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Academic Language and English Language Learners

In this webcast, Robin Scarcella provides an overview of academic language instruction for English language learners, as well as teaching strategies, activity ideas, and recommended resources.

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Program description

Featuring Dr. Robin Scarcella, providing an overview of academic language instruction for English language learners, as well as teaching strategies, activity ideas, and recommended resources.

This free webcast is made possible by AFT Teachers, a division of the American Federation of Teachers, as part of a Colorín Colorado partnership between AFT and Reading Rockets.


Dr. Robin Scarcella is Professor at the University of California at Irvine, where she also serves as the Director of the Program in Academic English and ESL. She has written over sixty scholarly publications on ESL teaching and L2 acquisition, edited numerous volumes, and written many methodology books and textbooks. Her articles have appeared in such journals as the TESOL Quarterly, Language Learning, Brain and Language and Second Language Research. She has presented at conferences in the United States, Canada, Central America, South America, Europe and the Middle East. In the last four years, she has provided teacher professional development workshops to over 10,000 elementary and secondary teachers. Her most recent volume is Accelerating Academic English. She received her doctoral degree in Linguistics at the University of Southern California and her masters in Second Language Acquisition-Education from Stanford University.

Watch the webcast

Related resources

Articles and books by our presenter

  • Scarcella, R. (2003). Academic English: A Conceptual Framework. The University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute. Technical Report 2003-1.

Other readings

  • Aukerman, M. (2007). A culpable CALP: Rethinking the conversational/academic language proficiency distinction in early literacy instruction. The Reading Teacher, 60, 626-635.
  • Brown, C. L. (2007). Supporting English language learners in content-reading. Reading Improvement, 44, 32-39.
  • Cruz, M. (2004). Can English language learners acquire academic English? English Journal, 93, 14-31.
  • Institute of Education Sciences. (2007). IES Practice Guide: Effective literacy and English language instruction for English learners in the elementary grades. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.
  • Rubinstein-Ávila, E. (2006). Connecting with Latino learners. Educational Leadership, 63, 38-43.
  • Zwiers, J. (2005). The Third Language of Academic English. Educational Leadership, 62, 60-63.
  • Zwiers, J. (2008). Building Academic Language: Essential Practices for Content Classrooms, Grades 5-12. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Related links

Discussion questions

  1. Describe how academic English differs from the English we use in everyday life. What are some misconceptions people might have about academic language development?
  2. Does your school have an effective, comprehensive academic language curriculum in place? If not, how could you work with colleagues within your school to develop one?
  3. According to Dr. Scarcella, how might academic language instruction be designed to address the needs of both newcomer ELLs and long-term ELLs?
  4. Based on what you heard today, can you describe skills other than vocabulary knowledge that are essential to academic language proficiency?
  5. What types of professional development activities do you think would be helpful to teachers who want to learn more about effective academic English instruction?


Delia Pompa: What is academic language? How do we move our English language learners beyond survival English? I’m Delia Pompa. Please join me for our next Colorín Colorado webcast, academic language for English language learners.


Narrator: Funding for this Colorín Colorado webcast is provided by the American Federation of Teachers with additional support from the National Council of La Raza.

Delia Pompa: Hello. I’m Delia Pompa. Welcome to the Colorín Colorado webcast series. Today we’re going to talk about academic language for English language learners. Joining me is Dr. Robin Scarcella. She is the Professor and Director of the Program in academic language and ESL at the University of California Irvine campus.

So, long title. It must be an important topic. What is academic language?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Academic language is a language used in school context. It’s the language of text. It’s a language of prestige and power in the United States. And those who have acquired academic language tend to go on and become very successful in academic settings.

Unfortunately, those students who do not apply our academic language oftentimes fail and sometimes end up dropping out of school.

Delia Pompa: I believe you brought an example to share with us.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Yes, I did. I brought these two letters from my student Vaughn. Vaughn came from Vietnam at age five. And she went through all of our public schools. And you can see that she wrote this letter because she was really distraught. Because she’d been placed in a beginning level English as a second language writing course at the University of California Irvine.

I was the Director of the Program. And she was my student. She did not want to be in this class. And so she wrote this letter. And she actually brought all her work from her high school. And she had poetry to share with me. And she had essays and a variety of different written work.

All of which was written in a very interesting style of informal, everyday English. It wasn’t academic. And so she wrote this beautiful letter saying that she had read many books, that she had written and spoken English since-she said-“since time I come to the U.S.”

And all her friends speak English. She always speaks English with her friends in the dorm, and she “reads many book,” she writes. “Please do not makes me lose the face. I have competent in English.”

Delia Pompa: And so you then put her through a program of instruction.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Even though she received straight A’s in English in high school, I had to put her in my ESL academic English sequence of three courses. And at the end of the year, she wrote the second letter.

Delia Pompa: And so, in the second letter, you could tell the difference.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: You can see this amazing difference in her vocabulary, in her grammatical development, even in her rhetoric. “Hi, Robin,” she begins. And then she goes on and she asks for a letter of recommendation. Well, she does get this letter. She does actually get an internship in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: And then she goes on after she graduates from UCI into graduate school. And you can see what excellent English she uses. Now, is her English perfect? Native English? No, of course not. But it’s very good.

Delia Pompa: She’s got all the conventions. And she’s got academic language.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: She can go into any field she wants to.

Delia Pompa: Now, this brings up the question about the difference between social language and academic language. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Yes. You can see that in social everyday English, it’s possible to communicate imprecisely without using English grammatically correctly. You don’t need articles, “the” and “a” to really show what you mean. You don’t need to have prepositions or use the correct preposition in your language. You can use basic everyday words. You can make your language very colorful by using slang. You can avoid pronoun reference if you want to. Especially if the addressee already knows what you’re talking about.

Delia Pompa: Do you need to get to a certain level of social language before you move onto academic language?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: What’s interesting is in the United States, we believe that students must acquire informal English first and then they can acquire academic English afterwards. In reality, it’s very helpful for students to be able to begin a conversation and keep it going, have those basic conversational skills.

But at the same time, we can be laying the foundation for academic language. We need not wait until students have completely mastered informal, everyday English.

Delia Pompa: Well, are there activities a teacher can plan to help a student understand the difference between social language and academic language?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Yes, there are. One of my favorite activities is giving students a passage of academic language and then a passage of informal language and comparing them step-by-step. So that students understand: “Wow. When I look at informal English, it uses a lot of repetition of words. And when I look at academic language, it has a variety of words and more sophisticated words.

When I look at informal English, it’s perfectly fine to begin a sentence with the words “and” and “but.” But when I look at academic language, academic language has transition words such as however and moreover and in addition.

When I look at informal English, I can use stuff and slang such as guy, cool, awesome. But when I use academic language, I avoid using slang.” So there’s big differences. And that’s a great strategy, instructional strategy for teaching students to recognize the difference.

So I give them two passages, one informal, one academic. And then I have them get together in groups or with a pair, partner, and actually write out a list of the features that characterize these. I do this again and again. So that students understand that academic English is different from informal English.

Delia Pompa: Well, you’ve talked about some written examples. But you started to talk a little bit about oral examples. Is it mainly a written problem? Or does it show up in oral language also?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Teachers often think that academic English is not an oral problem. It’s a challenge, both in writing and in speech. And it’s very important that teachers scaffold students’ development of oral academic language. So that they’re able to participate in academic discussions and debates and make presentations in front of their peers.

Teachers can use a variety of activities to scaffold their production of academic language. One of my favorite ones is preparing students in advance to talk orally in front of others by having them partner up and actually teach them academic words and grammatical features that they might use in making an academic presentation.

And then the next step is, of course, having them practice these with their partner before they do the oral presentation.

Because too often teachers have students, English learners, make presentations when the students aren’t prepared.

Delia Pompa: They have no practice in it.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: They need to practice, practice, practice.

Delia Pompa: Well, speaking of practice, I think we’ve come to understand that a knowledge of a student’s ability to read in his native language has a lot to do with predicting how he’s going to do in English. Is the same true for academic language?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Absolutely. We know that if students have acquired academic language in their first languages, for example, in Spanish and then they come to the United States, they are able to acquire academic language much faster than if they didn’t know academic language in their first language.

Delia Pompa: What you’ve described, and you work with elder students, don’t you?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Yes.

Delia Pompa: But we’ve heard that they are beginning to test younger students for academic language. When ideally should teachers begin to worry about English, academic language, and working with students?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: We need to be concerned about teaching academic language at all grade levels and in all proficiency levels as well. However, when students first come into kindergarten, we’re not going to be teaching them very sophisticated ways of writing and ways of expressing themselves in English.

We’re going to be teaching them grade appropriate kindergarten talk, setting the background, the foundation, of academic language. And so, yes, we’re going to be teaching them the conversational skills of the kindergarten. But we’re also going to be teaching them vocabulary that’s going to help them to acquire academic language later on.

By the time children reach the fourth grade, we are going to be transitioning into teaching more sophisticated academic language skills. And once they reach high school, we’re going to have to make sure that students know a large vocabulary of academic words used across academic disciplines. And they have access to and they’re able to use more complicated grammatical structures.

Delia Pompa: Well, tell us a little bit more about how students of different ages need to learn different kinds of things.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Yes, it’s important that we make our instruction absolutely age appropriate. So when working with the young children, kindergarteners, for example, we found that young children are great language learners. And they love to participate in instructional conversations that are specifically designed to teach academic words, language structures, even the discourse.

Delia Pompa: Just to help our viewers, can you give us an example of something that a young student might learn that’s academic language versus what an elder student would learn?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Sure. A young child is often going to be participating in show and tell, for example. But there are very school based ways to participate in show and tell and ways that are very informal. And the steps of participating in a show and tell for a young child has to be made explicit.

Delia Pompa: Like what’s a word you would use that’s academic?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: So today I’m going to “share” with you. Okay? Not just “tell” or “say” or “talk” about.

Delia Pompa: Learned a new word there.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: I’m going to share a particular experience I have had. Okay. Now, you’ve used the words sharing and experience. And these are very age appropriate. And you they’re sophisticated for a young child. What I wouldn’t expect a young child to do is a literary, a complex literary analysis.

Delia Pompa: And would you expect an older student to do that?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Absolutely.

Delia Pompa: Okay.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Absolutely.

Delia Pompa: Well, you’ve presented a wonderful overview. So let’s get into some of the detail. What areas of language are specific to academic language? Are there areas of language that are more specific to academic language say than social language?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Yes. All language proficiency consists of several different components. So when I think of language proficiency, I always start thinking of phonology, of phonological component. So in academic English, a young child, anybody, needs to know the phonological component consisting of the sounds of the English language.

And they would have to know how to spell in English and that’s particularly important in academic language, but not so important in informal language. And they would have to know the phonological features of the English language.

For example to pronounce academic words. Knowing the difference, for example, between anthropology and a shift in stress, anthropological; morphology, morphological…

Delia Pompa: That’s a good example. We don’t often think that you have to learn the difference.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: No. And yet, English learners really do need to know these shifts in the stress. And so the phonological component is very important. Also, in addition to that, the vocabulary component. We’re not going to see many changes in our students’ test scores certainly on all of the academic tests we give until teachers teach vocabulary on an ongoing, everyday basis. Vocabulary’s extraordinarily important in academic English.

Delia Pompa: Give me an example. Go back to anthropology, anthropological. How would a teacher actually teach that? Is that by teaching vocabulary? Is that by giving examples? What does a teacher do to do that?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: It’s a very good question, Delia. I think the answer is the teacher is going to teach vocabulary systematically and make sure that the students don’t just learn the meaning of words, but know how to use a word.

So in teaching anthropology, anthropological, I would have the students listen to the word and repeat it at least three times, anthropology, anthropology, anthropology. Use it in a sentence from their textbook. So they get to see the whole sentence as it occurs.

And then I would talk about it to teach them how I would use it, making up other sentences. And then I’d have them use it. And they’d use it not just alone. But they’d use it in a sentence with a partner. And I’d have to do this again and again and again.

Knowing that all language learners aren’t great learners at language. But some students just need to have more practice using the language and practice using the language accurately, not incorrectly.

Delia Pompa:: There are so many aspects of language that second language learners need to develop and learn. How does a teacher choose what aspects of language to teach as academic language?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: When the teacher is choosing a reading passage and teaching reading, the students are going to be doing reading. The teachers, their primary concern is looking at those words and identifying the words that an English language learner is going to have difficulty understanding and will undermine the student’s efforts to understand that text.

And oftentimes, that would be an academic word, not always. And it’s really important for teachers of English learners to know that it might be important to identify an academic word such as stimulate if a student’s having difficulty learning. Or it might be important for the teacher to identify a single preposition or an adverb such as “hardly” or a conjunction such as “and.”

The student’s having difficulty learning. And that will make a difference in the student’s comprehension. That’s different in production.

Delia Pompa: Would the teacher be so specific as to say here’s “stimulate” and you use it here. Another way you say it is X. Is it that specific?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Yes, it’s that specific. It’s absolutely that specific. It would be good-if you’re only trying to teach students the meaning of words. And this is the case when you native speakers. They need to just say stimulate means and you give a meaning and a definition.

But for English language learners, it’s different. Because we want students not just to understand their text. This is where I was going with your question. But to be able to use the words in production. And we have been ignoring word use for a long time. And teachers really need to support the way students actually use words.

So when students are going to be talking about the text, they need to know how to use the words. A really good activity for doing that, for teaching students how to use new words, is to give students a word bank and then to talk about the words and how they’re used in the text.

And then to talk about how the teacher uses the words. Then to give the students the words, the definitions and a model sentence. And say: turn to your partner and I would like you to use some of the words we’ve discussed in describing X, Y, or Z.

Delia Pompa: So it goes beyond definition.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Absolutely has to go beyond definitions if you want children to be able to use words accurately. And we do.

Delia Pompa: Thank you so much. That was a very good overview. Now we’re going to take a look at a school in Oregon where teachers are working on pinpointing those key vocabulary words and where young children, English language learners, are working on reading comprehension as part of their academic language training. [music]

Narrator: To reach Heritage Elementary School, you have to travel thirty miles south of Portland, Oregon, past hazelnut orchards and Russian Orthodox churches.

Teacher: We have children who are ethnic Russians from Russia, from Argentina, Latvia, Tajikistan, Brazil, Turkey, China. Narrator: These kids can speak some English. But that’s hardly enough to get by in school.

Teacher: One misconception is that people feel that once a child starts speaking English and communicating with basic oral communication in the playground or at school, that child is able to succeed academically.

Narrator: It’s just not the case. Because what some call survival English is a long way from mastering even the third grade academic curriculum. For Linea Salzman, part of the job is teaching the kids one word at a time. First in their native Russian and then in English.

Student: Plemya in English it means “tribe.”

Narrator: It’s critical to be this explicit. Because Russian is so different from English.

Student: Totem pole.

Narrator: And the school is relentless in making sure their students understand what they read.

Teacher: Now, I’m not going to show you every picture in the book. I’ve chosen a few that I thought would really help us to explore this idea of fire.

Narrator: In Larry Connolly’s class, the kids are doing what’s called a picture walk. They use the picture and draw on their background knowledge to predict what the story will be about.

Teacher: Well I’ve got a big question for you guys. What do you think this is a story about?

Student: Don’t use matches and lighters. Or else you’re going to get burned.

Narrator: The work may seem painstaking. But Heritage is committed to creating readers who will have a deep understanding of what they read.

Teacher: So often, the kids move through the text so quickly that they’re not understanding much. And so we’re using those cognitive strategies as a way of slowing them down and getting them kind of invested in the text.

Delia Pompa: The last teacher, the teacher mentioned having students slow down and invest in the text. What are some of the strategies that help students do that and sort of acquire academic language? Certainly, the teacher doesn’t say slow down and invest in the text. Not to the students anyway.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: No. A close reading of text is very important for English language learners who need to acquire academic language. A teacher can have the student choose a very short reading passage and read that passage aloud to the students. So that the students get the melody of the language.

Okay. Now, what the teacher is doing is slowing down. And then after the students hear the language, the teacher can explain what’s in that very short reading passage and then ask the students to read it again this time focusing on a few very specific features of academic language. And, of course, the teacher doesn’t say now I want you to look at academic language.

But instead, the teacher might say we’re going to be looking at how this piece of writing flows by looking at pronouns. And we’re going to be underlining the pronouns and drawing a circle around the noun to which they refer. Okay. In this way, the students are learning the pronoun reference system in English.

Which is a huge stumbling block. And it improves their reading comprehension. Because now they know exactly what the he/she, it/we/they refer to. There’s other things that the teacher can do. One of the features of academic language are words and their associates, fixed expressions or collocations. We don’t think about it.

Delia Pompa: Say that again? Fixed expressions and?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Fixed expressions that are also called collocations. These are words and their associates. They’re words that go together. We don’t often think about it. But certain words just go together.

Delia Pompa: Like what?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: We say… peanut butter and jelly. Well, there’s no jelly and peanut butter. You say salt and paper, not pepper and salt. Mr. and Mrs., not Mrs. and Mr. It’s important that students learn these fixed expressions.

Delia Pompa: They’re markers of knowing a second language well.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: They’re markers of knowing a second language well. And they help the student use the language precisely. And when they’re not used precisely, a convention is broken. They’re expected and preferred. And it irritates the native speaker when you go in.

Delia Pompa: So that’s an interesting way of looking at academic language. In some ways, it’s really speaking like a native speaker and being able to sort of go with the flow.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Yes, absolutely. It absolutely is accurately and effectively and obtaining your communicative objective. So reading closely a text and looking at pronominal reference is really important. Looking at the way synonyms are used. Looking at word families, dissecting the paragraph very carefully, and talking about it helps students to incorporate the language that the author is using into his or her speech.

So one of my favorite activities for getting students to use academic language is summarization. In summarization, what students do is they read a very short passage and they summarize it orally to a friend.

Now, this may seem boring to you or me. But it’s a real challenge for a non-native speaker. What they do is they appropriate the author’s language into their own. And they begin to acquire the language. Or they can change partners several times. And you can…you can actually hear them getting more and more fluent. And, of course, it always helps to model the paragraph to the students before they do this.

Delia Pompa: You know, I’m thinking as a potential instructor working with teenagers say and some of the strategies that you describe really make the student focus very intently on a sentence or a paragraph. What kinds of instructional tricks does the teacher pull out of her bag to help the student not get bored frankly? Because they’re teenagers.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Right. With teenagers-teenagers are wonderful to work with because they have such inquisitive minds. And they’re questioning everything. And so I would first of all explain, make it every very explicit, what the language objective is. So today, we are going to be working on academic vocabulary of this specific passage on poverty.

Teenagers, being very interested in equity issues, I would assume that this text on poverty goes along with something in the textbook. And we’re going to be talking about ways to eliminate or to stop poverty. And so I would be having them summarize the text and then following that, I would give them some ideas for ways to stop poverty, some vocabulary and some complete sentences to really get them going in case they lack proficiency.

Then when they pair up, they have already acquired the language proficiency to participate in a discussion on the topic of how do you prevent poverty. Because now they know that you can say we can stop poverty by plus verb plus “-ing” doing the following. And then they can practice using those expressions in sentences and expressing their own beliefs-this is not boring to a partner before they participate in an oral discussion with the entire class or maybe even make a presentation in front of the class.

Students always perform to the expectations. We don’t expect a lot of teenagers. We need to expect more. Once they know that we expect them to think critically about issues and to use academic language, they will do it. Especially when they know that we are going to scaffold and help them acquire the language first, give them adequate time to practice this in a safe environment in which they won’t be intimidated and then perform in front of their classmates.

Delia Pompa: Now, I’m imagining you have some of those same skills you have to teach say to third graders. But you’re going to have a different strategy. Do you have a different strategy at each grade level?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Absolutely. It has to be cognitively appropriate as well as linguistically appropriate. Also keeping in mind that the students affect as well, at these different grade levels. When teaching young children, young children are highly capable of learning language.

We can teach some features of the language very explicitly. We can say that two plus two “equals,” with an “S,” four. We can talk about the zzz sound of a bumble bee. And we can get little ones out of their seats and moving around which is what we need to do.

We can engage them in songs that present them with academic language and jazz chants as well. We can be using even total physical response at times to teach them some of the academic words they need to know.

We can teach them language games, language repetition. We can use choral repetition with little ones and direct instruction. Absolutely.

Delia Pompa: I can hear the wheels turning for teachers watching this thinking: All right, how am I going to incorporate this into my day? Should this be a separate block of time? Do you setup a separate block of time to teach academic language?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Absolutely. The reason we need to do this is if we don’t give attention to academic language, it’s easy to overlook it. Now, when you’re teaching little ones K through three, I would absolutely make sure that they have access to the curriculum.

And in addition, give them that extra time to learn academic language that they so need. In addition to the core curriculum. And it needs to support that core curriculum, not be so different from it that it’s yet more language that students need to have. But rather supporting that core curriculum.

When a child, however, comes in at grade four, that child is going to be so far behind in terms of learning the language needed to learn academic language in content areas. That student’s going to need to have an intensive language program with lots and lots of instruction in the area of academic English.

Every single day, students need vocabulary instruction. Every single day if all of their content, they need reading comprehension instruction. And every single day, they need writing instruction. Every single day: writing. They should be writing every single day. As well as direct scaffolded instruction of oral language.

Delia Pompa: I have a couple of questions that come to mind. The first is you say every single day. For five minutes every single day? For twenty minutes every single day? How much time should we devote to this, should teachers devote to this?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Well, I think in the younger grades, students need English language instruction. The amount of time is going to vary according to their needs. So if students have instructional gaps in their education, of course, you’re going to need to give them more English language instruction. Because you need to fill in these gaps.

But if they don’t have instructional gaps and they come in in grades K through three, it might be enough to give them an extra forty minutes-a block of time each day of forty-five minutes. That might be just sufficient.

Once they get into the upper grades, they’re going to need more time. More than an hour of daily English language instruction that includes a component of academic language.

Delia Pompa: You talked about setting up a separate block of time. I’m also imagining that during the content instruction time, you’re going to infuse some of the academic language strategies in there. And let’s pick writing. Because you had some examples earlier. What are some strategies teachers can infuse into the writing process to focus on academic language?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Great. Some very useful strategies for teaching writing, one is anytime you give a writing assignment, don’t assume that the students have the language in order to accomplish-to write the assignment.

Give them samples of what you expect. Multiple samples are even better. You know, it’s hard to write. It’s hard for anybody to write when you don’t know what’s expected of you. So you want to make your expectations abundantly clear.

In this essay I expect you to have a thesis statement. And I expect you to put it at the very end of the paragraph. Here are some examples. And this is what a thesis sentence does. So you’re actually getting very explicit step-by-step instruction.

Delia Pompa: And then an example.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: And then an example. And also, very importantly is I give students the vocabulary, their grammatical structures, and some tips for organizing essays before they start. And I encourage them to use the words and the grammatical structures and the rhetorical tips in the writing. And I tell them, you know, if you do this it will really help improve your writing. This is not cheating. This is what I really want you to do.

Delia Pompa: These are supports.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: They’re supports. And every time they write, they get better and better. And this type of advice is very good, not just for a writing instruction, English language, arts, teachers, say in high school or middle school, but for the science teacher in fourth grade who is having the students write a lab report.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Or for the social studies teacher who is having the students perhaps write a persuasive essay. So, what I really would like all teachers to do is to teach writing very explicitly, step-by-step, with lots and lots of support. And, of course, some instructional feedback.

But if you remember the letter from Vaughn, she had not received any instructional feedback. So she was one of the students who you could show her a word such as “firstofall” or “secondofall” or “thirdofall” and she would say, well, that’s a word. I had a student like that. And I said here’s “firstofall”. And the student said, yes, it’s a word. And I said, no, it’s not.

It’s “first of all.” And the student said, well, no, it’s “firstofall” and “secondofall” and “thirdofall.” And so I had to take out a dictionary, a learners dictionary, very important.

Delia Pompa: A very confident student.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Yes, very confident. But she had never had any feedback. And so she had looked at the dictionary and she said, oh. It’s first of all. You’re right. Ah-hah. But if students don’t get any instructional feedback, then they use forms again and again and again and they’re writing, they will stabilize over time.

And that’s when it’s so important for a teacher to give some instructional feedback. Not in a punitive sense. But in an instructional, in a very constructive way. So that students will learn from their mistakes. Learning that a mistake is neither good nor bad, but just something that is perfectable, that will help them to learn from.

Delia Pompa: So it’s a low stakes way before you get to the high stakes.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Yes, absolutely. And for some students, you’ll have to tell them again and again and again and again. You’ll have to be teaching subject/verb agreement. But they will learn. And that’s what teachers need to know. And it’s, of course, very good if teachers develop a technique that they use for providing instructional feedback that the whole school site adheres to.

Whether or not it’s just underlining those words that are used incorrectly or highlighting them or writing in the margin or giving students some rules or using what I like symbols.

Delia Pompa: Oh, so this is a strategy that I hadn’t heard. So everyone in the school should use that same approach.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Absolutely. We promote this in whole school districts. So that way when students go from one grade to the next, they don’t have to learn new symbols. They know exactly what kind of feedback their teachers are going to give them. They know when the teacher’s going to give them this feedback. They don’t consider it at all punitive. They expect it.

Delia Pompa: You know, there are so many challenges teachers face. And this is an area that teachers are beginning to explore. They’re beginning to explore academic language. They want to do the right thing. But they bump into these walls. And one of the walls seems to be states taking on alignment of curriculum … of content actually and language. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Yes. It’s an enormous challenge. States have been trying to link content objectives and language objectives. I think it’s very important that teachers know when they’re teaching content that the English language learners also need to know language. And they need to have language objectives.

It’s good for them to know what they’re teaching. The difficult part arises when the teacher chooses text, stories, reading passages, textbook passages, to help them-help the students acquire the content standards. Because anytime they choose a reading passage, there’ll be a number of different language objectives that could be taught.

And when they teach a different reading text or have the students do a different oral language assignment, they’re going to need different language objectives. So it’s not possible therefore just to take the language content and objectives and just align them without looking at what it is that children do with language in the classroom and what it is they’re reading in the classroom.

Delia Pompa: So not losing that focus on language and deliberately teaching language.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: That’s right.

Delia Pompa: You have said so much to us. Why don’t you take a sip of water? Well, I want to talk about another issue. And that has to do…it relates to what you just talked about. English language learners often are taught by many different teachers. And I wonder who’s responsible for teaching academic language?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: We are all responsible for teaching academic language. Teachers are responsible for teaching academic language. In the elementary school it’s the primary instructor who has the responsibility for laying the foundational piece for teaching academic language, a strong English language proficiency, a language proficiency in phonology and spelling and the sounds of the language and grammar and vocabulary absolutely critical.

And in the upper grades, that individual is going to be responsible for teaching academic language of reading, writing, speaking and listening. However, in the-the individuals in elementary school should be working very, very closely with a reading specialist.

If students can’t read, they can’t develop academic language. And the elementary school teachers need to be working very closely with their ESL, ELD specialist, absolutely.

Delia Pompa: We get into sort of a classic question around that when you get to high school.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Yes.

Delia Pompa: Let’s take the example of the biology teacher.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Oh, yes. Perfect example.

Delia Pompa: Biology teacher is teaching something that doesn’t seem very language related to some people. So how does that biology teacher support academic language?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: The biology teacher has a critical role. The biology teacher, first of all, should be relieved to know that I don’t make that person responsible for teaching reading. If the child cannot read, doesn’t know how to decode words, that biology teacher doesn’t have to become a reading specialist. We have a scarcity.

Delia Pompa: I know some biology teachers.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Yes, they don’t have to worry about that. Nor does a teacher have to worry if they’ve got somebody who’s just beginning language, learning, just arrived in the United States. The teacher should know how to teach survival skills, yes.

But we really are required by law to make sure that that beginning language learner gets enough proficiency to access language. And a biology teacher will never be an English language specialist who can give that foundational piece.

The biology teacher, however, has the responsibility of teaching reading comprehension. And those biology texts are very, very difficult. And so the teacher needs to teach a variety of strategies, including using graphic organizers and note taking skills.

So that the students can access the reading. The biology teacher absolutely has the responsibility to scaffold discussions in biology using academic words and using the text. The biology teacher absolutely has the responsibility of teaching any kind of writing associated with the biology.

So that might mean, for example, teaching that lab report or teaching students how to conduct an experiment and write it up using inquiry.

Delia Pompa: I imagine there are also a lot of opportunities for teaching vocabulary in the content area.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Oh, it is.

Delia Pompa: And should that be a specific strategy?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Yes. And that’s where content vocabulary should be taught. Content vocabulary in the high school should be taught in the content class and reinforced in other classes, such as the ESL class. The best place to teach the word photosynthesis is not in an ESL class. The best place to teach it is in a biology class.

Delia Pompa: In context.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Absolutely. And so that the student really understands what photosynthesis is. Yes, you can teach photosynthesis in an ESL classroom. But you’re just going to be teaching the bare basics, a very rudimentary knowledge. This is not academic language. So the content teacher plays a key role in teaching ESL, ELD, English learners.

Delia Pompa: One group that presents teachers, all teachers, a number of challenges are students who are newcomers. Who come to us at the secondary level. Often haven’t had a lot of education in their own country in their own language. And they have a short period of time before they have to graduate from high school and get all the credits. What is the role of both language teachers and content teachers in getting them to a level of having some academic language?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: We have a responsibility to our students, to all of our students, no matter when they enter school, no matter what their educational backgrounds are, to teach academic language. We have some excellent approaches and especially some good curricula materials available to provide students with the intensive English language instruction that they need at the secondary levels.

Students who arrive late in our system do need more instruction. We far underestimated the amount of instruction in English that they acquired-that they need to acquire academic language. So they might need to be in a three hour or four hour intensive language classroom and then take some other classes in addition to that.

And it might be the case that they need to take summer school. They might need to go before school, after school. If they need an extra year afterwards, our goal is to make sure that they have acquired enough academic language so that they can go on and be successful in the United States. And so I would say, yes. Give them more. Absolutely.

Delia Pompa: It seems to me that we often as educators of English language learners focus on that group of students who just came in, the newcomers. But there’s also another group of students who are long-term ELLs, who have been in this country a long, long time, who have some of the same gaps in language, in academic language.

I know on a day-to-day basis, you work with college students, you work with older students. What are some of the challenges there? And what are some of the strategies? What can educators do at that point?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Oh, thank you. This is the largest growing population that we have in the United States. Our newcomers, especially at the secondary level, is rather small compared to this huge group of students that we have. Instruction, instruction, instruction. Practice. But knowing that it’s practice perfect makes good practice, not just practicing. Students tend to acquire the language of those with whom they associate. We all do.

And so our students, such as my student whose letter you read, came into the United States and acquired the language of the friends with whom she associated. And she speaks a wonderful variety of informal English. But as you noted, it won’t do her very much in terms of getting her ahead in academic settings.

So what we need to do is make sure that we get-that she attends to the language by using dictation exercises, for example. By using both oral close, a sentence completion activity. Or a written close activity where students fill in the blanks as we dictate a passage.

They need to summarize. We tell passages they need to write a lot with intensive feedback. And yes, we know that they can achieve high levels of success. They can become bi-dialectal, bi-lingual, multi-lingual.

Delia Pompa: For older students and for younger students, there must come a time when the support for academic language needs to sort of pull back. The teacher needs to pull back. And they need to become independent users of academic language. Does that happen magically? Or are there some strategies?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: A lot of our schools hope that that would happen. But we can’t teach on hope. So what we really need to do is plan very explicitly. Think about it as I do with my own child, going onto college and beyond. You want to make sure that the child develops good learning strategies that will help that child to continue to learn.

I want all English learners in the United States to know about learner dictionaries and to use them. A learner dictionary is not just a dictionary that an individual has.

Delia Pompa: Tell me, because I don’t know what a learner dictionary is.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: They’re wonderful dictionaries. Many different publishing companies have them. They’re really good. They tell a student what a word means. And then they give the students a lot of information about the word. They give the students even grammatical and discourse information about the word.

So they might say the word “discriminate” is used with the word “discriminate against someone.” And then they give sample sentences. So I tell all of my students, whether native or not native, that they must have these dictionaries for English language learners. They’re actually written for students. They’re very appropriate beginning at grade four and beyond.

Delia Pompa: So it’s a teacher in your pocket sort of.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: It’s a teacher in your pocket. So they need that. They need to have self-editing skills. So that’s why if teachers begin correcting young children and children love corrective feedback. They don’t think it’s wrong. They expect a teacher at age five and six.

They’ll begin to give instructional feedback in the very young ages. And continue it. But always with the goal of making the student a self-editor. So that the student, when the student is finished with the ESL, ELD class, when he’s in a mainstream class, the student goes to them and says, okay.

I’m great in these aspects of language. And I’m not so good in these aspects. I’m going to have to continue to work on subject/verb agreement. I know that I have a weakness in word forms and related parts of speech. And I’m going to be correcting those.

Because, you know, our goal in schools is not to make people perfect native English speakers. But we want to help people achieve a mastery over the English language as best as they can get.

Delia Pompa: You know, we’ve talked a lot about what teachers can do to help students gain academic language. And we often put it all on teachers. But what about other people in the educational system? What about principals? What about school district personnel? What can they do to help here?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Thanks, Delia. It’s so important that we get principals and vice principals, everybody in the administration, to understand that it’s not easy to teach academic language. And students really need to have good curricular programs. They need to investigate the very best curricular programs for teaching academic language.

So that the students have a coherent program for English language development. And we need to get the principals in the classrooms to watch the teachers. So that they’ll understand how hard it is to teach academic language.

And to make sure that teachers get the appropriate support to teach academic language. We’ve had three generations of teachers who really haven’t had much instruction in grammar themselves and can’t tell the difference between a noun and a preposition.

Delia Pompa: Oh, dear.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: And oftentimes, they’re ashamed of that. There’s no reason to be ashamed at all. That was just the case of our public schools.

Delia Pompa: So what role does professional development play in all of this? Should administrators be shaking professional development in a certain way?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Yes, they need to make sure that when teachers are teaching content, for example, they may need to know how to scaffold the content to make sure that they’re teaching language objectives. And when I’m in classrooms and I’m watching teachers teach in Los Angeles or wherever I am, I notice that what teachers are having the most difficulty with are language objectives, identifying what language they can teach to help students access the content and participate in the content instruction.

Delia Pompa: You know, teachers often talk about not having the time to plan together and collaborate together. What ideas do you have for creating that space for teachers to collaborate around common academic language targets?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Yes. Thank you. Teachers do need the time. It takes time. It takes them time to learn the language themselves. To teach students and the strategies. And so they need to have lesson planning time in which they come together to talk about the curriculum for English language development.

So that they work together as teams with their ESL, ELD coaches, with the reading specialists, the reading coaches, with the administration, with all the specialists in the schools. So that they give students more of a seamless education. And they get everybody on the same train going in the same direction.

Delia Pompa: I feel like we’ve just scratched the surface. What are some other resources you can tell us about quickly before we wind up that teachers could use or turn to in developing academic language?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Yes, thank you. If you go into our websites, and I’ll leave you a list of our websites, you’ll find that we have developed many websites for helping teachers develop grammar, vocabulary, a discourse of English language for helping students correct their own writing and for developing their grammar and vocabulary.

We also have useful websites where teachers can have the most recent sort of cutting edge research on what works for teaching English language learners.

Delia Pompa: We will certainly put a list of those up on the website. But is there one right now that you could tell us about as an example, a website, that’s good for teachers to go to?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Yes, the “What Works” website is an excellent place. Because it gives very useful information about the types of strategies that are research based, that have been tried and tested with English language learners. And it demonstrates some of those for teachers as well.

Delia Pompa: Are there misconceptions out there about academic language that you feel that we need to address?

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Oh, yes.

Delia Pompa: Give us a few.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Oh, yes. There’s one misconception is that it takes students so many years to acquire academic language. Maybe seven or twelve or ten. It can take students forever or never to acquire it if they don’t get exposure to academic language, lots of practice in using academic language and instruction in using academic language, including instructional feedback.

So the amount of time is going to really vary greatly depending on how much instruction that they get in academic language. Another myth is that we can teach academic language in an ESL or an ELD class and then students don’t need any afterwards. That is a complete myth.

Students, all of us, including me, need instruction to improve academic language development after they left the ESL, ELD class. Or after they left their English classroom. Everybody is in the process of acquiring academic language and improving upon it. Including me.

Delia Pompa: That’s a good way to put it.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: And we need to continually be working on it with support. Now, what happens if you don’t get those supports or if you stop working on it? Your language tends to plateau. And so that’s why we need these continual supports.

One other myth is that academic language is easy to assess. Not so. It’s very poorly defined for assessment purposes. Research is just beginning to develop that will help us identify the features of academic language that are accessible at the various proficiency levels.

So we’re in the experimental stages. So a test of academic language is necessarily going to be experimental at this point.

Delia Pompa: So right now when we get test scores back on proficiency, we’ve got a slice of what students do academically.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Absolutely.

Delia Pompa: And we need to do some more work around that.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Absolutely.

Delia Pompa: You have been in this field so long and you’ve done so much. And it was just fascinating talking to you today. Would you like to leave us with some thoughts? Have you some thoughts today? A final thought perhaps.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: Yes. If you looked at Vaughn’s letter, my student, who came into the United States at age five, and you can see her tremendous improvement with instruction at the end of a year. Now, it might take some students three years, four years, five years, a lot of instruction to acquire academic language.

It’s highly teachable. Our students are extraordinarily bright. We’re talking about one of the hardest working groups of students in the United States who have achieved great heights academically. We need to support them by teaching them academic English.

Delia Pompa: Thank you for that insight. That is I think a valuable one for all of us. And thank you for sharing all your knowledge with us today.

Dr. Robin Scarcella: It’s been such a pleasure to talk to you.

Delia Pompa: And thank you all for joining us for this Colorín Colorado webcast.

For more information about the literacy of the young English language learners in your life, please visit us on the web at Again thank you for joining us. And take care.

Narration: Funding for this for this Colorin Colorado webcast is provided by the American Federation of Teachers with additional support from the National Council of La Raza.