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The case for teaching academic language


Imagine having to learn a new subject but you don’t understand the academic language required for it.

You might feel left out or overwhelmed. The vocabulary words are preventing you from learning because you don’t know what they’re asking you to do.

Your understanding of academic language, known as the thinking, speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills necessary for effective learning, can determine how successful you will be academically.

Academic language isn’t the same as social language.

It’s the tool you need for thinking about learning and discussing it. It’s imperative that teachers address academic language explicitly in their classrooms.

Without language-specific skills, students will remain disconnected from academic learning. When their lack of academic language gets in the way of learning, students may be academically unsuccessful, regardless of how smart they are.

That is why we must teach academic language.

Identify the academic vocabulary your students need

Rather than provide your students with a laundry list of five-dollar words to study, identify the academic language they need.

For example, if the learning standards in your state require that students infer, predict, and analyze, teach them those words as academic vocabulary. These are the Tier-2 high frequency words used in general instruction.

Scaffold academic language usage until it’s no longer needed

Children rely on patterns and repetition for learning. You can provide the patterns and repetition they need. One way to capitalize on this is with sentence frames that incorporate the academic vocabulary you are teaching.

Try using sentence frames like:

  • By reading the facts in the paragraph, my inference is _____ (state your discovery).
  • Based on what I have read, I predict that _____ (make a reasonable guess about what will happen).
  • My analysis of the argument is _____ (make a claim and identify supporting evidence)

Create concept maps

Concept maps help students visually organize information.

Have your students write their academic vocabulary word in the center of a page and draw a box around it. Next, have them map the word by telling what it is and what it isn’t. Finally, give examples of the word.

Make definitions student friendly

Lack of comprehension can be annoying for students. Not understanding the definition is even more frustrating.

Dictionaries often are not helpful because many times the words in the definitions are also unknown. To help students understand academic vocabulary, use kid-friendly definitions.

Speak the language like a native

Precise words can be a powerful tool.

If you incorporate the academic language you want your students to learn, they’ll pick it up and build fluency in using it.

Identify the words your students must learn for academic success. Then look for ways in to include them in learning experiences.

Immerse your students in academic vocabulary by modeling its use. Use the vocabulary in conversation, include it in your word walls, and take every opportunity to point out when it appears in other situations.

By teaching academic vocabulary, we are improving our students’ understanding of the subject areas they study. We are giving students the tools they need to be successful in academics.

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