Academic Language

By Lance Ozier


The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), now adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia, have placed increasing demands on schools to increase the literacy skills of students in all subjects. From writing arguments that include analyzed evidence from text sources, to using academic language to discuss complex texts in conversation with their teachers and fellow students, the shift towards these skills has implications across the curriculum. Teaching language arts, once thought of as the job of English teachers, is now an essential task of ALL content teachers in order to build the academic language skills necessary for college and career readiness. In particular, academic language skills and vocabulary differ from the everyday spoken English, and have been shown to be associated with low academic performance in a variety of educational settings.

What is academic language, and more precisely, what is the academic vocabulary that students need to acquire in order to function in an academic setting? Academic language is generally considered to be the words and phrases found in secondary and postsecondary instruction and texts, as well as the lexicon of the workplace. For instance, academic language includes the (1) academic vocabulary used routinely in all disciplines (such as evaluation, theory, hypothesis, assumption, capacity, and validate in chemistry) as well as a (2) technical vocabulary inherent to do the work of an given discipline (in chemistry: words such as lepidoptery, virologist, cuvette, and talc).

This is not to suggest that informal language patterns have no value. H.L. Mencken (1938), for instance, argues “the best slang is not only ingenious and amusing; it also embodies a kind of social criticism. It not only provides new names for a series of every-day concepts, some new and some old; it also says something about them.” However, since low academic performance and test scores have been linked to low academic language skills, teachers and students struggle with the conflict that often exists between the oral language students use in their writing and the academic language necessary to succeed in the classroom.

How do schools then respond to the resounding CCSS demands for academic language, while still supporting students as they adjust to using such language in their writing and classroom conversations? ISA schools have a proven record of success using an inquiry-based, student centered approach to instruction. Teachers using this pedagogy encourage students to develop their own questions as they explore academic texts. This method of exposing students to models of academic language affords opportunities for them to practice its use as they construct meaning through conversation with their teachers and peers. Experts agree that consistent exposure to academic language in complex texts, as well as structured conversations that allow students to discuss and question academic readings, eventually lead to the use of academic language in students’ writing.

Across ISA classrooms, teachers are supporting students to build their academic language skills in preparation for college and beyond. ISA coaches across all content areas are skilled at providing support for teachers and schools to design and implement the inquiry-based, student-centered instruction recognized to be an effective tool to support students’ academic language development as a component of CCSS implementation. Once students have mastered academic language, they then have the tools to participate in meaningful conversations that shape society for the better. Standards are not simply the bar students should try and reach; rather, the CCSS give us a tool for supporting students to master skills that will allow them to imagine realities not yet thought possible.