‘Academic English’ Seen as Key Skill

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 13, 2005 1 min read

Experts in language acquisition are giving new attention to a not-so-new concept: English-language learners need to move beyond knowing just “social English” to acquiring “academic English” to do well in school.

At two public forums held recently in Washington, educators described teaching strategies that help students do just that. They say academic English—in contrast to what students might use with friends in the cafeteria—is needed to read textbooks, write essays, and take standardized tests.

“Most English-language learners are not doing well in the content areas,” Robin Scarcella, the director of the English-as-a-second-language program at the University of California, Irvine, said in a keynote speech at a conference hosted Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 by the U.S. Department of Education. And the reason they’re not, she said, is that they don’t know “school English.”

Ms. Scarcella said academic English includes phrases that might be used in an essay, such as: “In addition, it can be argued …” or “This position asserts …” Abstract terms such as “approach” and “assume” are also on her list.

Her recommendations include teaching vocabulary to students before they read texts, teaching challenging grammatical structures, and showing students how English is used in different types of writing.

At a separate Dec. 6 forum sponsored by the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, Rain S. Bongolan, a teacher of U.S. history and government, listed six strategies that can help teachers speed up acquisition of academic English. On leave from her teaching job at Pajaro Valley Unified School District in California, Ms. Bongolan has helped frame the strategies at the New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

One strategy is to instruct students explicitly on such skills as paraphrasing or synthesizing. Another is to provide guided interaction between students, such as having them talk in pairs about what they are learning.

Ms. Bongolan said teachers of English-language learners need to use methods other than lecturing, so students can practice using academic English. “The secondary teacher needs to stop talking,” she said.