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Teaching Academic English Title III Resources

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--TESOL Articles

Teaching English Language: Overlooked Components of Mainstream Classroom Instruction

Julian Jefferies, Boston College,, and Maria Estela Brisk, Boston College,

Students learning English as a new language can develop substantial fluency in social and survival language through exposure to and interaction with an English-speaking community. This fluency in social and survival language usually develops rapidly, as children spend most of their day socializing with other children. But their exposure to academic language is limited only to school, and may be extremely limited if their ESL classes do not include academic language development (Chamot & O'Malley, 1994). This limited exposure limits the formal oral and written language these students can produce in an academic environment.

For this reason, English language learners are prone to use the everyday language that they know in lieu of the more formal academic language required in schooling. For example, for her essay entitled "Why Music is Essential to Life," Carolina, an English language learner, wrote

Music! There's different tunes, sounds and meanings. There's every type of music for many individuals. There's Bachata, Merengue, salsa, Reggae, Caribbean Reggae, hip hop, R & B, Rock & Roll, Metallic, and Romantic music, My favorite. So there you go any type of music you wanna listen too, you would have a great selection. (Brisk & Harrington, 2006, p.182)

Carolina's essay displays the characteristics of informal language: using incomplete and simple sentences (Music!), personal language (So there you go . . .), and vague determiners (There's every type . . .). Although perfectly fit for informal oral and written communication, Carolina's writing does not display the features of academic language needed to communicate in the context of schooling.

Teachers need to be aware of the forms that language takes in academic contexts, whether spoken or written. They need a better understanding of the features of this language, which is typically organized in patterns that are different from the organization and structure of informal language (Schleppegrell, 2004). Most important, teachers need to be explicit about the expectations of language use in the classroom, and this need should translate into clear language objectives for each lesson. Classroom language includes a continuum of registers, from the informal conversation among students, to the more formal presentation of ideas to the register required in written academic discourse (Gibbons, 2003).

The kind of academic language required to succeed in school can be introduced in the earlier grades, by making students aware from the beginning of the shape that language takes in formal settings. For example, even an activity such as making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich can be an opportunity for students to turn their focus on the language required to write a procedure: "First, take two slices of bread. Second, spread the peanut butter on one of the slices. Then, . . .". Teachers can focus, for example, on the imperative mood (take, spread) or on the temporal connectives (first, second, then . . .) needed to produce this kind of writing.

Academic language is not limited to just the English language arts. Especially for nonnative speakers, English is both a target and a medium of instruction: They are not only learning English as a subject in their language arts class, they are also learning through English in their content-based classes (Gibbons, 2003). In a content classroom, academic language is used by the teachers and in instructional materials to present and explain new information. Consequently, in order for students to succeed, academic language needs to develop at the same pace as the construction of curriculum knowledge in the content area (Chamot & O'Malley, 1994; Gibbons, 2003).

In mathematics, for example, students need to master specific syntactic structures in the language in order to understand concepts and be able to solve problems successfully. One of these characteristics is the lack of correspondence between mathematical symbols and the words they represent. For example, in order for students to understand the phrase "the square of the quotient of a and b," they must know that the first part of the expression (the square of) has to be translated last, and the second part (quotient of a and b) goes in parentheses to signify the squaring of the whole quotient (a/b)². At the same time, sentences such as "the number a is five less than the number b" prove confusing to students who are not familiar with this comparative structure, and who then confuse the equation a = 5 - b with the correct a = b -5 (Dale & Cuevas, 1992).

When it comes to language objectives, even a simple one such as "students will be able to report orally and in written form in correct complete sentences or phrases" can aid the language development of students. In a high school mathematics class, for example, the teacher focused on this objective for the whole class. Typically students would respond with one word, leaving it up to the teacher to provide a context for the word. Requiring a full sentence gave students an opportunity to practice language and to demonstrate knowledge and understanding. When a student gave an example of the term equidistant in the sentence "My shoulders have the same equidistant from my neck," the teacher used the opportunity to ask the students to think about the term as an adjective (equidistant) or a noun (equidistance), and to rephrase the sentence, asking them to reflect on the language needed to express the concept correctly—that is, "My shoulders are equidistant from my head." This example illustrates how teachers can help students pay attention to language explicitly in order to aid the understanding of mathematical concepts.

The academic language of the discipline is closely linked to the concepts the students have to master to be fluent in the subject. When hypothesizing about the results of a science experiment, for example, students need to be aware of conditional sentences in order to appropriately express these notions. Students need to be aware that conditional sentences express the dependence of one set of circumstances (the main clause) on another (the dependent clause). In addition, the dependent clause usually starts with the subordinating word if: for example, "If we put the north pole and the north pole together, they will repel each other." Thus, a teacher could present this sentence frame to students while they make predictions before doing an experiment.

Teachers need to find a way to talk about the language of their discipline in ways that help students to think about the linguistic structures needed for comprehension and production of texts. This does not mean that they must become English language arts teachers, as such a teacher will not be able to talk about the language of mathematics or other content areas; it means that they must be well versed in the structures that the language takes in their discipline. While paying attention to academic language, however, teachers should not forget about the context in which this type of language is appropriate, thus allowing students to use their everyday language, first language, and other registers, in order to make meaning.

Brisk, M. E., & Harrington, M. M. (2006). Literacy and bilingualism: A handbook for all teachers. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Chamot, A. U., and J. M. O'Malley (1994). The CALLA Handbook: Implementing the cognitive academic language learning approach. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Dale, T., & Cuevas, G. J. (1992). Integrating mathematics and language learning. In P. A. Richard-Amato & M. A. Snow (Eds.), The multicultural classroom: Readings for content-area teachers (pp. 9-51). White Plains, NY: Longman.

Gibbons, P. (2003). "Mediating Language Learning: Teacher Interactions with ESL Students in a Content-Based Classroom." TESOL, 37(2): 247-273.

Schleppegrell, M. J. (2004). The language of schooling: A functional linguistics perspective. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Retrieved from: periodic newsletter for TESOL members 6&nid=3077 on August 15, 2006.