How to Tackle Academic Language with Your Students

Lindsay Rayner
Lindsay Rayner
Middle school principal; M.A. in Educational Leadership
Two young girls sitting together in a classroom reading and taking notes.

What is Academic Language?

Academic language is the vocabulary, grammatical and syntactical structures, and functions of language that are used in academic settings. It is the language that allows students to learn and to express their learning to others.

Vocabulary is divided into three tiers. Tier 1 consists of everyday language learned from social interactions at home and in the community. Students generally learn this vocabulary without direct instruction. Tier II vocabulary is vocabulary that is not frequently used in casual conversation, but is used frequently in academic settings, across content areas. Tier II vocabulary is commonly referred to as “academic vocabulary”. Tier III vocabulary consists of specialized words used in specific subjects, such as math, and is sometime referred to as “content vocabulary”.

Grammar and syntax allow us to put words together to form meaning. Grammar consists of parts of speech, phrases, and clauses. Syntax is the way we arrange grammar to form sentences. Academic language requires students to use clear and concise grammar and syntax to communicate concepts.

When we talk about language function, we are speaking of our purposes for using language. In academic settings, these functions might be informing, entertaining, or persuading. The purpose of the academic writing will determine the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax used.

A firm grasp of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, as well as function, helps students succeed in their learning environment.

Where to Begin

If you are new at teaching students to use academic language, start by incorporating direct instruction of Tier II vocabulary. Incorporating words that may show up in test questions, such as “analyze” and “compare” will help students do well on assessments across subject areas.

Begin instruction in Latin and Greek roots, prefixes, and suffixes. Knowing the definitions of these parts of words will help students learn academic vocabulary across subjects as they put parts of words together into different configurations. For instance, biology, biography, and geology are all words related through similar prefixes and suffixes. Knowing the meaning of these parts will help students figure out new word meanings in different contexts.

Directly instruct students in grammar, teaching students the parts of speech, phrases, and clauses that combine to form sentences. Give examples of different ways to arrange sentences to form meaning. For example, show students the difference between the passive voice, “The ball was thrown,” and “He threw the ball,” the active voice. Impress upon them that grammar is a way of thinking about language, both informal and academic.

Teach students the main purposes of language: to inform, entertain, and persuade. Within that framework, students might be asked to analyze, describe, explain, compare, contrast, and so on. Familiarity with the meaning of all these words will enable students to write for a variety of purposes.

Strategies for Promoting Academic Language Skills

One strategy for promoting academic language skills is the summary frame. Summarizing has been shown to exhibit the highest levels of understanding. Students will need some scaffolding to perfect the art of summarizing and, in the process, perfect their understanding.

To summarize a problem-solution relationship, students might use the frame “Someone wanted___, but ____, so ___.” For a cause/effect relationship, the frame “___happens because___” would be more appropriate. Teachers should use a variety of frames, depending upon text structure, to guide student summaries. After having used frames as scaffolding, students will eventually be able to summarize texts without them.

Yet another strategy is to have students complete scripts of academic routines. For example, students might rehearse academic routines by saying them out loud or writing them down. Students might rehearse, “The topic of my presentation is____” “The first paragraph is about ___. The second one is about ___. The last paragraph is about ___.” These scripts help students internalize the language used to discuss academic writing.

More obviously, students should be exposed to a variety of texts, allowing them access to diverse language. Nonfiction reading in the classroom, according to Common Core standards, should sit around 50% of classroom texts in early grades, progressing to around 70% of classroom reading by 12th grade. Texts with narrative structures, informational structures, cause-effect, and problem-solution, along with others, help students establish familiarity with academic vocabulary, grammar, and function.

Also obvious yet effective, direct and explicit instruction in high-frequency vocabulary can deliver big results. For example, a lesson over the word “analyze” might include defining the word in student-friendly language. Put the word in context by showing it as a different part of speech, changing it to the word “analysis”, a noun. Show the word in a different text, for example, in a poem versus a nonfiction text. Show examples and non-examples of the word, as well as allow students to practice with various forms of the word by completing sentences using it correctly.

Assist students in translating informal language into academic language, and vice versa. For instance, give students an example of a text exchange and ask them to translate into academic vocabulary, using academic grammar and syntax. These exercises help students recognize the various functions of language and how to code-switch between the two.

As with any learning, a good story goes a long way. Tell a funny story using the word to make a lasting impression. Then invite students to do the same. Personal connections with a story and academic language form important connections that will help students retain the language for retrieval later.

Part of using academic language means knowing how to transition between ideas when writing. Give students lists of transition words to use when writing. Eventually, you will be able to remove the scaffolding as students become adept at using transition words such as consequently, however, therefore, and so on.

It’s important to remember to revisit high-frequency vocabulary throughout the year. They can be reviewed during bell-ringer activities, classroom discussions, and exit tickets. Word walls can serve as reminders to continue revisiting these words. Interactive notebooks can be repositories for the academic language students have learned throughout the year.

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