Sound familiar? While visiting a middle school math class recently, I heard more than a few students use language like this when explaining their work to their peers and to their teacher.
While their answers showed they understood the academic concepts they were learning, the way they expressed their ideas revealed a need for academic language development.
I’m an English language acquisition teacher, consultant, and author who has spent my entire professional career studying the phases of second language acquisition and identifying best teaching strategies for helping ELL students progress toward fluency. But over the last few years, I’ve become convinced that a missing component in mainstream instruction is academic language learning, or ALL™.
Academic language learning helps all students—both native speakers and second language learners—present ideas, explain their reasoning, argue from evidence, critique reasoning, and ask questions while using the vocabulary and syntax they need to thrive and flourish in school and in their careers.
And let me repeat: It is all students who are academic language learners. As Lily Wong-Fillmore said in a webinar on Common Core and English language acquisition, “There are no native speakers of academic language.”
So how do we help students build up their academic language skills? Conversation is a key.
One of my gurus, Kenji Hakuta, Co-Chair of Stanford University’s Understanding Language initiative, calls attention to the need for teacher-student discourse as well as student-student discourse during specific subject-matter instruction. That focus on oral discourse, on speaking academic language while learning subject-matter content, resonates with me because for a long time I’ve noticed that in our collective urgency to get students to read and write proficiently, we tend to focus our instruction almost exclusively on written language. Along the way, we’ve forgotten the foundation for improved literacy: rich academic language used in constructive conversations.
It’s easy to overlook discourse as an instructional strategy, because as teachers we assume students can talk by the time they get to school, and that they have a firm foundation in oral language on which we can build the structures of reading, writing, and spelling. Most teachers tell me that their students talk just fine (and abundantly!), and, therefore, they don’t have to teach conversation skills. But if you listen carefully when students are talking with each other in small groups, they are more often using social conversational language (“I times’ed 12 and 140 and I got 1680”) and not academic language: “I multiplied the factors of 12 and 140, computing the product to be 1680.”
Along with teaching the content and concepts, we should teach all students, ELLs and native English speakers, to “sound like a book,” to talk and write like authors, mathematicians, scientists, and historians. ALL for all.
Jane Hill is a managing consultant at McREL who specializes in helping teachers and school leaders develop and adopt great instructional practices and effective system supports for English language learners, academic language learners, and culturally diverse learners. She is the lead author of Classroom Instruction That Works with English Language Learners.