Defining Academic Language and its Key Elements

Monday, February 13, 2017
Defining Academic Language and its Key Elements

As students progress through school, they are expected to demonstrate increasing levels of sophistication in their language and reading skills across all content areas. Starting in the elementary years, students are immersed in text and tasked with acquiring words, concepts, and curriculum content through independent reading.


In order to comprehend diverse texts and participate in meaningful discussions in the classroom, students must master abstract and discipline-specific vocabulary as well as the advanced grammar and syntactic conventions used often in academic settings. With increasing numbers of English-language learners and students requiring support with language development in schools across the country, it is an educational imperative that reading and language instruction and assessment promote students’ proficiency in these skills, which are collectively known as "academic language."
 

More closely resembling written language, academic language presents greater difficulties for many students than general, everyday language (Heppt, Henschel, and Haag, 2005). The term "academic language" may be used to refer to formal English rules, structure, and content for academic dialogue and text, and the communicative conventions that allow students to meet the demands of school environments. While there is no established consensus on a definition of this construct (Snow & Uccelli, 2009), a concise definition refers to academic language as "the specialized language, both oral and written, of academic settings that facilitates communication and thinking about disciplinary content" (Nagy & Townsend, 2012).
 

When applying this concept for actionable, instructional purposes, these specialized language skills include the complex vocabulary and syntactic knowledge required for building understanding through independent reading, engaging deeply with text, and expressing ideas in academic settings. Academic language provides a way to unlock key elements of both oral and written language, supporting the listener or reader in gaining a rich understanding of the message being delivered. 

 

Key components of academic language

Vocabulary and syntactic knowledge in oral and written language encompass specific skills that allow students to meet academic demands across the curriculum. Though commonly used to denote breadth of knowledge of word definitions, the term "vocabulary knowledge" also refers to depth of understanding of word parts (prefixes, suffixes, roots, etc.) and awareness of multiple meanings and word relationships that shape the nuances of vocabulary use. Having proficiency in word parts and relationships helps students acquire new vocabulary, reason about the meaning of unfamiliar words, and comprehend the sophisticated vocabulary that characterizes academic language, including:
 

  • Morphologically complex words, e.g., unmistakable; wholesomely

  • High-frequency, abstract, and multiple-meaning words that are domain-general and often contain Latin morphemes, e.g., principle; approach; lateral

  • Complex, domain-specific words that typically contain Greek combining forms, e.g., amnesia; biodegradable; monochromatic

Most broadly, syntactic knowledge refers to the understanding of grammatical forms and rules that govern how words and phrases combine into sentences, and how sentences form paragraphs. To comprehend advanced sentence structures and connected text, students must master basic grammatical rules as well as sophisticated knowledge of words and phrases that are used to establish referents, organize ideas, denote relationships between concepts, and develop text cohesion, including:
 

  • Use of connective words requiring sentence-level inferencing, e.g., consequently; whereas; similarly

  • Resolution of pronoun reference, e.g., We examined the extent to which native plants in coastal regions adapted to climatic changes in their environment.

  • Grammatical agreement between subjects, verbs, and tense, e.g., All of the candidates, as well as the current president, are attending the televised debate.


Given the increasing emphasis on students’ abilities to independently engage with and learn from text, reading comprehension is perhaps the domain most impacted by students’ academic language skills as they progress through school. In fact, researchers have shown that reading comprehension difficulties are in large part due to students’ challenges in understanding the academic language of school texts (Uccelli et al, 2015). Both vocabulary and syntactic knowledge contribute to students’ success or difficulty with reading comprehension, and vocabulary knowledge in particular predicts students' literacy achievement, as it contributes significantly to both word identification and reading comprehension skills. In addition, vocabulary and syntactic knowledge have been shown to account for the majority of individual differences in reading comprehension for students in upper elementary school through high school (Foorman, Koon, Petscher, Mitchell, & Truckenmiller, 2015). Vocabulary knowledge and syntactic knowledge help students engage with text and progress toward deep reading comprehension with increasing independence by supporting their abilities to:
 

  • Acquire knowledge and synthesize this with previously learned material

  • Analyze audience, structure, purpose, and tone of texts

  • Evaluate evidence, main ideas, and details


Understanding the key elements of academic language is the first step to creating a unified mission to help districts and schools improve students’ likelihood of educational success. For all students, mastery of academic language provides the tools needed to comprehend our complex world, in school and beyond. 

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Understanding Academic Language and its Connection to School Success

Strong academic language skills are critical for students' reading comprehension and overall academic success. Read this white paper by Lexia's assessment experts to learn about the key elements of academic language, its impact on reading comprehension, and how to incorporate academic language into classroom instruction. 

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