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Welcome to the sixth foundation of reading: Academic language skills

By August 12, 2019August 20th, 2019No Comments

academic-languageFor those of you who have coached, taught, and followed the five foundations of reading: Did you know there’s now a sixth?

It was back in 2000 when the National Reading Panel last published findings and recommendations for teaching the five components of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Research since then has been vetted, and last year’s What Works Clearinghouse practice guide, Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade, identifies a sixth foundation: Teaching students academic language skills, including the use of inferential and narrative language.

The guide also offers two how-to steps: Engage students in conversations that support the use and comprehension of inferential language, and Explicitly engage students in developing narrative language skills.

A good place to see this in action is in this video posted by the Regional Education Laboratory (REL) Southeast at Florida State University. I admire the level of questioning this third-grade teacher is exhibiting and I’d like to add some additional tips for instigating student talk.

Keep in mind that we’re not just encouraging talking for its own sake. Most students enter school already knowing how to speak—at least socially. Rather, we want to help students increase their familiarity with, and comfort using, higher-level academic vocabulary and sentence structures. So many academic and professional settings that students will encounter later in life require the ability to learn and use specialized language to succeed. It’s almost like a linguistic password—or lots of passwords—that are required to access college and career opportunities. This is why it’s so important to help students, even in early grades, to broaden and strengthen their academic language.

To that end, when engaging our students in academic talk, we want to make sure they “sound like a book,” as my co-author and I state in Classroom Instruction That Works with English Language Learners (2nd edition, p. 6), helping students learn to sound like authors, scientists, entrepreneurs, mathematicians . . . to sound at least a little bit like Sheldon Cooper. (Or, to follow my own advice, to use a “formal register.”) How do we do that?

  • One way is to provide a “word bank” for students to use. For example, during math, if students are talking about how to solve a word problem using division, they should say “dividend” instead of “biggest number,” “divisor” rather than “smallest number,” and “quotient,” not “answer.”
  • Here’s a fun way to move students from using “everyday” language to academic language so they sound like a book. Get some party clickers (noisemakers you can readily get from party supply stores or online). In pairs or small groups, one student is the speaker and the other(s) are the listeners, and they click if they hear an everyday word like “answer.” Or, reverse it: The listener clicks when they hear a word from the word bank.
  • Another way I have seen a teacher help students to sound like a book is by having students learn to spot and delete (or replace) commonplace, overused, clichéd, or unnecessary words from their own writing and speaking. In language arts class, this means students throw away or replace words such as “like” and “said.”

This brings me back to the video and what the teacher could have added to help students sound like a book. Since they were talking about buying a video game, the throwaway word would be “buy” and acceptable synonyms could have included “purchase” or “procure.” Students were also talking about what people said in the story, so “said” becomes the throwaway word, perhaps replaced with “explained” or “stated.”

I hope you take these tips to school with you for the beginning of a new year. Please let me know how they work for you!

jane-hillJane Hill, M.S., a managing consultant at McREL, consults and trains teachers and administrators nationally and internationally. Her most recent endeavors involve demonstrating how strategies for academic language learners and English language learners overlap in the classroom, and what it takes to teach content through academic language and vice versa.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.

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