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What is academic language?

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Academic language instruction is essential for multilingual learners to be able to access grade-level content. But many educators may be unclear on what academic language includes, how it differs from social language, and the best strategies to teach it to their students.

Leone is a fourth grade student who speaks Spanish as his first language. His class is starting a unit on weather, and he is asked to talk with his partner about what happens when temperatures are below freezing outside. However, Leone recently moved from Guatemala to the US and has never lived in a climate where it snows. Additionally, he has not yet learned the words “freezing” or “temperature” in English. He sits quietly while his classmates talk excitedly around him and tunes out the rest of the lesson.

This is a common experience for multilingual learners (MLLs):  academic language prevents them from accessing a grade-level lesson. Teachers can provide students like Leone with a more supportive learning environment, but they first need to understand the concept of academic language and its role in the classroom.

What is academic language?

Academic language is the language required to learn grade-level content - so all of the parts of communication MLLs need to understand and participate in a lesson alongside their peers. 

Let’s look at this example from a math textbook:

      When the denominator is greater than the numerator, this is a proper fraction.

Most would assume that the academic language example is the vocabulary word “proper fraction” being defined.

      When the denominator is greater than the numerator, this is a proper fraction.

However, the academic language required to understand this concept also includes:

  • All content-specific vocabulary (denominator and numerator must also be known or defined)

      When the denominator is greater than the numerator, this is a proper fraction.

  • Sophisticated sentence structures (the dependent clause “When the…” before the main clause “this is…”)

      When the denominator is greater than the numerator, this is a proper fraction.

  • Grammar (than vs. then)

      When the denominator is greater than the numerator, this is a proper fraction.

  • Discourse like analyzing, evaluating, summarizing or comparing (denominator value is being compared to the numerator value)

      When the denominator is greater than the numerator, this is a proper fraction.

The takeaway? Academic language is about a lot more than just vocabulary words.

      When the denominator is greater than the numerator, this is a proper fraction.

Academic language vs. social language

A multilingual learner may speak confidently in English at recess with their friends, but struggle to participate in a classroom discussion. This is likely because language learners tend to become fluent in social language much more quickly than in academic language, so as educators it is important to understand the difference.

1. The first thing we usually notice is the complexity of academic language compared to social language.

Academic Language         Social Language

Uses longer sentences and provides more explanation and examples

“The temperature continued to drop as the sun set, causing the water in the pond to freeze over and become solid.”

More direct and straightforward

“It’s cold outside.”


2. Academic language is often more rigid in its standards where social language is more fluid and flexible.

Academic Language Social Language

Word's definition doesn’t change

Freezing = be turned into ice or another solid as a result of extreme cold

Words have a variety of meanings 

“I’m freezing without a jacket”
“My computer keeps freezing”
“He was freezing up when he tried to talk”

3.  Finally, it presumes context that it may not provide, so your understanding often depends on what you already know about the topic.

Imagine each of these in a fill-in-the-blank question at the beginning of a fourth grade weather unit:

Academic Language Social Language

 “We saw cumulonimbus in the sky and knew it would soon ____” 

→ The academic language example requires prior knowledge or understanding that it doesn’t provide,  so a student unfamiliar with the term would likely guess incorrectly.

 “We saw big clouds in a dark sky and heard  thunder so we knew it would soon ____.”

→ In this example using social language, a student can easily solve for the missing word “storm” by recognizing the description of a common experience.

Find strategies for explicitly teaching academic language to multilingual learners.

At what age should academic language instruction begin?

Any age - the earlier, the better! Of course, academic language will look different to different age groups of students. Pre-K or kindergarten teachers may think that since their students can’t read yet, they’re not learning academic language. But in reality, they're learning the language of the kindergarten classroom, like “line up,” “first,” “last,” and “inside voice.” The language of providing instructions, ordinal words to describe a sequence, language to express complex thinking - all of these fall into the academic language bucket.

Many studies show that exposure to vocabulary of any kind at an early age supports stronger language proficiency later on. So it is important to create vocabulary rich learning environments from the beginning.

Why teaching academic language is important

Language can either serve as a barrier or a lever for learning, depending on the way it is addressed in instruction. If an MLL is not first taught what “freezing” means, they will not benefit from a discussion on why ponds freeze in the winter. If they learn this word prior to the discussion, they will be able to hypothesize along with their classmates.

Assessment questions tend to be packed with academic language that may make it difficult for students to know what they are being asked to do. Explicitly teaching academic language is crucial to ensuring MLLs can demonstrate their understanding and that we can accurately assess their knowledge. 

Additionally, knowledge of academic language outside the classroom allows us to communicate in a much wider range of situations and professional settings. For example, a mechanic needs to know how to fix a carburetor, but also how to explain to a customer who is unfamiliar with this term what it is and why it is necessary to get it fixed. Therefore, you can't become a mechanic without the ability to use academic language. Building students’ capacity for academic language now will also prepare them to be successful in their future.

Finally, it’s important to remember that all students are learning academic language as an additional language, even native English speakers - so every student will benefit from explicit instruction.

Common strategies to teach academic language

Here are a few common mistakes that educators make with academic language, and what to try in your classroom instead that will benefit all learners:

  • Instead of pre-teaching vocabulary with a list of words and definitions, introduce new language in content-related materials. Try using a video, an image like a meme or an infographic, or audio - something with meaningful context for introducing vocabulary.
  • Instead of a vocab quiz as the first chance for students to demonstrate understanding of academic language, build in opportunities for students to use the words before being tested on them. Make more space for discussions and set targets for what language you're expecting to hear so the language has a purpose for the students.
  • Instead of relying on a dictionary, create a language-rich classroom with the academic language that students are expected to use visible and accessible at all times, i.e.  posted on a word wall or other format with images and context. Students are therefore empowered to seek out and find a word for themselves and bring it into their experience.

Let’s go back to our fourth grade weather unit with Leone. His class is given the same assignment, but first the teacher shares a picture of icicles with the label “freezing” and shows pictures of a desert and a snowy mountain labeled “temperature.” Leone studies the images, turns to his partner, and begins to speak.

For more information on teaching academic language, schools who use Ellevation Strategies can access our module titled “Introduction to Academic Language.”

This article was written in partnership with Anamika Dugger, Instructional Content Specialist for Ellevation Strategies. Anamika has taught ESL, ELA, and writing for multilingual learners in the US, Middle East, and Asia, and is passionate about ensuring that all students have access to a high-quality, language-rich education.