School & District Management

Innovation: Web Tool for Finding ‘Academic’ English

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 22, 2009 1 min read

While Catherine Snow, an education professor and reading expert at Harvard University, has been developing Word Generation, a free Web resource to aid teachers in supporting students to learn “academic” language, Kenji Hakuta, an education professor and expert on English-language learners at Stanford University, and his doctoral students have been developing WordSift. School Library Journal recently featured the Web tool.

Try it out yourself and you can skip the rest of the explanation in this blog post.

The digital tool permits one to paste any text into a space and, with a click on “Sift,” see which words are “academic” words, or school words. As you know, a huge focus in instruction for English-language learners—and all students, for that matter—is to support them in learning “academic English,” the kinds of words they need to understand school lessons, in contrast with the more conversational language they use at recess or in the cafeteria with their friends.

What’s more, WordSift also provides immediately sets of images that correspond to the words in the text. A student can click on that word and pull up images to get a better understanding of the word.

I pasted in the first few paragraphs of this CNN story about how some high school students in Elkhart, Ind., are struggling to pay for the costs of graduation activities. Wordsift told me that “economic,” “principal,” “required,” and “traditional” are academic words.

What’s key here for English-language learners, I believe, is that students can pull up images to illustrate a word, not definitions. The image may be easier to digest, I can imagine, than more words that explain the word the student is trying to understand.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.