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Academic Language: What Not to Teach and What to Teach

What Not to Teach and What to Teach with Academic Language

Academic Language

Since the adoption of the Common Core State Standards way back in 2009… Has it been that long ago? the term Academic Language has remained as one of the longest-lasting educational buzzwords. As educators and publishers have unpacked that term in the years since, it has taken on various meanings; however, its original intent was to assert that the types of words that we teach do matter. Specifically, teaching Tier 2 words which have utility across subject areas makes a lot of sense. For plenty of examples and the research-based Academic Word List, I’d refer teachers HERE.

The ability of these Tier 2 (Beck, McKeown, Kucan) words to transfer across subject areas and reading genre helps developing readers access more complex text. This is why teaching academic language matters. The Tier 2 academic vocabulary words are not ends in themselves; they are gateways to more sophisticated reading. Academic language is all about access to text complexity.

As detailed in Appendix A of the Common Core document and the research described in the 2006 ACT, Inc., report titled Reading Between the Lines, reading comprehension scores have dropped over the last 20 years. Two reasons were cited for this decline: 1. decreasing text complexity and 2. lack of independent reading. We educators have got to make our word study more rigorous and require more challenging independent reading to enhance the academic language of our students.

How Not to Teach Academic Language

  1. Don’t spend excessive amounts of time reading entire novels out loud to your class. I agree with those who have argued against teachers reading complete novels out loud as spoon-feeding. Of course, reading out loud does have some benefits and re-reading a passage or portion of an article as a close reading does have merit, but not as the primary means of developing academic language and increasing reading comprehension.
  2. I also concur with those who have also argued against independent reading in the classroom as a “waste of instructional time.” Spending oodles of class time with free-choice independent reading does not build academic language. Independent reading is vitally important… but as homework. By the way, Accelerated Reader is not an academic vocabulary program. Teachers are clever enough to incentivize and hold students accountable for independent reading without an outside program.
  3. Don’t have students memorize long lists of academic language words. While memorization is certainly a part of effective word study, students retain more at the end of the year with a quality, not quantity approach to vocabulary study. Some in-depth vocabulary instruction is certainly valuable.
  4. Avoid spending excessive amounts of vocabulary instructional time on learning words in the context of teaching a short story, article, or novel. Pre-teaching a few essential words is unavoidable, but don’t let the reading drive your vocabulary instruction. The tail shouldn’t wag the dog.

How to Teach Academic Language

  1. Increase the amount of independent reading homework with proper incentives and accountability. But do teach students how to read independently and require students to read complex material at their individual instructional levels. Lexiles are a useful tool, but a much simpler and flexible approach to determine reading levels is word recognition. Assign limited choices for independent reading. Students don’t naturally gravitate toward text complexity. Like adults, students look for the easy reads. Don’t worry about taking away a students love of reading. Teachers won’t damage children for life by assigning challenging reading homework. Certainly, informed educators know what’s best for students.
  2. Teach a balanced approach to vocabulary development, using the Common Core Vocabulary Standards detailed in the Language Strand. Teach academic language in isolation and in the reading context. Don’t be a purist. Students may have to read a 1000 novels before being exposed to, say, an important figures of speech. Vocabulary acquisition is not a completely natural process. The Standards focus on teaching a balance of vocabulary skills: multiple meaning words (L.4.a.), words with Greek and Latin roots and affixes (L.4.a.), figures of speech (L.5.a.), words with special relationships (L.5.b.), words with connotative meanings (L.5.c.), and academic language words (L.6.0). Check out How to Teach the Common Core Vocabulary Standards.
  3. Plan. Insist upon grade level and department articulation to coordinate a year-to-year academic language instructional scope and sequence. We all too often wind up teaching, say, the same list of Greek and Latin prefixes year after year. We need a plan to move students from A to Z. Here’s a helpful instructional scope and sequence for grades 4-8 academic language. Yes, a multi-grade vocabulary program does make sense to unify instruction.
Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Standards

Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Mark Pennington, an MA reading specialist, is the author of the grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits–slices of the comprehensive Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling and Vocabulary programs.

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