5 Ways to Support Academic Language Development

Nicole Sanchez on

Not only is every teacher a language teacher, but every student is also a language student. Yes, English Language Learners do need more language support than native English speakers, but the reality is that all students need support to develop academic language skills across content areas.

Academic Language in the Content Areas
Each subject in school has different ways of observing the world, gathering information, and organizing knowledge. Each subject also uses different language structures and vocabulary to communicate. For example, at the K-2 level, the language of literacy focuses mainly on comprehending the main points of a story, and expressing our stories and ideas through sentences and short paragraphs. The language of math is much more abstract and uses lots of unique vocabulary in addition to special symbols. We communicate our ideas through numbers and graphs. The language of science focuses on describing our world through experience and drawing conclusions. While on the other hand, the language of social studies focuses on understanding differences and describing the past.

5 Ways to Support Academic Language Development
As you can see each subject has its own language, and it’s up to all teachers to help students learn the specific vocabulary and structures needed for students to demonstrate their learning and ideas appropriately. Not sure how to go about supporting language in your content area? Here are five ideas to get you started.

1. Partner with a language teacher to plan and teach: As a former language teacher, I can attest to the fact that language teachers see the world in a different way. We’re always thinking about language, picking out vocabulary and analyzing structures. Most of all, we love getting opportunities to share this expertise with our colleagues, so don’t be afraid to ask us for help.

2. Write content and language targets in your lessons: So let’s say your content learning target is that students will be able to identify or compare various types of rocks in science. Then the corresponding language target might be that they can compare and contrast using adjectives like shiny, dull, smooth, rough in the structures “___ and ____ are similar because they both ____.” and “___ and ___ are different because _____ but ______.”

3. Systematically introduce academic vocabulary: Vocabulary should be introduced a few words at a time in meaningful ways. If at all possible, students should experience the vocabulary either in a story, through examples, or even better yet, simulations.

4. Provide lots of opportunities to practice academic language: Students should practice the word in all four language modalities. That means they should get practice hearing it, reading it, writing it and most importantly saying it, all in context of course.

5. Support language practice with examples or language frames: This is particularly important for English language learners. You can provide them with sample sentences, or fill in the blank sentences also known as language or sentence frames. Students who need these supports will use them, and those who don’t, usually won’t. The key is to slowly remove these supports as students learn to use the language independently.

Happy Teaching,
Nicole Sanchez