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Increasing Academic Language Knowledge for English Language Learner Success

By: Kristina Robertson
ELL students learn new words everyday, and it's essential that they have a deep understanding of what those words mean. Without comprehension, new words are useless. The key to helping ELL students succeed is to give them explicit instruction in the academic language of the content they are learning in class. This article offers some strategies and resources for getting started!

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosopher 1889-1951

In college I enrolled at a university in Spain — all courses were taught in Spanish. My comprehension of my courses went something like this… (translated into English and the accompanying gibberish I heard.)

"So it is obvious from the way qyuekfksno , that the Greco style was qyueuoammo . If you look closely you notice xawoeirje and it reminds you of woieysksdufe ."

The only clue I had to aid my comprehension was a slide of the famous painting. I struggled to make meaning of the language, but I could not comprehend the professor's points. I was able to correctly answer in Spanish when asked a question such as, "What is a characteristic of the Greco style?" I would answer, "It is qyueuoammo ." I knew this because I had "qyueuoammo " written in my notes, but I still had no idea what the word meant.

I believe many ELL students have a similar experience in their classes, and that many of them are able to manipulate the English language to supply a correct answer, but still not understand the content. This does not become apparent until the student fails the unit test. The teacher may think the student wasn't listening or didn't try, when actually the student needed more explicit instruction in the academic language connected to the content. When teachers introduce and reinforce academic language they can see some amazing changes in ELL student learning.

There are three things to keep in mind when teaching academic language.

  1. Academic language must be introduced and then reinforced.
  2. Academic language can be more than content area vocabulary.
  3. It is important to create assessments that measure knowledge in a meaningful way.

Introduce and reinforce academic language

What to do

  1. Preview the text or topic and identify vocabulary or sentence structures that might be new for the students.
  2. Write these words and phrases on the board and have students write them in their notebooks or on index cards.
  3. Use visuals, acting, translation or synonyms to relay the meaning of the word to the students.
  4. Reinforce the newly learned language by asking the students to draw it, act it out, or use it in an appropriate sentence. You can also ask for a translation if you speak the student's first language.

How to do it

Here are the steps demonstrated in a science lesson on the life cycle of a frog:

  1. Preview the lesson and identify academic language vocabulary such as:

    life
    yolk
    cycle
    growth
    tadpole
    tail
    fertilize
    next
    split or divide
    developing
    first
    second
    third
    fourth

    Write the words on the board and/or ask students to write them in their notebooks or on index cards.

  2. Teach the academic vocabulary.

    Science lends itself easily to visuals and hands on learning, so many words would be easily taught through labeling parts and identifying terms by examining frogs. In addition to teaching the vocabulary by labeling items, make sure students understand vocabulary concepts such as "cycle." A visual such as a bike tire that goes around is useful. The stages of the frog's life cycle can be taped to the wheel while explicitly using the vocabulary first, second, third and fourth to describe the life cycle.

  3. Have students demonstrate the vocabulary concepts by using them in explanations, or drawing pictures in their journals.

    It is important that students be given the opportunity and guidance to use the academic language to answer discussion questions or complete group work. Listen for the use of vocabulary words and praise students who attempt to use it. Follow up with the class by sharing examples, "I heard some really good discussion in the groups. I heard someone correctly describe a step in the life cycle by saying, 'The eggs get fertilized." Reinforce vocabulary not heard by fishing for "other ways" to say it. For example, "Who can tell me another way to say, 'The tadpole turns into a frog?" Encourage students to look at the academic vocabulary on the board, and say, "A tadpole develops into a frog."

Go beyond vocabulary

What to do

In the example above, there were many vocabulary words. Some of them were directly related to visual clues, but some were more abstract such as "cycle" and "developing." Words such as these may be overlooked by teachers because content lessons tend to focus on the "new vocabulary," that is, the specialized vocabulary related to that particular lesson, while assuming knowledge of what I call "functional" vocabulary. Functional vocabulary is the language needed to use the new words meaningfully. The teacher must model the correct use of content and functional vocabulary. ELL students may not feel comfortable using new language phrases in the classroom and benefit from more support and structured opportunities to begin using and fully comprehending academic language and phrases.

Guide students by asking them to repeat a phrase and complete the sentence. "In the life cycle…" Students fill in the blank, and have an opportunity to use the academic sentence structure verbally. It may also be useful to guide students in the use of appropriate academic discussion phrases. If a student says to another, "That's not right," ask them if they can think of another way to say it (using more academic language - maybe referring the student to the word wall or notebook). The student may then offer, "I don't agree with you." Or, "Could you show me evidence of that?"

Measure knowledge in a meaningful way

What to do

Assessments that let students "show what they know" may take some time and practice to develop and teachers may want to start with just one unit in order to practice this new skill. Many textbook series include unit tests that may have a number of multiple choice and fill in the blank questions that may or may not allow the student to demonstrate his/her understanding of the content. A teacher may have observed a student who was very engaged in the lessons and seemed to understand it, yet didn't do well on the test. This is frustrating to the teacher and the student. A meaningful assessment directly addresses the objectives of the lesson and will also measure the student's use of appropriate academic language. Here are a few suggested ways to do this.

How to do it

  1. Students write a response to a question following rubric guidelines telling them what will be evaluated. Students tell the teacher in their own words what they learned in the unit regarding the concepts and the language.
    In the science example above the rubric may be as simple as:
    1. include all the steps in the life cycle
    2. use five of the vocabulary words we studied
    3. correctly explain why the life cycle is important in our environment
  2. If students' verbal skills are stronger than their literacy skills, a teacher may have the students do a presentation - again using the rubric to evaluate their work. The rubric may include a guideline that each person in the group must speak and use a key vocabulary word.
  3. Students can work in small groups and respond to some true and false sentences such as, "A frog lays eggs and then they hatch into baby frogs." The students need to explain why that is not true (using the academic vocabulary they learned). For example, a student might say, "That's not true because first a frog lays eggs, then they are fertilized, and then the cells begin to divide until a tadpole develops." Once again, a rubric would be used and students get credit for correct answers and the use of academic vocabulary.

In summary, explicitly instructing students in the academic language needed to be successful in the lesson will be rewarded with engaged students who are able to interact meaningfully with the content taught. If the lesson content is a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs, then the academic language is the plate and silverware needed to digest it. When teachers increase students' academic language knowledge, they are giving them the tools they need to digest a lifetime of learning and continue to expand the limits of their world.

Kristina Robertson (2006)

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