Teaching Strategies

Academic Language – Preparing Your Students for the Pros

June 7, 2016 Updated June 6, 2016

My wife, an elementary ELL teacher, just returned from a conference organized by the Washington Association for Bilingual Education. I am not an ELL teacher, but I do work at a school with a high percentage of students for whom English is not a first language. So, although what she learned wasn’t necessarily an immediate fit for my classroom, my wife brought home some ideas that I felt were important and immediately implementable for my middle school Social Studies students.

The ideas that particularly interested me were presented by Dr. Kate Kinsella from the Department of Secondary Education at San Francisco State University.

What follows is based upon my own humble understandings of Dr. Kinsella's work. So, I apologize if I mangle or miscommunicate these amazing ideas.

Treat Your Classroom Like a Formal Learning Environment

Dr. Kinsella recommended formalizing the relationship between student and teacher (and student to student). Sure, it’s easy to create a classroom atmosphere that is comfortable and safe - where we use slang, make jokes, etc. But, if we are preparing our students for success in the world of higher education and in the workplace, we should introduce them to, and get them accustomed to, more formalized, precise relationships. Here’s are some steps you could take in your classroom:

  • Address students as colleagues.
  • Speak in complete, complex sentences
  • Use precise language
  • Elaborate

Use Academic Language All the Time

Introduce students to (and reinforce the use of), academic language. Tests and assignments that students will encounter in their academic career depends upon the student's’ ability to understand what is being asked of them. If the students are confused by the vocabulary on the test, how can they be successful?  Sometimes, we use formal assessment language in our tests and assignments, but use more casual language in class. This confuses students and contributes to poor performance on assessments when, in class, they seem to know what you are talking about.

This is as true for students who are fluent in English as those learning the language. For instance, in class you might ask students “why did this event happen?”, while on the test you might ask students to “list the causes of…” Do they know what you mean by list? By causes? In class, you might say “how do you know that is true?”, while on the test you might ask students to “provide evidence”. Again,  do they know what these more-formal words mean?

Dr. Kinsella recommends that teachers not only use more precise academic language in discussion, but to post them around the room to reinforce their usage. Here is an example of such a chart:

  • Everyday English Academic English
  • Answer respond, elaborate
  • Finish complete, develop
  • Repeat restate, review
  • Talk about discuss, interact
  • Share report, contribute
  • Think about consider, contemplate

Not only are specific words important, entire academic sentences should also be learned and rehearsed. Here are some example questions either you or your students might ask regularly:

Could you please explain ___________________?
I don’t quite understand ___________________.
If I understand you correctly, should I _____________________?
Can you provide an example of ___________________________?

You can also combine academic language with academic sentence frames so students learn not only key vocabulary, but how it is used in academia. These sentences should also be posted on classroom walls (and referred to) as a visual support for students.

  • Can you justify your perspective with evidence from the text?
  • What experience has influenced your decision?
  • What prediction can you make about the author’s point of view on ___________?
  • Did anyone approach this in another manner?
  • Who arrived at a different conclusion?
  • My idea builds upon _____’s idea.

The use/familiarity with academic language can be further scaffolded through a word wall. There are tons of word wall activities online to deepen understanding. 

Get Students Talking More Often in the Classroom

I know - sometimes our students talk too much! But, in Dr. Kinsella’s world, student talking (especially about academic topics) is great practice. Here’s how Dr. Kate suggests you get kids talking more:

First, stop focusing on your “go-to” kids - the students that you seek out to answer questions (we target them because they want to do it, they enjoy it, and they do it well). Seek out other kids - call on them. Especially target the students who slide under the radar.

Next, if a student raises their hand and offers an answer/response/idea, point to another student and have them summarize their classmate’s ideas. And use the word “summarize” - it is an important academic word students should be familiar with and comfortable using. After the summary, move to another student and have them summarize the idea also. This technique achieves two objectives: 1) has students practice the skills of active listening and summarization, and 2) ensures everyone is awake and paying attention - no one knows who you will call upon next!

Then, call upon other students to do other things with the information - elaborate, predict, make a connection, etc. Ensure you use the precise terms. And, make sure you call out other students and have them summarize additional new ideas generated.

Students May be Experiencing Less than we Think

Here’s an anecdote about ELL and how much English they use in school: I once spoke to a high school senior (who had attended the school since JK) and his spoken English was surprisingly poor. He told me that although classroom instruction took place in English, the reality was he only said about one to two sentences in English aloud per class, per day. The rest of his time at school - in the corridors or at lunch - he operated solely in his native Spanish. So, ELL students may hear a lot of English, but we have to give them more opportunities to speak in English. And, that English should feature the academic and professional vocabulary they will need in the future.

Apologies again for this very, very rough summary of a fascinating set of principles for developing academic language in the classroom.

If you have actually used these ideas in your classroom, I would love to get your thoughts/suggestions. Contact me at www.highfivehistory.com.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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