Teaching Academic Language to Language Learners: What does current research say?

Especially since the growing implementation of the Common Core State Standards, schools and teachers have become increasingly focused on how to teach 'academic language' to English Language Learners - this is in contrast to what many call 'playground English'.  In this post, I will summarize the important review of the existing research on teaching academic language recently published in The Review of Educational Research by DiCerbo, Anstrom, Baker, and Rivera (2014).


You might guess that researchers don't actually agree on what academic language is, although there seems to be consensus that current ways of looking at academic language need to capture the incredible complexity of academic language.  In fact, many of the studies published since 2000 are attempts to tease apart, define, build, and identify all of the different things that make up academic language.  It is clear that researchers seem to be trying to include the complexity of language into their definitions.  For example, Snow and Uccelli (2009) say we could break up uses of academic language into categories such as: interpersonal stance, information load, organization of information, lexical choices etc.


Researchers have also considered vocabulary - mostly as 3 levels or tiers, increasing in specificity and specialized use as you progress up the tiers.  Grammar in academic language is considered to be vastly complex and defined as making linguistic choices for different tasks as opposed to looking at sentence level grammar.  Researchers are identifying grammatical features in academic texts that are difficult for English Language Learners because they are hard to teach and cognitively demanding to learn.


Researchers have begun to drill down to the subject-specific structures and devices of academic language or discourse - the language used to convey or express meaning.  For example, how can teachers support English Language Learners when they are describing how to complete an experiment, or write up a science report?  Or in math, how might an English Learner approach the specialized grammar: "The triangle has sides, 8, 10 and x cm.  Solve for x."  Or, consider the academic English found in social studies and history that assumes students know the following compares and contrasts two groups: "This group is also matriarchal, however hunting and gathering was accomplished by the women and children."


More recent studies have focused on the academic language demands of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  For example, Sato, Lagunoff, & Worth (2011) identified the most common language functions in the English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics CCSS: interpretation, analysis, evaluation, explanation, and description (ELA); symbolization, representation, explanation, argumentation, description, and comparison/contrast (math).  All of this research serves to help teachers identify what they should teach English Learners when it comes to academic language.

DiCerbo et al. (2014) also review the work of researchers that see academic English as the intertwining of language and social interaction - that connote be separated.  Research in this area helps to identify different types of language used in classrooms that shows how social and academic language are used in concert to achieve goals.


Finally, DiCerbo et al. (2014) review the research on academic English instruction in the areas of: teaching vocabulary, teaching grammar, teaching classroom discourse (student interaction in academic English).  Research on vocabulary instruction supports a focus on Tier 2 words (general academic words like conclude, summarize, result etc.); studying words, their relationships, and multiple meanings; implementing quality vocabulary instruction but not to the detriment of spending time meaningfully using the words in listening, speaking, reading, and writing.  Research on grammar instruction for academic instruction is not sufficient to make conclusions about effective practice.  Some research suggests targeting the teaching grammatical forms in meaningful contexts.  In other words, pointing out a grammatical feature during a lesson on photosynthesis is superior to teaching a disjointed lesson on the grammatical feature.  Research on teaching students how to develop academic English through social interaction.  English Learners need practice with oral and written interaction.  Effective practices include asking follow-up questions, supporting instructional conversations, non evaluative listening, modeling responses for beginning and early-intermediate learners, challenging more advanced learners in extending utterances, many opportunities for small group and pair work.  Opportunities to write to peers and on academic subjects, not just opinion writing.  An ineffective strategy described is: "linguistic enabling" (p. 465) wherein the teacher does not support or challenge students in producing academic English and instead accepts a statement that is not academic English.  One study reviewed showed a shift in student's language to be more academic by: recasting student's language in more academic forms, explicitly talking about academic forms, , reminding students to use new language with one another, showing how the language supports communication of academic ideas.


The review finishes with several implications and suggested areas of new research to further our understanding of how to teach academic English to English Learners.  The review ends with the suggestion that teachers "think and act linguistically" (p. 468) or, in other words, all teachers are language teachers.

Tricia Gallagher-Geurtsen
Tricia Gallagher-Geurtsen


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