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English Language Teaching Global Blog


Continuing language learning: the role of L1 literacy in secondary L2 language and literacy development

Frustrated student at work in classroomMany secondary second language learners face numerous challenges as they develop language and literacy in a second language at the same time they are learning subject area content in that second language. Fortunately, L1 academic literacy is not separate from L2 academic literacy. They are both manifestations of a common underlying proficiency. In this post Dr. Marylou M. Matoush, introduces her forthcoming webinar highlighting the ways that academic language and literacy proficiency can be developed through active reading, writing, speaking and listening in either or both languages.

Secondary schools are commonly structured as if all students need the same type of instruction, for the same amount of time, across the same curriculum. While this is far from ideal, it may not seem too problematic in some second language and literacy instructional settings, such as foreign language classrooms, where second language (L2) learners share somewhat similar first language (L1) language and literacy knowledge.  However, the structure of secondary most schools can be very problematic in where diversity reigns.

Many teachers of second languages are painfully aware of the fact that the emphasis on “sameness” built into most secondary schools is at odds with the needs of L2 language and literacy learners, who are remarkably diverse. They know that it is not uncommon to find secondary school settings where L2 learners who have never been to school may be sitting, in at least some classes, among L2 learners who are partially literate in one or more languages, L2 learners who are fully literate in L1 but not in L2, bilingual students who are also fully biliterate, and native English speakers who also display a wide range of literacy development.

These teachers of second language learners also know that there are often notable differences between individual learners who happen to fall in each of those categories. Learners may begin second language instruction with very different first languages. Then, first language and literacy use is gradually mixed with second language and literacy use, in ways that are necessarily unique to each individual.  As learners develop their abilities to use their languages and literacies, the varied effects of cultural backgrounds, life experiences, personal interests, academic background, linguistic understandings, and literacy skills accumulate with each passing school year.

Fortunately, becoming biliterate involves developing an interlanguage that is flexible enough to be useful in various L1 or L2 language and literacy contexts and the process underlying that development takes place in a generalized fashion, although not in the synchronized or linear fashion suggested by school structures.  Therefore, despite considerable diversity among students, academic language and literacy learning that must occur alongside content learning can be grounded in single set fundamental principles:

  • Languages and literacies and the strategies associated with meaning making are interdependent, not separate. Reading, writing, listening, speaking, and viewing are all meaning based ways to communicate and compliment one another. Integrating them enables students to make flexible use of them as they make meaning of academic content.
  • Academic learning in one’s first language and academic learning in one’s second language are also interdependent, not separate or isolated from each other. Instead, they are manifestations of a common underlying proficiency that can be developed and applied to reading, writing, speaking and listening about content in either language. Further, since the use of L1, mixed language, or a student’s developing interlanguage represent varying manifestations of a common underlying proficiency, affording students opportunities to choose among them as they learn academic content enhances L2 academic language and literacy learning.
  • Active participation in actual language and literacy activity serves the needs of all students as they acquire language and literacy, but is particularly valuable for L2 students who may need the active support available from both teacher and peers that collaboration affords. Further, active languaging drives thinking just as thinking drives languaging and literacy. Therefore, carefully designed collaboration among flexibly grouped students can work to create an age-appropriate, cognitively compelling setting and exposure to diverse ideas and perspectives for diverse learners.

The forthcoming webinar will briefly discuss that interdependence among languages and literacies and the transferability of L1 literacy strategies to L2 learning. It will also present specific strategies and techniques that are effective for supporting academic second language learning during active languaging while reading, writing, listening, speaking and viewing.



Academic Language and School Success

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.


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