Academic Language for Whom?

In the not too distant past, the buzz phrases “academic vocabulary” and “academic language” began tickling the tongues of classroom practitioners, and the two were often used interchangeably.
Fast-forward to the era of CCSS, and we now hear conversations about academic language with teachers acknowledging the fact that academic vocabulary is but a feature of academic language.
Why academic language? Is it a Machiavellian machination to overwhelm teachers and undermine education? The possibility that an entity (or entities) exists and operates as “gremlins” of education is certainly a notion that could be given careful consideration. However, academic language, or its provenance can be attributed to the technical aspects or “language” of disciplinary areas.
We’ve all heard utterances such as, “I don’t speak Math…” or “I don’t speak Computerese…” Although these state that the speaker is not expert in a particular area, it also may imply that s/he is not familiar with the terminology, stylistics, or structure of communication in that discipline. Geometry proofs, lab reports, literary responses—all are forms of communication that are unique to their respective disciplines, and each has specific vocabulary, syntax, and formats.
So, who needs academic language? All students do. While the format of interactions that occur during collaborative work certainly allows for informal talk, it is also imperative that teachers provide the structure and linguistic support necessary for students to then demonstrate (presentations, essays, lab reports, et cetera) their learning.
Students have always needed to apprentice in academic language to successfully access content instruction. While some students seemingly “got it,” and “understood” the language of mathematics or sciences, many also struggled with the language of particular disciplines as well as the new content. This is the dual challenge that our English Learners and our linguistic minority students have always faced.

To support these linguistic challenges, teachers can begin by pre-teaching or previewing new concepts and lessons, as well as provide meaningful and engaging vocabulary instruction in manageable amounts that include grammatical targets or collocation. This instruction should always include structured opportunities for students to utilize the terms and to also discuss concepts and eventually record what they have learned/are learning to bridge oral language opportunities to written tasks. For technical writing, teachers can teach and scaffold formats that are germane to the subject area. For example, a “how-to” lesson for a formal lab write-up that provides not only formatting procedures, but includes instruction on language usage such as the use of past-tense or present-tense to describe or explain steps or a series of events is crucial and necessary for students who are concurrently developing their content knowledge and their language knowledge.

The video below provides an example of how a high school science teacher, Ms. Allan, provides linguistic support to her EL students so that they are able to access the content. What may be a “takeaway” for you from this clip to add to your repertoire?

Teaching Science to English Learners

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