What is academic language? Why does it matter?



"Academic language is the oral and written language, sometimes accompanied by visuals such as pictures or charts, needed by students to understand and communicate in the academic disciplines for specific purposes and often for a distant audience. Academic language includes such things as specialized vocabulary as well as grammar, style, and organization associated with genres within a field (e.g., literary criticism, explanations of historical phenomena, lab reports) and other language-related activities typical of classrooms, (e.g., expressing disagreement, discussing ideas, asking for clarification)." Definition from the TPA

We often think about academic language as jargon or insider language -- ways of communicating that is specific to a particular group. For example, a doctor might report this to her colleagues, "The patient is a 23-year-old male who presents to the emergency room with foreign body and airway compromise." This is academic language. A non-academic version would go something like this: "A 23-year-old man came to the emergency room because he had something caught in his throat and he had a hard time breathing."

Academic language matters because it the "stuff" academic content is made of, similar to the ingredients in a cake. If students can't understand or use the language common to an academic field, their ability to learn the content is significantly impeded. Your job as a teacher is to help students gain fluency in the language of your subject area. This involves three basic steps:

1. Recognizing the academic language in the content you teach

2. Specifically teaching that language

3. Supporting students' use of academic language

Presentation on AL Components of EdTPA
Video of the presentation -
Handout for Teacher Educators
PDF version (for art teachers)
Academic Language Development Network

http://minnetesoljournal.org/spring-2014/academic-language-demands-texts-tasks-and-levels-of-language - Ranney overview for ESL

What are features of academic language in my subject area?

Read the link(s) that apply to your subject area

A list of academic language for all subject areas can be found here

Academic Language of English Language Arts
Academic Language of Math
Academic Language of Social Studies
Academic Language of Science
Academic Language of Physical Education (scroll down to "Academic Language for Physical Education) & Academic Language in PE
Academic Language of Music

  • Uncovering academic language through standards documents- Zwiers (p.275-276) suggests using standards documents to identify the language of a discipline and the associated thinking skills. Here are links to WA state standards documents. As you read the standards, you can highlight the language of the discipline.

Elements of Academic Language


Vocabulary- Brick and Mortar Terms - Brick (technical vocabulary), Mortar - ("general-utility words that hold the content-specific words together") (Zwiers, 2008, Building Academic Language p. 22
- Brief explanation of academic language and why to teach it - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OetbzrP2QUU&feature=plcp
- List of most frequently used academic words.

Grammar - long sentences, passive voice (e.g. "The statistics were then calculated . . .", "The victims were given amnesty. . . "),

Style - figurative language (metaphors and analogies, etc.), writing for a distant audience (additional explanation), writer is "detached' from the message, evidence to support ideas, frequent use of modals (would, could, etc.) and conditional tense (If she were to contract the disease . . . ), expressing reservations/lack of certainty (e.g. perhaps, most likely, theoretically, etc.)

Organization - specific order and logic to explaining concepts and communicating an argument -- e.g. introduction, thesis statement, topic sentences, conclusion; hypothesis, experiment, evidence, new hypothesis

Genres - particular styles and types of communication with specific rules/conventions, genres vary by disciplines -- e.g. lab report, persuasive essay, book review, mathematical proof, exercise plan, historical narrative

Tech Tools

Teaching Strategies

  • Sentence Frames -- ( claims . On the other hand, _ claims ; First, . Next, _. Finally, .)
  • Word Walls - (Post new/important vocabulary on the wall organized by categories)
  • Personal Dictionaries - (Students keep a notebook of new/important words and definitions)
  • Language Quilt - (Four boxes: a) the English word, b) the word translated, c) the word used in a sentence, d) picture and definition)
  • Graphic Organizers

http://languagemagazine.com/?page_id=5114?iframe=true&width=90%&height=90% Kate Kinsella's article on Common Core

Sonoma County Schools handout on supporting academic language
  • Includes a list of teaching strategies near the end of the document

Kate Kinsella's workshops & materials

Examples and non-examples of AL