Academic Language
Leadership and Implementation teams that have conducted exploration activities related to developing academic language understand that the Installation stage requires a specific focus on helping teachers understand what it means to purposefully teach students to navigate the school and workplace setting using formal language. Educators should have opportunities to discuss and determine how to intentionally honor and build on a student’s home language or communication systems (e.g., American Sign Language, cued speech, braille, or program communication devices), while stretching students to engage in as many opportunities to use formal language as possible within a school day. Best practices suggest that students learn more and at faster rates when teachers actively seek to understand, validate, and build from students’ existing language competencies.

In the Installation stage, all staff members responsible for teaching the state English Language Arts (ELA) Standards across content areas will need intensive professional development (PD) in academic language. PD should take professionals’ current understandings and stretch them.

Essential components of PD in this case should include understanding the critical features of language development, valuing existing language, and understanding the implications of advancing language of multi-lingual learners. Staff development should cover all dimensions of academic language in a coherent manner, including discourse, syntax, and vocabulary. Staff will need time to examine existing opportunities to practice with language and to systematically expand those opportunities to practice and receive explicit instruction and feedback many times throughout the day and alongside the ELA standards.

Word knowledge allows students to comprehend text and use sophisticated specific word choices in writing and speaking. To meet grade-level benchmarks, students must have a command of what Beck and McKeown refer to as Tier 2 words. Tier 2 words convey specific connotations and describe specific details of concepts. Students encounter these types of words most often in print. They have specific meanings, and changing their morphology can cause students to misunderstand concepts or implied meanings. These words are used in multiple contexts, across content areas, and are a good indicator of a student’s progress through school.

Teaching tier 2 words will not be sufficient. Staff must understand how vocabulary takes on specific meanings within and across content areas. They must also know how syntax and discourse change by academic domain. Best practices suggest that teachers explicitly cross-walk multi-meaning vocabulary as well as how arguments are structured in each content area (for example, math as compared to history and science).

This includes understanding what to do when students do not have specific words from their home language or communication system they can use to build upon. For example, students need to conceptually understand important and useful words that help them understand a text (such as: character, setting, plot, even numbers, and concepts like weather or country).

Young students and English Learners need to master words that have connections to other words and concepts, such as: between, among, by, combine, and estimate. At every grade level, students need to understand general concepts of multiple-meaning words so that they can be used with precision and intention. Words such as: sets, tables (for math or science, or for a table of contents), windy, run, post, etc.

Finally, professionals must learn how to explicitly teach thinking skills. Professional development on how to teach students to think and communicate thinking should also be cross-disciplinary. A student’s cognitive abilities such as attention, working memory, and retrieval of previous learning can impact that ability to quickly process language and achievement.

Working memory is essentially what can be held in mind at any given time. Those students who are able to quickly and unconsciously understand language may be constrained in executing higher-order thinking skills not for a lack of ability, but because more of working memory is dedicated to processing the language. More exploration on how attention, working memory, and retrieval of previous learning will be forthcoming.

The Installation stage also involves creating language learning targets for vocabulary, syntax, and discourse that increase in sophistication from grade to grade. These learning targets should be understood and used across content areas as a foundation for discerning what student performance should look like. Learning targets can become the basis for designing formative assessments, units, and lessons that scaffold language and student evaluation criteria.

The Minnesota Department of Education, in collaboration with the Minnesota Language and Literacy Community of Practice, will continue to evolve a more comprehensive and systemic approach to screening, intervening, monitoring, and adjusting instruction to develop the requisite academic language skills ALL students will need to become college and career ready.

Resources for professional development are provided below. Administrators should note the importance of the selections for all learners even when the title includes English Learners as the primary audience.