5 Easy Ways to Build Your Students’ Academic Language

Last week we discussed the need to intentionally frame the social language of schools.  Social language of school is the language that follows the rules of academic conversations and is flexibly used for a variety of purposes.  This week, we look at academic language.  Academic language is the language students need to access textbooks, assignments, assessments, and other academic tasks.  It requires students’ knowledge of a number of grammatical features, vocabulary terms, and other features of the discipline.

There are two main components to academic language: language of instruction and language of the discipline.  The language of instruction is tier 2 vocabulary terms that are essential for students to complete learning tasks and engage in rigorous thinking.  They are terms such as: support, analysis, determine, evidence, critique, and more.  The language of the discipline is tier 3 vocabulary terms that are essential for students to learn the content to the degree embedded within the common core.  They are terms like: axiom, theme, alliteration, democracy, slope, mammal, and more.

It may seem like a daunting task to have to begin teaching academic language. So what can teachers do to support students’ mastery of both components of academic language?  The following strategies can be used by teachers at any grade level to help begin the process of moving students from casual social language use to greater comfort using their academic language.

  1.    Encourage and model the use of academic terms during casual classroom communication.  When students are engaged in cooperative learning, projects, and group processing, monitor and provide feedback around students’ use of precise terminology.  Model the explicit use of precise language, as well.
  2.    Encourage students to read a wide range of texts.  Students should have opportunities to read texts at their independent level, instructional level, grade level, and (as long as they are supported through close reading tasks and shared reading experiences) push level.  Students should also have the opportunity to read from a range of genres within fiction and informational texts as well.
  3.    Teach key vocabulary that students need to know and help students process when and how they are to use them.  Allow students various opportunities to use those words in a range of authentic contexts.  The more regularly students are able to uses the words and the more varied the practice, the greater the impact on student learning.
  4.    Provide language stems to anchor students thinking and use of academic language.  Language stems give students the academic language as a scaffold until they are comfortable enough to use academic language on their own.  An example of a language frame is: My analysis showed that _____ because ______________.  I know this because on page __________ the author states that __________________.
  5.    Bridge academic and social language.  All students benefit from translating their casual language to their academic language as sort of a side by side dictionary.  This translating of social language provides students an opportunity to see the similarities and differences between the two which helps them make critical connections in the brain.  This connection makes it easier for students to use precise language when it is needed.