Strategies for Teaching Academic Language

Academic language is a second language to all learners not just EAL learners. Academic language is the language of our curriculum and needs to be taught through our mainstream subjects. In that way it gives our learners a really context in which to pin the new language that they are learning. It doesn’t matter what subject you teach or what topics you are covering you need to teach the academic language of the subject to your learners. If you do, then their understanding of how to write in particular styles and how to use academic language effectively will greatly improve.

What are some of the features of academic language?
Typical features of academic language will be things such as:

  • Connectives / conjunctions – Essential for improving the cohesion of a piece of writing, they also enable learners to link ideas together and give the reader direction to what has been written.
  • Nominalisation – The process of turning verbs into nouns (condense – condensation) allows writers to pack more information into a sentence.
  • Passive voice – is a common feature of academic writing, especially in scientific subjects. It contains structures with the verb to be + past participle (was drained).

These are just some of the key features of academic language and if our learners can develop their knowledge and understanding of these then it will greatly enhance their ability to use academic language. Classroom strategies that develop EAL learners control of academic language can greatly accelerate their control over academic language. There are a number of different ways in which our EAL learners can acquire academic language in fun and engaging ways.

Some of the best strategies that I have used for teaching academic language include:

Dictogloss has to be one of the best strategies that any teacher can use to teach academic language. The teacher reads a text and learners recreate what the teacher has read. The power of dictogloss comes when learners compare their text to the original. From my own experiences, learners often omit key language features of particular genres (typically academic language) and as a result of completing dictogloss they will have a better understanding of how to write in a particular genre (the genre that you want your learners to focus on).

Split dictation is also a great activity to model academic language. Learners sit face to face and dictate part or whole sentences to one another whilst the partner writes down the dictation. Split dictation sentences or paragraphs should be chosen carefully so that they highlight the academic language needed to write in particular genres. As a follow on activity you could get partners to highlight key academic language features of the genre that they have just dictated to one another.

Displaying Language Features – Certain academic language features will be more applicable to one genre than another. We need to ensure that our classrooms enable our learners to see successful models of language and that the language is used in context. For example, I would expect to see the language features of an explanation in science displayed in a Science classroom.

Odd one out could be used in that each line will have odd words / phrases out that do not correspond to the others. Of course, the choices made should model the academic language your learners are expected to use. An example of how I would use odd one out is when teaching, for instance, connectives that give examples, the choices I gave on one line would be ‘in addition, also, as well as, however’. As you can see ‘however’ is the odd one out.

I have used Quiz Quiz Trade as a fun and engaging way to teach academic language. Learners walk around the classroom quizzing each other on key academic language features. For example, you might have one learner quiz another by saying ‘Can you name any causal connectives?’ The partner will try to name causal connectives but if they cannot then the partner with the quiz card will be able to give them examples because they will have it written on their quiz card.

Running dictation involves placing sentences around the classroom and these sentences should model the academic features that you want your EAL learners to use. One student runs and reads a sentence, then runs back to their partner and dictates what they read whilst the partner writes down the dictation.

Snowball – I have used this fun activity a number of times to teach academic language. I have used snowball to focus on connectives or subject verb agreement. EAL learners love playing snowball and it is a great way for them to develop their understanding of academic language.

Substitution tables act as good scaffold for beginner EAL learners and can also be used to model academic language. You can vary the chunking of phrases or parts of a sentence depending on the proficiency of your EAL learners. For example, for beginners I might have less choices for them to make in a substitution table. Likewise for a more advanced bilingual I might have more choices for them to make and more advanced academic language.

Vanishing cloze can act as a good classroom strategy to develop your EAL learners control of academic language. Carefully omit key academic language features that you want your learners to focus on producing in their own writing.

There are a wide range of classroom strategies that can make the learning of academic language fun and engaging. Classroom strategies should model the types of language you expect your learners to use in the mainstream. The more creative we are with the way we teach academic language the better it will be for learners in our classrooms.

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