Academic Language - Defined by PACT
Source: PACT "Making Good Choices"
Academic language is the language needed by students to do the work in schools. It includes, for example, discipline-specific vocabulary, grammar and punctuation, and applications of rhetorical conventions and devices that are typical for a content area (e.g., essays, lab reports, discussions of a controversial issue.) One of your goals for the learning segment should be to further develop your students’ academic language abilities. This means that your learning objectives should focus on language as well as on content. You can and should communicate content through means other than language, e.g., physical models, visuals, demonstrations. However, you should also develop your students’ abilities to produce and understand oral and written texts typical in your subject area as well as to engage in language-based tasks.
What are language demands of a learning task (see especially the Task 2: Planning)?
Language demands of a learning task include any of the receptive language skills (e.g., listening, reading) or the productive language skills (e.g., speaking, writing) needed by the student in order to engage in and complete the task successfully. Language demands are so embedded in instructional activities that you may take many for granted. When identifying the language demands of your planned lessons and assessments, consider everything that the students have to do to engage in the communication related to the activity: listen to directions, read a piece of text, answer a question out loud, prepare a presentation, write a summary, respond to written questions, research a topic, talk within a small group of peers. All of these common activities create a demand for language reception or language production.
Some language demands are related to text types, which have specific conventions with respect to format, expected content, tone, common grammatical structures (e.g., if…, then…), etc. The language demands of other tasks are not as predictable, and may vary depending on the situation, e.g., participating in a discussion or asking a question. All students, not only English Learners, have productive and receptive language development needs. The discussion of language development should address your whole class, including English Learners, speakers of varieties of English, and other native English speakers.
What does developing academic language mean?
Just as students come to school or a particular classroom with some prior knowledge and background in the content of the subject matter, they also come with some skills in communicating effectively in the academic environment or that content area. And just as part of the teacher’s responsibility is to help the students further develop their understandings and skills in the content of the subject matter, they also have to help students develop their skills in using and understanding the oral discourse, the text types, and the subject-specific vocabulary that are typical in the particular content area. Teachers may use a variety of methods and strategies to both explicitly teach students the norms of academic language in the content area and to help them incorporate these norms in their everyday classroom usage of language. For example, a social studies teacher may highly scaffold the process of constructing an argument based on historical evidence, how to communicate a thesis in an essay; or how to debate a political point of view. Or an elementary mathematics teacher might help students understand the conventions expected for showing their problem-solving work, how to explain alternative solutions to a problem, or how to interpret mathematical symbols.
For text types, it is important to make the conventions explicit, often providing graphic organizers when students are first learning how to produce the text type. For less predictable language tasks, students need to understand the nature of the task and the range of possible responses and associated language. When students are just learning to use a particular form of academic language, they will need more scaffolding and support. For example, an English teacher trying to develop students’ abilities to follow up on a student comment might invite students to brainstorm different types of responses (e.g., agreement with elaboration, agreement with qualification, disagreement) together with some typical sentence starters or grammatical structures for each type of response.