In a report written by Robin Scarella, a member of The University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute, she states, “Learning academic English is probably one of the surest, most reliable ways of attaining socio-economic success in the United States today.”
English Language Learners, as well as those who grow up living in poverty are in a significant risk category when it comes to developing academic English skills, and often require interventions to be successful. Engaging students with academic English is imperative to their success. Here are strategies to help:
Provide a Language Positive Environment
On average students spend close to 1,000 hours in the classroom each year, or roughly six hours per day. While this may not seem significant, it is a valuable time for them to be exposed to the language, and that begins with a language-rich environment.
This environment will look different depending on the age of the students, however, an immersive classroom helps students to grow their ability to understand academic language. When visiting a primary or intermediate classroom, you will likely find:
- Opportunities for all students to access reading and writing activities.
- Dialogue and conversation between students and teacher
- Content-specific vocabulary being used.
- Multiple ways of delivering content to make it more visual (photos, slides, games)
- Authentic materials available for student exploration.
Creating a language-positive environment is not difficult, but it does take planning to ensure it is appropriate for the levels of your students and their needs when it comes to developing their academic English skills.
Teach the Rules of English
To allow students to access and learn academic English, they first need to have knowledge and understanding of the rules of the English language. Many students may be thrown into conversational English, while not understanding the rules. While this may be okay for social situations, it will likely hinder their academic progress.
Cynthia D’ Amico has created a tool that provides students with foundational skills of academic English, which allows them to access higher levels of academic English. The foundation provided by The Colors of English gives students a comprehensive understanding of the English language as well as the ability to apply it beginning at the sentence level.
Offer Instruction in Tiered Vocabulary
When teaching content to students, teachers need to provide instruction through vocabulary tiers.
Tier 1: Common words that are used in everyday conversation. Students with limited access to the English language will need to have a firm understanding of these words and how they work in the English language.
Tier 2: These words will appear frequently across various content areas. For example, the word predict can be used in several content areas for the same purpose. This next level of words allows students to begin to access a higher level of learning in the classroom. It also extends their ability to have academic discourse with others.
Tier 3: The words in this tier are content-specific vocabulary. Students must have the fundamental English language skills to access and understand these terms fully.
Explicit Vocabulary Instruction
The single most important thing that educators can do to support students with limited exposure to academic English is to provide explicit vocabulary instruction, daily. Explicit instruction allows students to conceptualize the content being covered, while incorporation new language into their vocabulary.
Explicit instruction is extremely powerful when it comes to higher-order thinking skills. Higher-order thinking skills often command the use of academic English. If a student has had an opportunity to interact at a high level with content-level vocabulary, they will be more able to engage in discussions around topics that require more complex thinking.
Academic English is a cornerstone to the development of successful critical thinkers. The best way to support students with limited exposure is to provide a literacy-rich environment, teach the rules of English, introduce tiered vocabulary, and most importantly provide explicit vocabulary instruction.