Fostering Academic Language

11 Nov

Calvin and Hobbes often gets to the heart of what some students are thinking.  Take this cartoon, on language:

Besides the connects to current verbing trends (google it, xerox it, etc.) the idea that language confuses, rather than clarifies is a common theme for classroom students.  I remember in high school having almost exactly this sentiment:


Academic language is there just to sound fancy, right?

In the higher level grades, this may come from people using high-fallutin’ vocabulary when a few simple words would do just as well.  In the primary grades, I think it comes from students not fully understanding the vocabulary and frames they are using.  A few examples from my room:

Until the alarm went off, she woke up.”

“Too much homework is bad for students.  Furthermore, it makes them go to bed late and get too little sleep.  For example, they might not be able to play outside at all and get exercise if they have to spend all their time doing homework.”

“The dirt and rock depositioned on the ocean floor.”

In each of these examples, the student is close–he’s trying–but he doesn’t exactly have the meaning or use down right.  What results is a confusing piece of language.

Teaching academic language and conversation is hard–as tricky as reading and writing.  Like reading comprehension, its easy to get students partway there and then stuck.

Constructive Classroom Conversations: Mastering Language for the Common Core State Standards, by Kenji Hakuta, Jeff Zwiers and Sara Rutherford-Quach, is a MOOC put out by Stanford university about learning language.  The series has videos discussing the challenges of helping students to use academic language to articulate and grow their ideas, as well as example videos of students having constructive conversations and some ideas for teaching techniques that can help.

The  MOOC pairs nicely with Jeff Zwiers website on Academic Language and Literacy, which has PDFs of many of the strategies mentioned on the site.

What I appreciate about the MOOC and Jeff’s website, is their acknowledgement that getting students to have meaningful conversations is challenging.  When we initiate think-pair-shares or discussions, we often get a conversation that runs in circles or runs out of steam after a few moments.  How do you get students to take ownership of their conversations, build them in strong ways, and begin to use them fluidly?

To increase student engagement, one suggestion was to start with prompts like “create, argue, decide, or solve” rather than “evaluate or analyze.”  One is a call to create something, the other a call to “education-al-ize” it.  A good first step is also to create a humorous example.  My current class is obsessed with alien abductions, so most of our steps into new academic language centers around that.  Example:  EVEN THOUGH you take precautions, you can still be abducted by aliens.  FOR EXAMPLE, an abduction ray can beam straight through your roof, so you can’t protect yourself by locking your door.

Silly, but very engaging, and easy to transfer to content.

Jeff also talks about the need to move beyond sentence frames.  I use a lot of sentence frames–I think they’re a great support for students taking on new language.  I still remember my french teacher in college (the only one I retained any french from) teaching us “academic frames” that we could then throw out at leisure without painstakingly parsing each word.  “Quoi qu’il en soit” (french for: be that as it may) became one of my favorites.  I recognized it everywhere, and I could use it at a moments notice.  There’s no way I could have put that phrase together on my own.

However, eventually we want to pull the frames away and have students take ownership over the language.  How to do that?  Jeff uses strategies like opinion formation cards, and A-B information gap cards, to have students practice building arguments, with frames that they use as needed.  Here they can have the support of a frame, but they need to decide where and when to use them.  It’s a nice intermediary step.

The course and Jeff’s site have more resources worth checking out.  Until then, I’ll leave you with this video on common English problems in school.  It might be an oldie, but it’s still on target!

One Response to “Fostering Academic Language”


  1. Preschool is too late: how school’s can address the word gap | Wordsmatter - April 4, 2014

    […] certainly a place for direct vocabulary instruction in schools (I talk about it here, here, and here) books are our greatest and most lifelong […]

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