Transcript from an interview with Dr. Robin Scarcella

Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Dr. Robin Scarcella, divided into the following sections:

What is Academic Language?

Academic language is the language of textbooks and it's the language of schools. It's the language used in schools to talk about textbooks. It gives students the empowerment that they need to be successful in academic settings. Without academic language, students cannot succeed and they cannot go on to higher education. Many students will drop out if they don't learn academic language because our tests assess academic language.

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Examples of Academic Language

Students need to know how to pronounce words such as anthropology, anthropological, morphology, morphological, geography, geographical, and notice how you shift the stress in those words. Students need to know how to stress words. They also need to know how to spell words and this is especially important for struggling readers and for English learners who may have come into the United States at different times and have just missed out on spelling instruction. In addition to the sounds of phonological component of academic language we also have the vocabulary component. We're not going to see very many gains in test scores until students improve their vocabulary. They need to know academic words. Academic words are words used across contexts, across social studies, science, mathematical and literature contexts, in addition to very specific words such as photosynthesis in biology.

In addition to that, they need to know common, everyday words that are important in academic texts such as adverbs-hardly, scarcely, rarely; conjunctions, words and phrases such as nevertheless, however, so the argument goes, etc. Those kinds of words are words that add cohesion to text.

But that's not all academic language refers to. It also refers to sociolinguistic competence which is the ability to vary language appropriately. Knowing that you say sentences and words to some addressees in some ways and then in different ways to different addressees. So, you'd know how to write a lab report for a science classroom but also know how to write a persuasive essay and how to participate in an academic debate, perhaps for your English language arts class. Varying your language appropriately, that's the sociolinguistic component.

On top of that, academic language also includes a discourse component which enables you to start a conversation appropriately, keep it going, change subjects, and end it appropriately in an academic way. This allows you to give a lecture, have an academic discussion, and also allows you to write extensively on a piece of text. Academic language allows you to summarize, analyze critically, critique perspective, and write extended texts. That's academic language — not easy, but we find it's highly teachable.

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Teaching Strategies

A good activity for struggling learners to help them develop academic language is designed to demonstrate the difference between social, everyday English and academic language. One way I do this is by giving students a passage-call it Passage A-written in informal English and this passage includes sentences that begin with the words "and" and "but," lots of hedges such as sort of', kind of', around, about-very simple sentence structure, simple words. I show students another passage, called Passage B, written in academic language and its exactly the same passage as Passage A except that it doesn't have sentences beginning with and or but, it has sentences beginning with however and moreover and therefore, and so the argument goes. It has complex sentences, relative clauses, conditional clauses. And it has passive structure, it has academic words — it doesn't have slang. I have the student list the differences in a T-Chart, with formal English on one side and academic English on the other side. I ask, What are the characteristics of formal English and academic English? Students have to look very closely at the academic text and they list four or five differences and then they get the idea.

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Research-Based Vocabulary Strategies

In teaching vocabulary, I would choose words that will help students perform academic tasks in the classroom, looking at word use, not just word meaning. I would make sure that all struggling readers have a learners' dictionary. Learners' dictionaries have word meanings and they explain how a word is used. They give lots of useful information about the word and even the words used around that word. So, for example they'll take the word 'discriminate' — they'll give the meaning of the word discriminate and then they'll say 'discriminate is often followed by the preposition 'against'. We discriminate 'against' someone, and they'll give a sentence using the word discriminate. These dictionaries are very important because one of our goals in teaching vocabulary is to get students to be lifetime learners of vocabulary and so they will need to learn to use dictionary.

Something else that's really a nice activity that's often overlooked for struggling language learners is what we call cloze activity. A cloze activity could be oral or it could be written — it's simply a sentence-completion activity. The first sentence and last sentence are left in tact, and then the other sentences every nth word is deleted. In the case of a struggling language learner I would delete those words that are the target words that you want the student to learn. Then you have the students read a short passage. If they're really struggling, you give them a word bank and then you read it again.

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Strategy for Teaching Writing

A very good way to teach writing is to teach it on a daily basis and to give students not just vocabulary words but grammatical structures and some tips on how to organize their essays and so ask the students when they write their essays to use these specific tips, this specific vocabulary, very specific grammar in their essays and they don't have to use every one of the words and grammatical features that you choose but it helps them.

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Using Audiobooks to Model Academic Language

One excellent resource would be audio books. The advantage of an audio book is that students can hear the language spoken to them and they learn the melody of the language and this is so important for English Language Learners. They learn stress and pronunciation but it's also very important for struggling readers in general. They learn how to read fluently and it gives them the opportunity to practice reading along, maybe by doing shadow reading — reading after, or on top of, or along with the person who is reading the reading passage.

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Tips for Content Teachers

I have good news for the content teachers. Their real goal is to teach the content and of course they're teaching it through language, but they don't have to become reading specialists. They will never have to teach decoding skills, for example. What they do need to teach is vocabulary because they are teaching vocabulary anyway so they need to learn more strategies for that and they do need to teach the writing that's associated with their field. So, they're going to need to have good strategies for teaching writing. What I would tell content teachers is important is when you give students a reading assignment you know that the students have to understand the reading but often times what you don't know and what your textbook won't tell you is that when you give a reading assignment that calls on students to either speak about the reading or make a presentation, or to write about it, that students will have no idea how to do this.

The language of the reading may not prepare them in any way to write about the reading and so you're going to need to scaffold that. Now, what do you do if you don't know much about grammar or language yourself? Well, what you do know is that you're a content teacher. You wouldn't be where you are today if you didn't know how to write a lab report. You know how to write so you can provide models for your students and models can help students a lot, and then you can also refer to your reading specialist and they'll give you lots of good tips for how to teach the language features in those.

Many students enter school who are older and well below grade level and its really important that teachers know their students and are able to understand 'who are the students who come in with disrupted education, or for whatever reason are well below their grade level' and I'm talking two years or more below grade level. For those students in the secondary level there's no question an intensive language comprehensive program is needed. But, the teachers who find themselves with the students in those classrooms need to know that they're going to have to do some things differently so that those students will succeed.

They need to provide those students with more instruction and some of the instruction will be the same types of instruction I've talked about — so the cloze activity, for example or giving word banks — those are great activities for students who are well below. The difference is they're going to require a lot more practice and I don't mean just informal practice. They're going to need perfect practice and they're going to need more one on one time with the teacher before school, after school and during summer breaks. Some students are going to need even an extra year of instruction.

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Motivation and Engagement for Older Kids Who Are Far Behind

Older students who come in far behind often are not motivated at all and it's often because they have not achieved success. One of the first things that a teacher needs to do is make sure that those students achieve success. There's no reason why those students cannot progress. They will not progress to the same level, its not realistic to think that a child who is three years or two years below level is going to be at the end of the year maybe at the same level but those students can make remarkable progress and — so the teacher needs to make sure that he or she provides them with uh experiences that build success because these students have experienced failure again and again and again. Something else the teacher needs to do is make sure that the student understands exactly what he or she is to learn and this is why our objectives, our standards are so important.

We need to make it abundantly clear to the student who's below level exactly what it is that he or she is to learn in the class each day, each week, each month and then make sure that the student is held accountable, and I'm not talking about lowering standards, I'm talking about making sure that its fair and so that the student can learn. I also think that a lot of our activity times that we're doing are very good for all of our students especially students who are below level but we just have to make sure that they're scaffolded in such a way that the students can learn from them. The students must not be so overwhelmed by the task that they feel it's just not possible and give up. Of course, critical thinking is important for all students, including students who are below level. Just because somebody is below level, doesn't mean that they can't be highly creative and so yes, of course, you're going to be building upon creativity and creative thinking as well.

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Professional Development

Teachers who are really serious — I mean really serious — about improving their academic language instruction should be using a comprehensive program that teaches academic language, should be in a teaching professional development program linked to the instructional materials that they're using in the classroom and should seek out opportunities to improve their knowledge of language. That might be taking a series of workshops, it might be reading books or it might be taking some linguistic courses. Now I would really warn people that you want to learn about the academic language that your students need to know, you don't need to know about fancy linguistic ideas. You need to know about the language features that your students are struggling with. So, you need to know about how to teach verb tense, how to teach the noun system-the very bare basics. How to teach an argumentative essay if you're an English teacher, how to teach a lab report if you're a science teacher.

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Parents' Role

Parents need to understand that it's very difficult to learn academic language and that academic language won't just emerge through reading. They need to know that they can help students and help their own children learn academic language by encouraging them to do pleasure reading and to develop a passion for reading and in addition to encourage them to study a lot. Think about a physics book — when you look at a physics book or think about a biology book and you turn to that first page and you're overwhelmed with the number of words. Learning academic language for an English Language Learner or a struggling reader is sort of like learning physics or biology. They have a lot to learn and parents need to be cognizant of that. They need to know that it's hard work, and effort is required, and that they're going to have to sustain this hard work and effort over time. They also need to know that after they leave an intensive reading program or remedial course or an ESL intensive course that they are still going to need good academic language instruction.

"Fill your house with stacks of books, in all the crannies and all the nooks." — Dr. Seuss