What is academic language?
Academic language represents the language demands of school (academics). Academic language includes language used in textbooks, in classrooms, on tests, and in each discipline. It is different in vocabulary and structure from the everyday spoken English of social interactions. Each type of communication (both academic and social) has its purpose, and neither is superior to the other.
Academic vocabulary is used in all academic disciplines to teach about the content of the discipline, e.g., a water table is different from a periodic elements table. Before taking chemistry, for example, some students know the technical words used in chemistry, while others do not. Preteaching of vocabulary and subject-specific terminology helps to address that need. Teaching academic language can be challenging because struggling readers and English learners do not always know the vocabulary used to learn specific academic terms or key concepts.
Academic structure also includes the established ways of organizing writing (which can affect how one reads) in a discipline. Different genres, paragraph/sentence structure, level of text difficulty, purpose, intended audience, overall organization, and knowledge of outside resources for the text all affect how one writes and reads in that discipline.
How can I teach academic language? Some suggestions for teaching academic language include:
- Identify the text and then analyze the genre, academic structure (see above), and academic vocabulary (see above). For example, a lab report for chemistry requires different academic structure and vocabulary than a newspaper article for social studies or a food recipe for home economics. Two resources for this task: Gibbons (2002) and Knapp & Watkins (2005).
- Provide explicit instruction/deconstruction/analysis with students concerning the text; provide multiple models if necessary. Teaching students to deconstruct a word problem in algebra requires different academic language from deconstructing a proof in geometry, a poem in English, or a musical symphony. Teach them to use textual evidence to support their ideas in speaking and writing.
- Use explicit, scaffolded instruction: give clear instructions, both auditory and visual, and provide models of expected or possible outcomes.
- Bring academic language to the surface: teach students the term academic language, explain why it is important, and provide systematic instruction and examples.
Adapted from Gebhard, M. & Willett, J. (2008). Social to Academic: University-School District Partnership Helps Teachers Broaden Students’ Language Skills. JSD, 29(1), 41-45.
Adapted from <http://www.academiclanguage.org/Academic_Language.html>
Alvermann, D. E. (2001). In McGrath, D. (2005). Effective literacy instruction for
adolescents. Chicago: National Reading Conference.
Bailey, A.L. (2007). The language demands of school: Putting academic language
to the test. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Scarcella, R. C. (2003). Accelerating academic English: A focus on the English learner.
Oakland, California: Regents of the University of California.
Source: Mira Pak, with help from Judy Lombardi, Carolyn Burch, and Bonnie Ericson