EDU6918, Academic Language, Part V

How can you support all students, and especially English Language Learners, in developing their academic language literacy in your endorsement area?

It is very timely that the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) is having a regional exposition/conference in Albuquerque Nov 2-4, where one of featured presentations is from Sylvia Celedón-Pattichis entitled “Beyond Good Teaching: Meeting the Mathematical Needs of ELLs.”  In one place Celedón-Pattichis (1999) reported that it is important to use “students’ sociocultural and linguistic experiences to make mathematical connections between natural language and the language that is specific to mathematics.”  This was the conclusion of a study of think-aloud protocols on children of mexican immigrants.  I take from this that all students could benefit from good context to get academic language literacy, and that using a think-aloud protocol is one way to measure.

In another blog post, guest blogger Alexandra Rice (2011) writes about a study from the folks at the National Center for Research on the Educational Achievement and Teaching of English Language Learners (CREATE) which showed that “vocabulary instruction can have an important and lasting impact on student learning.”  I take from this that regular and focused work on vocabulary with my students can help them develop academic language literacy in mathematics.

All the sources which I investigated strongly urged that reading for the sake of better literacy was critical.  Doug Lemov (2010) urges that all instruction be measured in its utility against the gold standard of reading in class.  It gave me some pause to think that instead of doing some interesting or novel demonstration in the class, if I can’t show that the benefit derived from that demonstration would exceed the benefit of doing some in-class reading instead, then I should probably just do some reading.  Lemov calls this the “hurdle rate” and I have blogged about it before. 

This time as I read Lemov I was struck with the realization that reading something, anything, can have positive impact on students.  However, reading documents that will develop academic language literacy in math and science would be best.  Furthermore reading which is done using the strategies and techniques that Lemov outlines in chapters 10, 11, and 12, would be most effective, and especially more effective than those in Boyles (2004), which Lemov takes great length to criticize.  I take from the criticism that there are plenty of strategies currently employed to increase literacy that don’t actually help kids read better or want to read more.  This misguided strategies in fact actually hurt literacy or stunt growth in reading.

In my reading of Zwiers (2008, pp. 44-48), I was reminded that the modeling of academic language is key.  If the teacher holds a high standard for the use of appropriate vocabulary and sentence structure, then the students will follow.  Combining that with a Lemov (2010) techniques of “100%” and “Punch the Error” and students will quickly learn that they need to learn and reflect back the academic language that is being used around them.

I was glad that Thier and Daviss (2002, pp. 12-27) stress all of reading, writing and speaking as necessary to improve literacy, for two reasons.  First, since we are not just talking about reading anything or reading better (decoding, fluency, vocabulary), we are talking specifically about gaining content-specific literacy skills, we cannot forget writing and speaking.  Second, it is in guided inquiry in science and mathematics that students get real practice doing all of reading, writing and speaking new academic language.  I like their comprehensive approach and analysis and will definitely apply all three and try guided inquiry in my instruction to help increase academic language literacy.

Assuming now that I will be reading more in my math and science classes, Barton, Heidema and Jordan (2002) give three strategies that can help students be more successful in their academic language learning.  I summarize each one in turn below.

  • Activate Prior Content Knowledge:  topics that trigger or draw upon a learners experiences are inherently more interesting and can help keep the students engaged on a text or passage.
  • Master Vocabulary:  Students often need some way to organize the words  they are learning and two methods that help are semantic feature analysis, and nonlinguistic representations.  Both engage visual intelligences to help students incorporate new words and make them more their own.
  • Making Sense of Text Style:  even simple techniques such as pre-reading i.e. helping students see how a text is structured can help them deduce the hierarchy the author is using and thus find the key concepts.  This technique can even be applied with some success to word problems.

Finally, Coelho (2004, pp. 183-198) urges that any/all of the above techniques be practiced in an environment that is supportive of language learning.  This was a good source to read, and I put it at the end since all manner of techniques and strategies come to naught if we don’t provide:

  • comprehensible instruction, so students can follow
  • supportive feedback, so students can participate without fear of failure
  • a way to incorporate first languages, since that enriches the culture of all in the classroom
  • opportunities for cooperative learning strategies, since those are proven to provide necessary oral interaction

My goal is to provide the above tactics in a suitable environment so that ELL and other students can reach fluency in academic language.


Barton, M.L., Heidema ,C. & Jordan D. (2002). Teaching Reading in Mathematics and Science. Educational Leadership. 60(3). Pp. 24-28.

Boyles, N. (2004).   Constructing Meaning through Kid Friendly Comprehension Strategy Instruction.  Maupin House Publishing.

Celedon-Pattichis, S. (1999). Constructing Meaning: Think-Aloud Protocols of ELLs on English and Spanish Word Problems. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Coelho, E. (2004).  Adding English: A guide to teaching in multilingual classrooms.  Toronto, Ontario:  Pippin Publishing Corporation   

Lemov, D. (2010).  Teach like a champion.  Jossey-Bass.

Rice, A. (2011, August 16).  Report:  ‘Academic Vocabulary’ Lessons Boost Reading Skills. In Zehr, M. A. (2011) Learning the Language [guest blogger on web log]  Retrieved August 18, 2011 from

Thier, M. & Daviss, B. (2002).  The New Science Literacy:  Using language skills to help students learn science.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.  

Zwiers, J. (2008). Building academic language: Essential practices for content classrooms, grades 5-12. Jossey-Bass Teacher.

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  • halgera  On September 14, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    Thanks for your review of literature and compilation of best practices to foster academic language development through your teaching. I noted your observation to read more in your math and science instruction. Does this fit naturally into the flow of the classroom lesson? How else will you model academic language?

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