3 Strategies for Teaching English Learners Academic Language

3 Strategies for Teaching English Learners Academic Language
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A common misconception among teachers is that if a student can speak English fluently, he or she does not need extra accommodations in order to grasp the curriculum. In reality, many students struggle with academic language because their exposure to language outside of school does not include advanced words and phrases. The transition to “school talk” poses a particular challenge for English Learners (ELs) as they must simultaneously develop everyday language already familiar to their monolingual peers, along with academic language skills (O’Brien and Leighton, 2015). 

Without exposure to advanced English language skills at home, ELs face double the demands of language learning. Increasing numbers of EL students attending schools across the country have made it an educational imperative that instruction and assessment directly promote students’ academic language proficiency. 


What is academic language?

In the lexicon of English language verbiage, there are three tiers of words classified by frequency, complexity, and specificity. Academic language is made up of mainly Tier 3 words, due in large part to its sophistication and association with a specific domain. 

According to William Saunders and Claude Goldenberg, “Academic language refers to the specialized vocabulary, grammar, discourse/textual, and functional skills associated with academic instruction and mastery of academic materials and tasks.” (Saunders, Goldenberg, C. 2010) In other words, it is a combination of subject-specific terminology (think: photosynthesis, onomatopoeia) and formal language used in an academic or professional setting that is devoid of colloquialisms. Students have limited exposure to such words and, as a result, rarely use them in conversation. This is the main reason academic language is the hardest terminology and discourse for ELs to grasp, as well as the hardest to teach. 

Experts suggest taking a four-pronged approach when teaching academic language to ELs by providing opportunities for these students to learn the terminology through listening, speaking, reading, and writing. This is best practice with all students, but especially students who are not native English speakers. 

Below are three strategies that take a four-pronged approach to teaching academic language. Each strategy provides good exposure to the words and opportunities that will help learners develop an understanding based on usage. Two of the strategies utilize visuals, and all three could be transformed into graphic organizers. These strategies are most effective if taught prior to readings that include vocabulary words.


Strategy 1: 7-Step Process

Step 1:  Teacher says the word. Student repeats.

  • Example:  Say "Repeat after me." Then say embargo three times. [em-bahr-go]

Step 2:  Teacher states the word in context from the text.

  • Example:  The United States imposed an embargo on Cuba on October 19, 1960

Step 3:  Teacher provides the dictionary definition(s).

  • Example:  noun. an official ban on trade or other commercial activity with a particular country. 

Step 4:  Teacher explains meaning with student-friendly definitions.

  • Example:  An embargo is when one country blocks goods from being sold to or purchased from another country in an effort to pressure that country politically.

Step 5:  Teacher highlights features of the word: polysemous, cognate, tense, prefixes, etc.

  • Example:  "Em" is a prefix that means "in." Derived from the Spanish word "embargar," meaning to bar.

Step 6:  Teacher engages students in activities to develop word/concept knowledge.

  • Example:  Work with a partner and come up with a list of goods or services a country may impose an embargo on.

Step 7: 
 Teacher assigns peer reading with oral and written summarization activities and explains how new words will be used

Strategy 2: Lexical Array

1.  Preview word by identifying it, having students repeat it, and reading it in the context of the upcoming reading assignment. 

  • Example:  Say, "The word we are going to preview is 'weep.' Please repeat the word." Read the passage: "Weeping is not the same thing as crying. It takes your whole body to weep, and when it's over, you feel like you don't have any bones left to hold you up." —Twenty Boy Summer

2.  Teacher provides three or four words similar to the target word and asks student groups to stretch them out according to least intense/charged to most intense/charged. Relationships tend to go: Weak ► Strong; Mild ► Intense; Slow ► Fast.

  • Example:  Teacher provides sob, wail, and cry in addition to target word "weep." See below for example of a filled out graphic organizer.

3.  Student groups will then be asked to explain the order of their words and why they made the decisions they made.

  • Example:  "Sob indicates more emotion than cry, but weep is a more outward expression of that emotion. Wail is the most intense of the words because it suggests the person is inconsolable and cannot help but express his pain loudly."

Strategy 3: Concept Definition Map

1.  Teacher states word and asks students to repeat it.

2.  Teacher asks students to fill in the graphic organizer in small groups. In the boxes provided, students will answer: What is it?; What is it like?; What are some examples?


How do you address the academic language assessment and instructional needs of English Learners at your school? Connect with Lexia on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn and let us know your thoughts and experiences on this topic.


Lexia Supports
Academic Language Development

With an increasing number of educators acknowledging the connection between academic language and success across the curriculum, now is the time to see how Lexia can support the assessment and instruction of this important literacy skill. Learn how Lexia can help you efficiently screen students’ academic language skills, deliver targeted instruction in the skills necessary to comprehend increasingly sophisticated texts, and empower teachers with a research-proven scope and sequence. 

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