Academic Language

Language Development

The development of language, upon which all learning is built, plays a critical role in students’ ability to acquire strong literacy skills, including reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing and presenting. From birth through age five, language development is incidental and follows a natural and unconscious process resulting from interactions with family and community members. Opportunities to play, practice and receive feedback on use of language is critical to establishing a sense of who we are, how we relate to other people, and confidence to interact in new settings.

The language developed at home or in the community from birth through five years often follows a more narrative structure as compared to the structure students first encounter in a school setting, which is explanatory with lots of question and description. Use of explanatory and questioning structures varies depending on a student’s experiences and whether parents and community members try to present these types of opportunities.

It is critically important to understand that development of requisite language to navigate school, academic thought, and academic content is about opportunity, practice, and feedback. Students’ opportunities play a much larger role than socio-economics, first language, or disability.

Additionally, the ways that speaking and writing are context-dependent are called registers. Registers exist in every language, the most common of which are informal and formal. Informal language interactions are two-way, allow for vague terms, and provide little to no background knowledge. Interruptions, slang, and lack of background are acceptable. The language developed at home or in the community from birth through five years often follows a more narrative structure and provides more informal than formal language opportunities. At home or in the community, the typical language register is informal.

Language needed to navigate school and work settings is typically in the formal register. Formal language uses more specific and technical vocabulary, requires different syntax, and varies in discourse structure. Interactions are primarily one-way and do not allow for interruptions. The words, syntax, and grammar used by a student at home or in the community can be very different from that which is used with a teacher, co-worker, girlfriend or boss.

Students, regardless of economic and ethnic background, who have experience in a variety of registers including narrative, explanatory, questioning, and argumentative structures, have a greater likelihood of successfully navigating school and academic context. Language use may change from one situation to the next.

Vocabulary used in the home and community setting usually stems from oral discourse. It may rely on a narrower range of vocabulary and concepts than in a school setting. The more life experiences, conversations rich in vocabulary, and opportunities for questioning and explanation children live through, the more opportunities they have to practice the language needed to do well in school.

Practicing speaking, writing, and comprehending what is said and read according to context, allows students to use, make errors, gain feedback, and improve their language abilities. Having more opportunities to experience many ways to use language in different situations not only expands students’ life-long sophistication, cultural, and personal identity, but also increases their facility with language in work and academic settings. In this sense, variations of English, multi-lingualism, and the ability to communicate in diverse contexts is an added benefit.

Schools have a unique opportunity to build the language skills needed to function in a school, workplace, and academic context if they provide the right opportunities and instruction.