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Academic Language and School Success

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Student raising hand in classCheryl Boyd Zimmerman is the series director of Inside Reading, Second Edition and Inside Writing. In this article, she describes the characteristics of academic language that pose challenges for English learners and proposes several essentials to include in the classroom. 

Academic language has been referred to as a “power code” in academic and professional circles; those unable to use it are at a social and academic disadvantage (Corson, 1985). As teachers, many of us are so fluent in academic and colloquial varieties of English that we flip back and forth with little thought. We adapt to the language of a formal lecture or a job interview, for example, and don’t think about the adjustments we make when using language in other settings. To help learners master academic varieties of English, we need to first raise our own awareness of the differences. What is academic language? Which characteristics are especially different from less formal varieties? Then we can consider: How can we help learners acquire academic language?

What is academic language?

The language of school is different from the “language of home” because its purposes are different. School introduces new ways to interact with people, different types of written text and new ways to relate with the world. Therefore, for learners of all ages, a school textbook or lecture will include features such as abstraction, authoritativeness, rich and complex meanings and technicality (Schleppengrell, 2010). To facilitate these functions, academic English contains features such as embedded sentences, passive voice, technical vocabulary (the words used in one discipline such as science or math) and more general academic vocabulary (words that are frequent in all content areas, but less frequent in everyday language).

Both technical and academic vocabulary are rare in non-academic settings; therefore, learners don’t have enough exposure to “pick them up” unless they have a lot of encounters with people who use them. Technical words are challenging in part because they often have everyday meanings that are different from the meaning in the content area (mean and constant in math). Academic words are challenging because by nature they feature multiple meanings (primary election vs. primary purpose), subtlety of meaning (consider the subtle differences between survive and live), and one word with several parts of speech (system, systematically, systematize and systematic).

How can we help learners acquire academic language?

Academic language is not likely to be easily “picked up” in the same way that colloquial language is because of its technical nature and its infrequency. The essentials for learning it include adequate exposure, personal involvement along with authentic practice, direct vocabulary instruction, and an environment in which situated academic language is used and learners see its place in their futures.

Essentials for Academic Language Learning

Examples of Classroom Strategies

Adequate exposure
  • Write one academic word on the board each day (include its word family members). Use it often throughout the class in instructions, comments, questions, etc.
  • Don’t over-simplify vocabulary; use repetition and synonyms instead of omitting difficult words
Learner involvement and authentic practice
  • In class discussions, revisit course material by focusing on short segments of interesting content with activities such as word-contrast discussions (“Which informal word could you use in place of terminate here?”) and paraphrasing (“Can you re-state that sentence using termination instead of terminate?”)
Direct vocabulary instruction
  • Scaffolded instruction needs to draw attention to language forms
  • Technology (e.g., See an online lexical tutor for resources including glossed readings with hypertext, tools to create content rich exercises, frequency lists and much more)
A motivating situated learning environment
  • Research indicates that learners are motivated when shown that the material is relevant to their future (Hirai, Borrego, Garza, & Kloock, 2010)

Keep in mind that learners are not always as enthused about words as teachers might be; we need to communicate that academic language is an asset worth an investment.

References

Cobb, T. (n.d.) Complete lexical tutor. http://www.lextutor.ca
Corson, D. (1985). The lexical barOxford: Pergamon Press.
Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list.  TESOL Quarterly, 34, 213-238.
Hirai, D.L., Borrego, I., Garza, E., & Kloock, C.T. (2010). Academic language/literacy strategies for adolescents: A “how-to” manual for educators. New York: Routledge.
Schleppegrell, Mary J. (2010). Language and mathematics teaching and learning. Language and Mathematics Education: Multiple Perspectives and Directions for Research, pp. 73-112. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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8 thoughts on “Academic Language and School Success

  1. Pingback: Some interesting points in this post | Teacherpants

  2. Do you think that this article gives enough emphasis to the purposes and the ways that the language reflects the purposes. Talking about academic language in abstract terms perhaps does not allow learners to find their own voices. Do learners not need to present themselves in certain ways? This presentation of themselves has clear language implications.

    • This is a good point, spoken by one who both knows his “voice” and the tools by which to communicate it. Perhaps an article or webinar on academic language should be fronted by a comment about purpose. I will remember that.
      It is also true that teachers can’t do much to help students address their purposes or find their voices if they aren’t conscious of the language choices to be made. This article and webinar comes from a functional linguistics perspective – which raises awareness of the language used in various academic settings so we can guide students to make their own choices. These language distinctions are not abstractions, but are tools to be used for a learners own purposes. We can help students notice them, practice them and want to use them for their own purposes.

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