Academic Language for English Language Learners Featuring

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  • Featuring
  • Dr. Robin Scarcella, University of California at Irvine
  • Hosted by
  • Delia Pompa, National Council of La Raza
  • Available on demand |

What is academic language?

  • Academic language is:
    • the language used in the classroom and workplace
    • the language of text
    • the language assessments
    • the language of academic success
    • the language of power
    • Note: To see an extended introduction to academic language, look at chapters 4 and 5 of the Doing What Works’ Digital Workshop about Teaching Reading to English Language Learners.

Why is academic language so important?

  • Students who master academic language are more likely to:
    • be successful in academic and professional settings
  • Students who do not learn academic language may:
    • struggle academically
    • be at a higher risk of dropping out of school

Academic language in action: Two writing samples from a university ESL student

  • Letter #1: Before Academic Language Instruction
  • Dear Mrs. Robbin,
  • I really not need humanity 20 writing class because since time I come to United State all my
  • friend speak language. Until now everyone understand me and I dont’ need study language.
  • I don’t know Vietnam language. I speak only English. I have no communication problem with
  • my friend in dorm. My English teacher in high school key person to teach me.
  • My teacher explained to me that how important the book was for the student and persuaded
  • me read many book. I get A in English through out high school and I never take ESL. I gree
  • that some student need class but you has not made a correct decision put me in English
  • class. Please do not makes me lose the face. I have confident in English.

Academic language in action (cont.):

  • Letter #2: After Academic Language Instruction
  • Hi Robin, I am apologize for having to send you this information at the last minute. I still
  • need a letter. This letter should discuss my qualifications, skills and accomplishments. It
  • should be written on letterhead and addressed “To Whom It May Concern” and submitted
  • with a Recommendation Form (which I will give to you tomorrow).
  • Please write a letter that addresses my academic achievement, seriousness of purpose,
  • personal maturity, and whether or not I possess the skills necessary to adapt to a new
  • environment. Also, please address my ability to think analytically, my aptitude, my overall
  • maturity and my independence. Thank you so much Robin for doing this for me. I truly
  • appreciate it. Let me know if you have any last minute questions.

Social language vs. academic language

  • When using social, or informal, English in daily conversation, it’s possible to communicate by using slang and without using English in a grammatically correct way
  • You can be understood without using:
    • articles
    • prepositions
    • sophisticated vocabulary
    • pronoun reference
  • Note: Read more about the difference between social and academic language at Colorín Colorado.

Do students need to master social language first?

  • In the United States, we tend to teach informal “survival” English first, and then academic language
  • However, it is possible to lay the foundation for academic language while teaching conversation skills

Recognizing social vs. academic language

  • When comparing social and academic language, students should look for the following differences:
  • Informal Language
  • Academic Language
  • repetition of words
  • variety of words, more
  • sophisticated vocabulary
  • sentences start with
  • “and” and “but”
  • sentences start with transition
  • words, such as “however,”
  • “moreover,” and “in addition”
  • use of slang: “guy,” “cool,” and
  • “awesome”
  • No slang
  • Note: This chart may not appear on printouts of the outline format.

Activity Idea: Recognizing social v. academic language

  • Passage comparison is an effective way to teach students how to recognize the differences between social and academic language
    • 1. Give students 2 passages – one using informal language, and one using academic English
    • 2. Ask students to compare the passages step-by-step in groups or with a partner
    • 3. Have groups write a list of differences between the kinds of languages used, and discuss their findings
    • Repeat this exercise with numerous passages until students are able to recognize the differences between social and academic language

Academic language in oral expression

  • Academic language is also a part of speaking
  • Mastering oral academic language will allow students to participate in:
    • academic discussions
    • debates
    • presentations in front of their peers

Activity Idea: Practicing oral academic language

  • Prepare students to speak in front of others by teaching them academic words and grammatical features that would be used in a presentation, such as:
    • “The topic of my presentation is…”
    • “First, I will provide some background information”
    • “In conclusion…”
    • “Are there any questions?”

Activity Idea: Practicing oral academic language (cont.)

  • Have students practice these expressions in pairs before doing an oral presentation
  • Helping students prepare for presentations with a partner will:
    • increase their confidence
    • give them more opportunities to practice using their academic language

Using academic language in a student’s native language

  • As with reading skills, if students have acquired academic language in their first language, they will be able to acquire academic language much more quickly in their second language

At what age should academic language instruction begin?

  • Preschool through 3rd grade
    • Students need to learn age-appropriate vocabulary and language that will give them a strong foundation for academic language in the future
  • 4th grade through 8th grade
    • Instruction should transition in order to teach students more sophisticated academic language skills, including vocabulary and grammatical structures
  • Note: Formal academic language instruction should begin in 4th grade.

At what age should academic language instruction begin? (cont.)

  • 9th grade through 12th grade
    • Students need to know a large vocabulary of academic words used across academic disciplines, and they need to have access to and use more complicated grammatical structures
    • Note: Learn more about ELLs in Middle and High School from the related webcast on Colorín Colorado.

Instruction for young children

  • What does age-appropriate instruction look like for young children?
    • Young children are good language learners, and are eager to learn new words and participate in conversation
    • Teachers of young students can build a foundation for future academic language skills

Instruction for young children (cont.)

  • Example: Show and Tell
    • When organizing a Show and Tell session, teach young children the phrase: “I’m going to share an experience I had.”
    • From this phrase, children learn two new words:
      • “share” – rather than “tell” or “talk about”
      • “experience”
    • This exercise would be more appropriate than literary analysis, which is appropriate for older students

Linguistic concepts and academic language

  • Academic language includes many areas of language such as:
    • phonology and spelling
    • Examples: Pronunciation stress shifts
    • Anthropology v. anthropological
    • Morphology v. morphological
    • manipulate v. manipulation
    • Although these words are closely related and look very similar,
    • they have spelling and pronunciation differences that may be
    • confusing to English language learners

Linguistic concepts and academic language (cont.)

  • Academic language also includes:
    • vocabulary
  • Points to remember:
    • Vocabulary knowledge plays an important role in a student’s ability to understand the language used in academic assessments
    • Ongoing, systematic instruction is needed to help students expand their academic vocabulary
    • Students need to know how to use a word as well as its definition
    • Note: Read more about vocabulary development at Colorín Colorado.

Linguistic concepts and academic language (cont.)

    • Example: Teaching vocabulary
    • anthropology
    • Vocabulary teaching technique
      • Repeat word 3 times
      • Show student a sentence using the target word from their textbook
      • Talk about how it is used
      • Make up new sentences using the word
      • Have students practice using the word with partners
      • Remember that some students need more practice than others to use language accurately
  • Note: To learn about other concepts included in academic language, review Dr. Scarcella’s interview for the Doing What Works website.

Choosing what to teach in academic language instruction

  • Teachers should teach language that will help students access the text or content:
    • When teaching reading comprehension, teachers should identify language that students will have difficulty understanding and will determine student’s ability to comprehend text
  • This language may include:
    • an academic vocabulary word (such as “stimulate”)
    • a preposition (“between”)
    • an adverb (“hardly”)
    • a conjunction (“and”)
    • a grammatical structure (“either…or”)

Academic language and word usage

  • Explicit, specific instruction of word use is necessary for English language learners (ELLs)
  • Example: Word Form and Use
  • Teach English language learners (ELLs) the difference between “stimulate” and “stimulation,” and how the different forms are used
  • When teaching native speakers, a definition for a new word is often sufficient

Academic language and word usage (cont.)

  • The definition alone is not sufficient for ELLs
  • ELLs need to:
    • understand text and definitions
    • use the word correctly
    • produce accurate language with the word
    • understand the definitions of related words
    • discuss the text using target words correctly

Activity: Beyond definitions

  • One way to teach word usage is by using a word bank:
    • Give students a word bank. Discuss the words in the bank and how they are used in the text. Talk about how you would use the words
    • Provide students with the definitions and model sentences for all of the words
    • In pairs, have students discuss usage of the words, and how the words are being used in the model sentences. What would be appropriate or inappropriate uses of these words?

Activity: Close reading

  • Close reading gives students a chance to “slow down”
    • Read a short passage aloud to students so they hear the melody of the language
    • Explain the passage to students
    • Ask students to read the passage, focusing on a few specific features of academic language, such as pronouns
  • Example: Close Reading
  • Have students underline all pronouns and then circle the nouns to which they refer

Fixed expressions in academic language

  • Fixed expressions (also called collocations) are another important area of academic language, such as:
    • peanut butter and jelly (not jelly and peanut butter)
    • salt and pepper (not pepper and salt)
    • Mr. and Mrs. (not Mrs. and Mr.)
  • Using these kinds of expressions correctly is an important step in learning a second language well
    • Collocations serve as a “marker” of being able to speak like a native speaker

What does close reading accomplish?

  • Close reading allows students to examine and dissect other features of the text such as:
    • pronominal reference (use of pronouns)
    • synonyms
    • word families
  • Talking about the text allows students to incorporate the author’s language into their speech

Activity: Summarization

  • To get students using academic language, try summarization:
    • Read a short passage aloud to students
    • Have students read the short passage to themselves and then summarize verbally to a friend
    • Give students the opportunity to repeat the exercise with several partners
  • Through this exercise, students begin to acquire the author’s language, and will get more and more fluent with the language each round

Activity: Engaging older students

  • To keep middle and high school students engaged:
    • Explicitly explain the language objective at the beginning of class: “Today we’re going to work on academic vocabulary in this passage about poverty, and we’re going to talk about ways to eliminate poverty.”
    • 2. Choose a topic that older students will find interesting, such as poverty or another “equity issue” related to a passage in your textbook

Activity: Engaging older students (cont.)

    • Ask the students to summarize the text and provide them with vocabulary words, ideas about ways to end poverty, and complete sentences and structures to get them going
    • Have students work in pairs, practicing using these structures such as:
    • “We can stop poverty by verb + ing
    • doing the following…”
  • Now students can express their own beliefs. These conversations may serve as the basis for a class
  • discussion or presentation

Tips for working with older students

  • Students perform to the expectations we set. If they know we expect them to think critically about issues and use academic language, they will
  • In order to increase confidence:
    • scaffold instruction to help them acquire the language
    • allow students adequate time to practice in a safe environment before getting in front of their classmates

Tips for working with younger students

  • Keep the material cognitively and linguistically appropriate
  • Remember that some features of language can be taught explicitly to young students
  • Example: Academic language for younger students
    • “Two plus two equals (with an ‘s’) four.”
    • Talk about the ‘z’ sound of a bumble bee, and get students moving around

Tips for working with younger students (cont.)

  • With younger students, use:
    • songs
    • jazz chants
    • Total Physical Response strategies (TPR)
    • language games and repetition
    • choral repetition
    • direct instruction

Does academic language need its own block of time?

  • Grades K through 3:
    • Academic language needs separate instruction, but it also needs to support the core curriculum
  • Grades 4 and up:
    • Academic language needs more explicit instruction. Every day should include vocabulary, content, writing, and reading comprehension instruction, as well as direct scaffolding of oral language

How much time should teachers spend on academic language instruction?

  • For younger students, the time varies
    • If students have big gaps in their basic knowledge, they will need more time each day
    • If students don’t have instructional gaps in their language skills, 45 minutes a day is sufficient
  • Older students need more time
    • Students need more than an hour of daily English language instruction that includes a component of academic language

Tips for academic language and writing

  • Every time you give a writing assignment, give students samples to follow so they know what is expected. Multiple samples are better
  • Example: Giving students writing tools
    • “In this essay, I expect a thesis statement. This is where it goes, and this is what it does. Here is an example.”
  • Give students supports, such as:
    • vocabulary
    • grammatical structures
    • tips for organizing essays

Academic writing in the content areas

  • Content area teachers can also teach writing explicitly
  • Examples:
  • One strategy is to:
    • provide students with examples of academic writing used in that content area
    • give students a chance to practice with content-based writing assignments
    • offer instructional support and feedback

Importance of feedback

  • Points to remember:
    • It’s important that academic language instruction include feedback for both oral and written expression
      • Example: Uncorrected errors
      • A student who uses “first of all” as a single word (“firstofall”) will not learn that it is an expression of three words if she is never corrected
    • The objective of constructive feedback is not punishment or criticism. Instead, it allows students to learn from their mistakes

Using a school-wide feedback system

  • It’s helpful if the whole school uses the same system of proofreading and editing
  • An editing system may include:
    • underlining or highlighting words
    • writing in the margin
    • using proofreading symbols

Using a school-wide feedback system (cont.)

  • Advantages of using a school-wide system include:
    • Students don’t have to learn new symbols as they go from one grade and teacher to the next
    • Students know exactly what kind of feedback their teachers are going to give them
    • They know when the teacher is going to give them this feedback. They don’t consider it punitive because they expect it

Curriculum and content objectives

  • Points to remember:
    • When learning new content, ELLs also need to learn the lesson’s language objectives in order to understand the content
    • Every time a teacher chooses a new reading text to help the students acquire the content standards, students will be exposed to new language objectives in addition to new content
    • When students receive reading, writing, or oral assignments, they will need to learn different language objectives based on the kind of assignment and what it requires

Who is responsible for teaching academic language?

  • In elementary schools, the primary instructor has the responsibility for laying the foundation of academic language instruction by teaching a strong language proficiency in:
    • phonology
    • spelling
    • grammar
    • vocabulary
  • Teachers in elementary schools can also work closely with ESL instructors and reading specialists in order to support language instruction

What is the role of the content teachers at a high school level?

  • The content teacher’s responsibilities do not include:
    • becoming a reading specialist
    • becoming an ESL teacher
  • The ELL instructor is going to be responsible for teaching academic language and English language development and proficiency
  • Note: Read more about teaching content areas to ELLs at Colorín Colorado.

What is the role of the content teachers?

  • The content teacher’s responsibilities do include:
    • teaching reading comprehension by using graphic organizers and teaching note-taking skills
    • scaffolding discussions in content-area classes by teaching related vocabulary, using academic words, and using the text
    • teaching any kind of writing associated with the content area
    • Example: Teaching language in content classes
  • A chemistry teacher might teach students the language used in a lab report or to describe a chemistry experiment

Vocabulary in content instruction

  • Points to remember:
    • The best place to teach specific content vocabulary at the high school level is in the content class, rather than the ESL class
    • Content vocabulary can be reinforced in the ESL class, but teaching a vocabulary word within its context will be more effective

Vocabulary in content instruction (cont.)

  • Example: “photosynthesis”
    • Instruction of this content word will be more effective in a biology context than in an ESL class
    • Students will be able to develop a more thorough understanding of target vocabulary in a content classroom

Academic language and newcomers

  • Students who arrive late in our system need more instruction than we have previously estimated
  • Newcomers need a lot of extra instruction. Some scheduling options include:
    • intensive 3- or 4-hour language blocks
    • summer school
    • tutoring before and after school
    • attending school for an extra year

Long-term ELLs and academic language

  • Points to remember:
    • Long-term ELLs, or students who have been in the United States for a longer period of time, are the largest-growing student population that we have in the U.S.
    • Students need intensive instruction, as well as opportunities to practice with ongoing feedback, so that their language skills improve
    • These students will acquire the language of their peers and may have very proficient social language, but they need academic language so that they can succeed academically and fulfill their potential

Long-term ELLs and academic language (cont.)

  • ELL teachers can help long-term ELLs develop their language skills by using:
    • dictation exercises
    • oral sentence completion activities
    • written cloze passages
    • summarization and retelling of passages
    • frequent writing practice with intensive feedback

Independent use of academic language

  • Points to remember:
    • As students get older, teacher support needs to pull back so that students learn how to use academic language independently
    • Teachers need to plan explicitly to familiarize students with a lot of effective learning strategies that they will be able to use on their own

Resources: Learner dictionaries

  • One way to help ELLs in 4th grade and above use academic language independently is through learner dictionaries, offered by many publishers
  • Learner dictionaries offer:
    • a definition
    • grammatical information
    • the word used in a sentence
    • variations of the word
    • expressions using the word (such as “discriminate against”)
    • common errors in usage

Independent use of academic language

  • Students need to learn skills that will allow them to:
    • self-edit
    • continue independent language development in the mainstream classroom
    • recognize strengths and weaknesses, such as subject/verb agreement or word forms and related parts of speech

Administrators and academic language

  • Administrators can support academic language instruction by:
    • investigating the very best curricular programs for teaching academic language
    • implementing a coherent program for English language development (ELD)
    • observing academic language instruction
    • ensuring that teachers are prepared to teach academic language

Administrators and professional development

  • Administrators can also support academic language instruction by:
    • giving teachers the opportunity to access high-quality professional development
    • ensuring that teachers know how to scaffold content so that they can identify and teach the language objectives necessary for students to access the content

Teacher collaboration

  • Teachers can collaborate on academic language instruction by:
    • setting aside lesson planning time in which they come together to talk about the curriculum for English language development
  • Collaboration should be happening with:
    • ESL and ELD coaches
    • reaching specialists and coaches
    • administrators
    • any other specialists in the schools

Online resources

  • Colorín Colorado:
    • Writing a Winning Essay
    • Teaching ELLs to Read
  • (Adolescent Literacy):
    • ELL Resources
  • University of California:

Online resources (cont.)

  • University of California:
    • ESL Program
  • Doing What Works (website referred to by Dr. Scarcella):
    • Academic Language
    • Teaching Reading to ELLs: Digital Workshop
  • National Council of Teachers of English:
    • Teaching Secondary ELL Students

Myths and misconceptions

  • Myth: It takes students a certain number of years (i.e., 7 years) to acquire academic language
  • Truth: The amount of time it takes students to master academic language directly depends on:
    • exposure to academic language
    • amount of practice in using academic language
    • extent of academic language instruction and feedback

Myths and misconceptions (cont.)

  • Myth: We can teach academic language in an ESL or an English language development (ELD) class, and then students don’t need more instruction afterwards
  • Truth: Even after completing ESL instruction:
    • students need sustained, effective academic language instruction throughout the upper grades and even in college in order to master correct usage and expression

Myths and misconceptions (cont.)

  • Myth: Academic language is easy to assess
  • Truth: Academic language is actually very poorly defined for assessment purposes
    • Research is just beginning to develop that will help us identify the features of academic language that are assessable at the various proficiency levels
    • When we get test scores back on proficiency, we’ve only got a slice of what students can do academically

Final thoughts

  • Points to remember:
    • Academic language is highly teachable
    • ELLs are a hard-working group of students who can and have achieved great heights academically
    • One of the most effective and important ways to support their future success is by teaching them academic language
  • Thank you for joining us for this Colorín Colorado webcast!
  • For more information about instructing English language learners, please visit
  • Funding for this Colorín Colorado webcast is provided by the American Federation of Teachers with additional support from the National Council of La Raza.

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