Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Truth About "Academic Language".

As teachers, there are a lot of terms that we throw around regularly without really thinking about what they mean. But sometimes it's necessary to stop and think about some of those terms. Often, for teachers of English language learners, one of the most used and least understood terms is "academic language". I want to take this opportunity to explore that term and what it really means.

Academic Language is more than vocabulary.
This is perhaps the most important point I can make, which is why I'm putting it first. When it comes to academic language, vocabulary is very important, but context is equally important. Some words have different meanings depending on their context.

For each content area, it is necessary to teach students the context in which they will be using academic vocabulary, and to give them opportunities to practice using that vocabulary in the proper context. In my opinion, this can best be done through the use of sentence frames. I know, sounds simple, right? It is- but you'd be amazed at how powerful it is, too.

When I would work on a new math concept with my ESOL students, I would put up a poster with sentence frames for the type of vocabulary we were using (see an example from our probability lesson below). I would introduce the vocabulary to students along with the frames. As we worked together and I modeled the concept, I made it a point to repeatedly use the vocabulary and sentence frames that I wanted them to use. Then, I would give them an opportunity to work together, and would remind them to use the words and sentences we'd been practicing. By day three of a concept, they would depend less on the sentence frames as they truly acquired the language, and by day four I could remove them completely.

Academic language can take 5-7 years to acquire.
Yes, you read that right. Often, teachers make the mistake of assuming a student is proficient based on conversations with the student or overheard between the student and his friends. The type of language required for this is much more basic than the type of language used in academic contexts. Research has shown that it can take students 5-7 years to fully acquire the academic language necessary to be successful in school.

This means that an ELL who arrives in the US and begins learning English in middle school or high school may never fully acquire academic language before graduating. Is it then, any surprise, that our English language learners have difficulty on state standardized tests?

As teachers, we must be sure to offer plenty of scaffolds and supports to help students be successful in acquiring academic language as quickly as possible. Classroom word walls, personal word walls, sentence frames and word banks are simple but powerful tools to help students acquire academic language.

Academic language must be actively and explicitly taught.
Hanging up word walls or sentence frames will do you no good alone. Students must receive explicit instruction on the words and language structures. Students must be taught to use tools like word walls and sentence frames. And even more importantly, students need to hear you use the language and know you are expecting the same from them. Remind students to use the tools you've provided by saying, "As you're talking to your partner about this problem, be sure to use the sentence frames to help you."

In addition to writing a content objective for every lesson, include a language objective that tells students EXACTLY how you expect them to use the language to demonstrate their understanding of the content. See the example below:

Use it or lose it.
In order to really acquire language- academic or otherwise, students must have plenty of opportunities to use it. They must have opportunities to use it aloud in conversations with peers, opportunities to use it in writing, opportunities to come across it in text, and opportunities to hear it from you and their peers. Without such opportunities, they may "learn" some of the language for a short time, but they will never acquire it for the long-term. Then, when state-test time comes around, they'll be at a loss.

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