Strategies for Teaching Academic Language to ELLs

English Language Learners (ELLs or ELs) face a variety of challenges in the mainstream classroom. Along with social and cultural differences, ELLs may also struggle with the language used in the classroom. This academic language can be difficult for ELLs to grasp and can pose a stumbling block when it comes to classroom success.

“Mastery of academic language is arguably the single most important determinant of academic success for individual students,” says David Francis in Practical Guidelines for the Education of English Language Learners: Research-Based Recommendations For Instruction and Academic Interventions. “Unfortunately, ELLs often lack the academic language necessary for success in school. This lack of proficiency in academic language affects ELLs’ ability to comprehend and analyze texts in middle and high school, limits their ability to write and express themselves effectively, and can hinder their acquisition of academic content in all academic areas.”

So what can mainstream teachers do to help ELLs master academic language? It’s important to understand the basics of academic language and develop strategies for teaching academic language to ELLs.

educator teaching academic language to ELLS students

What is Academic Language?

Academic language refers to the language needed by students to conquer classroom tasks, from understanding basic content vocabulary and directions to navigating advanced textbooks.

“To me, academic language is when teachers use key words and important content area concepts when working with ELs,” says Dara Schmick, an ESL teacher at Rutherford Elementary School and the Elementary ESL Department Chair for the Central Dauphin School District in Harrisburg, Pa. “It is important for teachers to speak to students in a way that promotes language in every aspect of their school day.”

Mastering academic language is important for students to achieve fluency in English and consequently achieve academic success. Although academic language often involves topics such as grammar, punctuation, and syntax, it also applies to other academic skills, including organizing, researching, critical thinking, interpreting, problem solving, and analyzing.

How Can You Help Students Achieve Academic Language Mastery?

Successful understanding of academic language requires a partnership between mainstream teachers and ESL teachers, Schmick says, noting, “Teachers need to all be on the same page so that the academic language is comprehensive.”

Working together, mainstream and ESL teachers can help ensure English Language Learners have success when it comes to conquering academic language.

“Some mainstream teachers have the skills and strategies to work with ELs and can use these with all of their students,” Schmick says. “However, there are times when teachers are unsure of how to work with these students.”

If you’re teaching ELLs in your classroom, consider these tips for teaching academic language:

Introduce and reinforce academic language regularly.

It’s important to preview text and identify words that might be new to students, says ELLs specialist Kristina Robertson on Colorin Colorado!, a bilingual site for educators and families of English Language Learners. She suggests writing words and phrases on the board and having students write them on index cards. She also recommends using visuals, acting, or synonyms to help students understand the meaning of a word. “Reinforce the newly learned language by asking the students to draw it, act it out, or use it in an appropriate sentence,” she says.

Provide opportunities for review.

Consider creating a “word wall” of academic language terms, so students can refer to what they’ve learned throughout the year. Check out this idea for your classroom.

Use academic language throughout all content areas.

“As the classroom teacher, it’s important to integrate academic language into your daily classroom practice,” says teacher Marine Freibrun on Minds-in-bloom.com. “Use the words in your objectives for other lessons, use the words in classroom discussions, and ask students to use them in their writing across disciplines. I also use academic language tickets to have students practice their words after lessons have been taught. I use them for tickets out, as morning work, or as independent practice. Just because you teach the lesson, doesn’t mean you or your students are done with the word. It’s important to continue the practice throughout the year.”

Use resources for support.

Mainstream teachers should feel comfortable relying on other teachers or resources to help ELLs in their classroom.

“It is imperative that mainstream teachers continue to use professional development opportunities in order to enhance the necessary skills needed to work with ELs,” Schmick says. “If this is not possible for them, they can also use their ESL teacher as a resource for their own classroom. ESL teachers are there to not only help ELs succeed but to help classroom teachers with the challenges of educating ELs.”

Resources such as Continental’s TEAM Toolkits: Teaching ELLs for Academic Language Mastery can be useful go-to supports when it comes to academic language and ELLs. The kits feature structured activities in listening, reading, writing, and speaking to help English learners develop grade-level academic language skills.
Schmick adds that now more than ever, it’s important for mainstream teachers to understand their role in supporting ELLs in their classroom because some states are changing regulations for English Language Learners.

In Pennsylvania, for example, parents are now allowed to opt their child out of ESL, although teachers are still obligated to provide students with ESL accommodations.

“This is something new for Pennsylvania,” she says. “Therefore, teachers need to provide these ESL accommodations to students who are exited. Now more than ever, academic language needs to be used in all classrooms to not only meet these requirements and regulations but to help these ELs succeed in the mainstream classroom.”

How do you help ELLs with academic language? How do you collaborate with other teachers to ensure ELLs have academic language success? Let us know!

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