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What's Been Published About 'Academic English'?


The need for English-language learners to learn "academic English"—the language of the school, rather than merely the social English they might use on the playground or in the cafeteria— has been a hot topic for several years among educators of this group of students. But I keep hearing, and seeing on my visits to classrooms, that educators are struggling with how exactly to teach academic English.

The U.S. Department of Education has commissioned a review of research studies about the use of academic English at the secondary school level. The study was announced, along with two other studies about the education of ELLs, this past fall at a meeting of the LEP Partnership, which is a partnership between state and federal education officials to address the needs of ELLs. But I only just took a close look at a summary of what is to be examined in the study, and I think it's important to draw attention to it. Find a description of all three studies, posted by the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition, here.

The questions guiding the literature review on academic English include the following:
--Who is teaching academic English at the secondary level, and what training have they received?
--What is known about the level of "academic English" proficiency required for students at the secondary level to succeed on state academic content assessments?
--What rate of achievement is realistic to expect for [ELL] students at the secondary level in meeting English-language-proficiency standards? Academic content standards?

These are good questions for educators to be considering even before the literature review is published.


"Academic English" is vital for students in schools today. ELL learners need to begin to speak the language that they need when they are young if possible. Children learn more when they are submerged into the language that they are not familiar with. This is why learning a language is easier when you are young.

As a student moves up the ladder in school, it becomes harder for them to learn a different language and still do well in school. ELL students working with ELL teachers really helps those students along in their education. "There is no doubt that, when it comes to English acquisition, native-language instruction is part of the solution, not part of the problem." (Krashen & McField, 2005) Being taught how to speak English in your native tongue helps with the transition to the new language. Just hearing the English words in your own language helps the student to understand and comprehend what is going on.

Krashen, S., & McField, G. (2005, November/December). What works? Reviewing the latest evidence on bilingual education. Language Learner.
Used by permission of the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE).

The assumption seems to be that academic language is "taught." Missing is the any mention of the massive evidence that large amounts of self-selected reading is an excellent way of acquiring academic language.

I agree with Dr. Krashen, re. the importance of "self selected reading" as a tool for acquiring academic language. Another significant aspect, I think, is the importance of providing some background knowledge prior to jumping into an academic topic, some of which is cultural and is a missing element for ELL students. The dilemma I have found in working in an international school is that some times, the focus is on academic language with the social (BICS) being assumed but oftentimes sorely missed. Perhaps that's can be offered as a "side dish" if it has been missed in the "entree." Yah, but who, what, where, when?

I agree with Dr. Krashen as well, and am currently dealing with this situation in the middle school I teach in. Just today we had a workshop at our faculty meeting about the new ELL program we are going to be using in our school, which is a program called WIDA. The idea is to teach our ELL students about the academic english and its application throughout school and life as well. From what I saw today, they are expecting a great deal of vocabulary building throughout the curriculum, and although we have discussed this before in our meetings, my colleagues and I have not received any formal training. Honestly, I feel that this is a great disservice to our ELL students because the administration is telling us what we have to do, but is not offering any support on how to do it.

I now see how important it is for the student to have readings that they choose to read. I didn't really think about how much reading a book would influence their vocabulary and teach them the words that they will eventually need to know. I still think that they need to be taught and bombarded with work so that they can have a better understanding from both sides.

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