etc. -- we will pre-teach approximately 20 words, first by reviewing pronunciation, and then by having students . . .

  • Act out the words in a skit.
  • Identify a physical gesture for the word ("opinion" might mean pointing to one's head).
  • Write definitions of terms using their own words -- in English or in their home language.
  • Create a "word chart" that we will also replicate on the wall. During the unit, students will periodically note when those words are used, and add new ones that they believe are important enough to recognize and remember.

The other primary source is an academic vocabulary list divided by grade level, like the list created by the Berkeley, California Public Schools or the guide developed by the Tennessee Department of Education (with Robert Marzano's assistance) that categorizes academic words by content area. Of course, other lists are also available on the Web.

An activity that uses words from these lists is one of the most popular lessons we facilitate. For 20 minutes three times each week, we divide students into groups determined by levels of English proficiency. (We support mixed groups and are opposed to tracking by ability. In our multilevel class, we clarify that divisions are based on whether students studied English in their home country, not intelligence.)

Then with peer tutors, student teachers, bilingual aides or instructors alternating as they facilitate an activity with one group -- while other students are doing something else -- we discuss three or four new words aligned with the appropriate "grade level." (The actual grade for the list -- kindergarten, first grade, etc. -- does not appear on the copies we give students. Our learners don't need to be reminded how far away they are from English proficiency.)

After defining words with the same reinforcing activities that we use with word charts for units, we write down "question and answer frames" for each of the words:

"Do you believe that ______________________?"
"Yes, I believe ___________" or "No, I do not believe ___________."

We ask each student questions, and then they question each other, adapting the "frames" to their own interests. Then students review previously learned words with each other.

Reinforcement Through Context

There are a number of reasons why students enjoy doing this activity. One, they teach each other -- both in their practice and by using prior knowledge to complete the question and answer frames. Two, we bring a spirit of fun to the lessons. For example, we might begin by modeling, "Do you believe that Mr. Ferlazzo is the best teacher in the world?" to provoke laughter (and disagreement!). Students will subsequently develop their own questions that apply academic vocabulary to a similarly humorous topic. And third, students can easily quantify how much new knowledge they are learning each day, because knowing they are making meaningful progress is essential for self-confidence (also known as The Progress Principle).

Research suggests that we need to come in contact with a new word many times in various contexts in order to truly learn it. So in addition to the methods already discussed, we reinforce new vocabulary knowledge in other ways, such as regular classroom games, use of Vine and Instagram to create definitions of the words (we show an example below, and you can see more here), and having students use online academic vocabulary exercises (our favorites are Vocabulary Exercises For The Academic Word List, The Academic Word List at UoP and English Online).

What has worked best for you and your students in teaching and learning academic vocabulary?

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Cierra's picture
Math Special Education Teacher; Atlanta, Georgia

I love the suggested activities that you included in order to teach students Academic Language. I teach geometry and pre-calculus to students with special needs. The biggest challenge that I encounter daily is their lack of knowledge of their math vocabulary terms. I have tried a variety of strategies to help them comprehend and remember the math vocabulary. I recently did an activity where we chose different voices that we all could readily identify. We chose all voices as a class. This made the activity more interesting. The chosen voices included, Kevin Heart, Daffy Duck, Two Chains, Me, Future, Beyonce, and the Principal of our school. I wrote all of the vocabulary terms on slips of paper and folded them. The different voices were on slips of paper as well. The students would pull a vocabulary term from a bag that contained the various terms. Next, they would draw from another bag that contained all the voices. Using these voices, the students had to give the definition of the vocabulary term. They loved this activity! It was simple, easy to do, and most of all the students were learning. The second time we did this activity the class was split into two groups. Girls verse the boys. The students were also given 20 seconds to produce a definition for the chosen vocabulary term. My kids loved the competition component!

Allison's picture
High School Special Education teacher from Atlanta, GA

I like that you began the post by clarifying the difference between communicative language and academic language. I think it is important to teach our English Language Learners both. Most students pick up on social language skills as they learn to speak English and interact with English-speakers; however, the English Language Learners I have worked with in my special education class typically struggle to learn these social communication skills. The suggestions you gave for teaching academic language are very helpful, and can definitely be used to teach both academic and social language. Specifically, using words in a skit and identifying a gesture to go along with the word can be helpful in learning both social and academic vocabulary. A strategy that I have found to be helpful in my class is engaging both English-speaking students and English Language Learners in the process of acquiring a new language. I teach my English speaking students Spanish words while teaching the English learners the same words in English. There is a website called Voki, where you can create an avatar and add speech (in multiple languages). You can change the back ground, clothing, etc. to correlate with what you are teaching. The students find these avatars so entertaining, and everyone is learning a new language at the same time!

Eileen's picture
8th Grade Family & Consumer Science Teacher, Grad Student - Reading/ESL

Thanks for your post about ELLs and Academic Language. In my grad class, we were talking about the importance of ELLs to quickly acquire academic language as well as BICS in order to be successful in the classroom. I am currently tutoring an ESL student who has quickly picked up basic communication skills, but struggles in the classroom. Your teaching ideas and links to lists, lessons and games are great resources and inspire me to try some of them in my tutoring sessions. I especially enjoyed how you able to weave humor into the lessons making them not only meaningful but fun. Also your empathetic approach i.e. "the actual grade for the list...does not appear on the copies...Our learners don't need to be reminded how far way they are from English proficiency." reminds me to be sensitive to all learners experiences if I truly want be effective.

Carmen's picture

Thank you for sharing these ideas! I think you may like this adaptive learning tool:
Students add the words they learn, write their own sample sentence, definition, and also can test themselves and listen the pronunciation.
Teachers have features to monitor their students progress, and send them words suggestion.

Candle's picture
ESL Teacher

It's a challenge to teach academic language, especially in a writing course. Your suggestions of activities are great for building vocabulary as long as there are resources and time. At one point, you wrote, "Then with peer tutors, student teachers, bilingual aides or instructors alternating as they facilitate an activity with one group -- while other students are doing something else ..." Is this the reality in your classroom? If so, you are very fortunate to have instructional and student assistants to help you achieve your targeted structures. I don't know a lot of teachers who have this much resource available to them. I am the sole teacher of thirty plus students whose language levels range from novice to intermediate-high. Many times I find that I have to shorten my lessons in order to cover the range of topics stated in the course curriculum.

I think humor is a great way to break the ice. I don't know about you, but I often find it very difficult at times to get some of my students to express their opinions, especially those who come from cultures in which they weren't/aren't encouraged to speak their minds. Some resort to complete silence when asked to talk about themselves or what they think about something. They eventually do build up the courage to express themselves, but sometimes not until the end of the semester. Do you have suggestions about getting them to express their thoughts sooner?

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

This is a particularly difficult aspect of teaching to "solve" because cultural norms are such a strong part of our personality. I would suggest having your students talk about something personal, such as their family, culture, or other interests, without having to talk about themselves specifically. And in small doses so as to not overwhelm them. This could help provide a platform for you to get a look into something that they care about, and consequently a look into your students' lives, without the uncomfortable nature of sharing about yourself specifically. Another idea would be to take a look into an aspect of another culture and have students compare or contrast their own. Again, so that the contrastive nature of the activity might disarm the students into sharing about their culture as it relates to another. Not sure if that was helpful, but this type of activity has opened the doors of communication for me in the past.

Candle's picture
ESL Teacher

Thank you very much for your suggestions. I will have my students talk about their families and interests. As for the activities related to culture, I am going to put that on hold. Currently, we have many students from the Middle East (such as Iraq, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan). Many of these students bring with them a lot of life experience and some have made a strong religious commitment to live a certain way. In addition to diverse perspectives, some also bring years of racial or religious conflicts (with people in their own country or with neighboring countries) to the classroom. Luckily this past tension rarely erupts in the classroom. However, unexpectedly there were times when a benign activity (at least the teacher thought so) would trigger past grudges among some groups. Recently, a geography assignment in a colleague's class caused two students from neighboring countries to fight over a natural resource that they both claim belong to them. As teachers who work with students from many different cultural groups, we have to be culturally competent. However, I find that it is getting more and more difficult to design collaborative learning activities that are culturally sensitive. It is also difficult to stay on top of the myriads of racial and religious conflicts around the world.

Candle's picture
ESL Teacher

Thank you for clearly defining Cummins' BICS and CALP. As a non-native speaker of English who now teach English as a second language, I understand firsthand how difficult it is to acquire academic language. It is possible, but it takes dedication and persistence. Cummins says it takes at least five to seven years to acquire language necessary to perform in academia. The goals of ESL programs are to get students to gain academic language so that they can deal with the academic demands, whether it's taking a standardized test or taking college-level courses. Most ESL programs take between two to four years to complete. However, the CA Community College Chancellor's Office with its Student Success Initiative still insists that community colleges find ways to accelerate students to graduate or to earn degrees faster (this is its definition of success). It even suggests that ESL programs offer accelerated courses! There are overachieving students who will benefit from accelerated courses, but my twelve years of teaching experience inform me that many students will not benefit from an ESL accelerated program. In my opinion, BICS can be accelerated, but CALP is another story. It would be ideal for colleges to offer both traditional and accelerated ESL courses, but the reality is, it costs too much money and the state measures success by numbers, not content.

For those of you who work with English language learners, what do you think about ESL acceleration programs?

furikake's picture
ESL Instructor, So Cal, Higher Ed, IEP.

That is correct -- the push is to allow students into academic programs sooner rather than later. At some institutions, the TOEFL scores have been lowered or the programs have adopted conditional admission tracks so that students may enter academic programs. On one hand, some students will not need to be native-like in order to graduate or return to their countries; on the other hand, this drastically reduces the quality of writing that is accepted in higher institutions.

It should be noted that most of my English learners are international students and not domestic students.

furikake's picture
ESL Instructor, So Cal, Higher Ed, IEP.

I work with higher Ed. students, and I don't have tutors who'll work with my students. What I do when I have a group of students who might not readily raise their hand, I pass out plastic chips. Two or so per student. Their goal is to use up their chips in a class discussion by sharing a comment, asking a question, or giving feedback. It works really well with small groups.

Eventually students get more comfortable with sharing their thoughts or ideas.

I also like to use stem sentences in class discussions as a reminder of the appropriate way to give feedback, comments, or suggestions.

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