Special Report

Common Core Ratchets Up Language Demands for English-Learners

By Lesli A. Maxwell — October 28, 2013 6 min read
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No one is a native speaker of academic English.

As the formal written and spoken language of classrooms and professional workplaces, academic English often bears little resemblance to the social, everyday language one needs to communicate effectively in most situations.

It encompasses precise vocabulary, complex grammatical structures, and sophisticated forms of discourse. For English-language learners, acquiring academic language is often the highest hurdle to clear before they can be deemed proficient in English and be able to fully engage in the kind of rich and rigorous content necessary to succeed later in college and a professional work life.

But now that public schools in nearly every state are diving headlong this school year into teaching the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and literacy and mathematics, the demand for using more sophisticated language and practices such as analysis, persuasion, and comparison, to name just a few, is stronger than ever, educators and researchers say.

And it’s not just English-learners who may struggle with academic language. Many native English-speakers also fall short of grasping it because it’s not what they hear at home.

There are, of course, the more complex texts that all students are expected to read, analyze, and understand, with appropriate supports. There are the constructed responses that require students to use formal and content-specific language to answer questions verbally and in writing. There are the expectations that students, regardless of their proficiency level in the language, will be able to engage in formal debate and discourse and higher-level peer-to-peer discussions in their classrooms.

“Who is teaching them the language they need for these demands?” said Katherine M. Kinsella, an adjunct education professor at San Francisco State University and a frequent consultant to districts and schools on instruction for English-learners. “I think the average teacher is woefully underprepared for this.”

But must academic language be explicitly taught to English-learners and other struggling students? While some educators say it’s always been necessary and is even more so with the common core, others believe it’s more important for teachers to change classroom practices that have focused for too long on making sure students are getting certain components of language correct, such as grammar and vocabulary. That approach, some experts say, discourages many language learners from engaging more with English, especially orally, for fear of being corrected.

Focus on Concept

Some English-learner experts reject the term “academic language.”

“Really, what we are talking about are academic practices that embed language, things such as describing, comparing, and engaging in presenting ideas,” said Aída Walqui, the director of teacher professional development for WestEd, a San Francisco-based research group. Most teachers, she said, have a preoccupation with correcting students’ language when the attention should be first on whether students are grasping the conceptual language and academic skills.

“As soon as you put an emphasis on the language, then people start teaching grammar. The language gets chopped into pieces, and students don’t engage in it in a discourse form,” she said.

Defining Academic Language

Experts offer slightly different takes on what the concept means.

Academic language is:
the language of texts. The forms of speech and written discourse that are linguistic resources educated people in our society can draw on. This is language that is capable of supporting complex thought, argumentation, literacy, successful learning; it is the language used in written and spoken communication in college and beyond.

—Lily Wong Fillmore, University of California, Berkeley

Academic language is:
• the language used in the classroom and workplace
• the language of text
• the language of assessments
• the language of academic success
• the language of power

—Robin Scarcella, University of California, Irvine

It’s not academic language. It’s academic practices that embed language.

—Aída Walqui, WestEd

Academic language is:
the language used in textbooks, in classrooms, and on tests.


Academic language is:
the language used by teachers and students for the purpose of acquiring new knowledge and skills, … imparting new information, describing abstract ideas, and developing students’ conceptual understanding.

—The CALLA Handbook: Implementing the Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach

Academic language is:
the set of words, grammar, and organizational strategies used to describe complex ideas, higher-order thinking process, and abstract concepts.

—Jeff Zwiers, Stanford University

But because so many of the readings required in the common standards are informational texts—a major shift, especially in the early grades—many students, and especially English-learners and struggling readers, may come to these nonfiction selections with language voids for teachers to fill.

And that is what has Ms. Kinsella worried—whether teachers themselves have enough command of the language of informational texts, to name one example, to effectively teach and support English-learners.

She conducted a seminar with elementary teachers in a California district in September on this very point. Using photocopies of a chapter from an informational text, Ms. Kinsella asked the teachers to label various features of the article, such as captions, sources, and legends on bar graphs.

“Many of them couldn’t do it,” she said. “They didn’t know the terms. They know ‘main idea’ and ‘details’ because those have been the big thing in kindergarten through 6th grade for so long.”

The common core also calls for students to be able to cite evidence from the text, analyze it, and provide written and oral responses with sophisticated language. Providing such responses, Ms. Kinsella said, means students will need vocabulary and language that they may rarely hear a teacher use.

Students need to hear and read phrases such as “based on” or “I concluded that” and be given constant opportunities to use that language themselves with their classroom peers, she said.

“We’ve engaged in real benign neglect with English-learners and those students who come from generational poverty and families with minimal educational experience,” Ms. Kinsella said. “We as a profession have not done a very organized, systematic job of helping these students” progress to more formal ways of speaking and using advanced English.

Connecting the Dots

One of the biggest efforts to help teachers bridge those gaps as they begin using the common standards is the revamped version of English-language-proficiency standards shared by the 29 states in the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment consortium. The consortium, better known as WIDA, revised its five English-language-development standards to clearly show the connections between the content standards of the common core across every grade level and the academic language that will be necessary to teach across the varying levels of English proficiency.

In 1st grade, for example, the common core calls for pupils to “write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or name the book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply a reason for the opinion, and provide some sense of closure.”

The WIDA edition clearly spells out the grade-level vocabulary words and expressions that teachers should use—such as “fact,” “paragraph,” “topic sentence,” “main idea,” or “detail"—while teaching that writing standard to students at all levels of English development. The WIDA edition also offers example topics that are pulled directly from a content standard in the common core and provide teachers with the types of support and scaffolding of academic language that they need depending on students’ proficiency.

Guadalupe Valdés, an education professor at Stanford University who studies second-language acquisition, has a different take on academic language that stems from her view that language is not a set of structures that must be learned in a linear fashion.

She sees academic language as something that students, whether English-learners or not, acquire through exposure and experience in using a variety of language types in all settings.

Because the most common approach to teaching ELLs is to sequester them in classrooms with other language-learners and to focus so much on grammar and vocabulary, Ms. Valdés said they don’t get enough opportunities to hear and speak what she calls “rich English” with peers and other educators.

“You’ve got to let the kids play the game,” Ms. Valdés said. “If I want you to play basketball but I just keep you dribbling the ball the whole time without a chance to pass or shoot, you’re not likely to ever play the game very well. But if you get into the game, play it, and watch all that’s happening around you, you’ve going to have a much better chance at playing the game well.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as Language Demands Rise With Common Core


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