Equity & Diversity

Research Advancing on ‘Academic English’

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 06, 2007 1 min read

The sophistication level of talk about what kind of “academic English” immigrant children need to know to do well in school has come a long way since Canadian researcher Jim Cummins first identified the difference between “social English” and academic English in 1980.

Generally, education scholars view social English as what children speak on the playground or in the cafeteria, and academic English as what they use to learn new knowledge and skills in the classroom.

Alison L. Bailey, an associate professor in psychological studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, is the editor of a new book, The Language Demands of School: Putting Academic English to the Test, published by Yale University Press, that moves the discussion of academic English several steps further.

Allison Bailey

Ms. Bailey and Frances A. Butler, a retired researcher from UCLA, spell out a “framework” for academic English that they hope will be used by test developers to create the English-language-proficiency tests that states are required to administer to English-language learners under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. (“New Era for Testing English-Learners Begins,” July 12, 2006.)

The researchers also hope the framework will be picked up by educators developing curricula for English-language learners and their teachers.

The researchers’ work describes various aspects of academic English, including a determination of what school language is appropriate for certain grades or clusters of grades, and identification of a “common core” of language in school that cuts across subjects.

Another characteristic of academic English is language specific to certain subjects. For example, when the researchers examined the science-content standards for elementary school students of four states, they found that the words analyze, compare, describe, observe, and record are used in all of them.

Ms. Bailey writes that before enactment of the NCLB law five years ago, tests of English-language proficiency focused only on social or general uses of English. Now, states are starting to implement tests that measure the kind of English “aligned with the discourse of the classroom, textbooks, educational standards, and content-area assessments.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2007 edition of Education Week

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