New Teacher Advocate — KDP New Teacher Advocate Winter 2015
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Academic Language Development 3 Ways To Help Students Master Content
Andrea M. Honigsfeld and Maria G. Dove

Academic language is the language competence needed by all students to master curriculum content. It is the type of abstract and cognitively demanding language students must learn to understand new concepts as well as the complex information presented in the content areas. It includes the ability to recognize, internalize, and apply the unique ways language is used. Therefore, teachers must examine the word-level, sentence-level, and text-level features with their students.

Word-Level Features

Most teachers spend some instructional time teaching vocabulary. However, word selection and direct or indirect teaching methods vary by teacher. Consider the types of words that foster academic language proficiency:

• Discipline-specific vocabulary: density, hibernation, filibuster

• Cross-disciplinary words: analyze, compare, sequence

• Phrases and idiomatic expressions that are discipline-specific—conservation of energy, goods and services, greatest common factor— as well as cross-disciplinary—for good measure, heart of stone, piece of cake

Consider an approach to vocabulary teaching suggested by Marzano and Simms (2013):

  1. Offer a clear explanation or student-friendly description.

  2. Have students restate the definition or example in their own words.

  3. Make sure students create a graphic representation for words.

  4. Engage students in varied, motivating activities using the words.

  5. Create opportunities for students to discuss target vocabulary.

  6. Introduce students to games that invite them to use new words.

Sentence-Level Features

Examining text at the sentence level is essential for helping students to comprehend complex text as well as string together words into meaningful sentences. Consider the organization of the following sentences found in a science text:

  1. Cellular respiration is the process that releases energy by breaking down food molecules in the presence of oxygen.

  2. Lactic acid is produced in your muscles during rapid exercise when the body cannot supply enough oxygen to the tissues. (Miller & Levine, 2003, pp. 222 & 225)

Create for your students the grammatical frames that contain the discipline-specific words in these sentences:

• Sentence 1: __ is the process that __ by___ in ____.

• Sentence 2: __ is produced in during _____ when ____.

Student difficulties with comprehension and writing tasks often stem from their lack of knowledge of how words are combined in meaningful ways. The following strategy can help:

Set aside 8 to 10 minutes a few times a week to take students through a guided exploration of a carefully selected, complex sentence. This practice, called sentence dissection (Dove & Honigsfeld, 2013), or sentence cross-examination (Dodge & Honigsfeld, 2014), works best if the excerpt comes directly from a text being used for literacy or content-based instruction.

Text-Level Features

Text-level work takes into account the way in which sentences are organized to create cohesive paragraphs. Read the following excerpt taken from a biology textbook:

Although the energy yield from glycolysis is small, the process is so fast that cells can produce thousands of ATP molecules in just a few milliseconds. Besides speed, another advantage is that glycolysis itself does not require oxygen. (Miller & Levine, 2003, p. 223)

Examine the use of linguistic markers (in boldface)—signal words, synonyms, and transition words—to reveal the internal organization of this paragraph:

• Although is a transition word connecting this paragraph to the previous one.

• So fast, in just a few milliseconds, and besides speed are all connected as synonyms or examples of the same idea.

To conduct text-level work, use a four-step approach and a practical tool such as a graphic organizer adapted from Gottlieb (2011; see Figure 1): (1) Have students identify the overall purpose of the text; (2) highlight the key words and phrases that give the main idea of the selection or are essential for understanding the author’s message; (3) focus on a few, select sentence-level grammatical forms, such as verb tense or active-passive voice; and (4) examine the overall characteristics of the text with special attention to transitional words or other linguistic markers that help identify the genre or text type.

All content teachers need to be teachers of academic English and attend to the language of their disciplines with their students. Finding the time to incorporate literacy instruction into content lessons is a challenge. Yet, it is critical to find ways to support language and literacy instruction in all of your classes to enable your students to be successful throughout their education.


Dodge, J., & Honigsfeld, A. (2014). Core instructional routines: Go-to structures for effective literacy teaching, K–5. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Dove, M., & Honigsfeld, A. (2013). Common core for the not-so-common learner: English language arts strategies, grades K–5. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Gottlieb, M. (2011, November). From academic language to academic success. Workshop presented at the Iowa Culture & Language Conference, Coralville, IA.

Marzano, R., & Simms, J. (2013). Vocabulary for the common core. Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research Laboratory.

Miller, K., & Levine, J. (2003). Prentice-Hall biology. Upper Saddle River; NJ: Prentice Hall.

Dr. Honigsfeld is Associate Dean and Director of the Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership for Diverse Learning Communities at Molloy College. She has taught English as a Second Language to all ages. A Fulbright Scholar and sought-after national presenter, Dr. Honigsfeld is the coauthor or coeditor of more than 15 books on education and numerous chapters and articles related to the needs of ELLs.

Dr. Dove is Associate Professor and Coordinator of TESOL Programs in the Division of Education at Molloy College, where she teaches courses on best practices for developing effective programs for English learners. She worked more than 30 years as an English as a Second Language teacher. She and Dr. Honigsfeld coauthored Collaboration and Co-Teaching: Strategies for English Learners (2010) and Common Core for the Not-So-Common Learner: Grades K-5 (2013).