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Academic Language: Everyone’s “Second” Language

National Writing Project

Being able to speak English fluently does not guarantee that a student will be able to use language effectively in academic settings. Fluency must be combined with higher order thinking skills to create an “academic language,” which allows students to effectively present their ideas in a way that others will take seriously. The author, an ELL teacher, describes her use of “protocols” (a cheat sheet of sentence starters) to build students’ cognitive academic language proficiency.

“Easing Shift to the U.S. is Goal” is an article by Seema Mehta. The author discusses the advantages and disadvantages of newcomer school[s].

The author states that there are arguments between the program supporters and critics. The supporters point out [that] the school[s] “offer a nurturing transition that helps prepare immigrant[s] students to attend traditional American high schools, and it helps them get used to life in [the] United States. And the students think learning in these programs makes them help each other.”

The critics, they think these programs block communication[s] between students of different races and cultures. They also point out [that] the “programs segregate immigrant students and deny them access to electives, after-school sports and other opportunities offered to students at regular schools.”

The author concludes that even though the critics still argue that schools do not do enough for students, the supporters say the [newcomer] program[s], with stronger academics and limited stays, at a traditional high school, [allowing] immigrant students to interact with English speaking peers.

This summary of a Los Angeles Times article was written by Shirley, one of my 10th grade English language learners, after six months of explicit teaching of academic protocols. Shirley had been in the U.S. for two years. How had she gotten to this level of academic writing?

When I started teaching as a Spanish bilingual teacher of third graders, I was charged with helping my Spanish readers make the transition to English reading. In helping them with this transition, I focused on contractions, cognates, vowel sounds and other discrete items of language that had been shown to help Spanish readers become successful English readers. But I came to believe that those discrete items weren’t enough. I found that I often had to help my students develop their thinking skills before they could analyze what the main idea or the details of a story were; or synthesize what a scientific experiment had demonstrated. These critical thinking skills are often referred to as HOTS — Higher Order Thinking Skills. James Cummins refers to the acquisition of academic competence, (which includes HOTS), by English language learners as Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) to distinguish it from Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS).

Studies have shown that in many English as a Second Language (ESL) classrooms, teachers often limit students to lower level questioning such as simple recall questions, i.e. What did the girl say?; What was she wearing? They limit the questions they ask to the lower level of questioning rather than challenging their students to critically engage with texts by asking questions at the higher levels of questioning: ie. Why do you think she said that?; What would you have worn to the party? and Why? All too often, school personnel assume that once a student has acquired BICS, the student will be able to use English effectively in academic settings. However, if English language learners are never engaged critically with the curriculum or taught to use higher order thinking skills, how can we expect them to effectively express themselves in academic settings?

In my classroom, my English learners could express what they wanted but something was missing. Their writing, even though I tried to infuse my lessons with HOTS, was still not very effective. I therefore asked myself, “Besides asking higher order questions to facilitate CALP, can the explicit teaching of oral and written academic protocols help students to achieve academic success?”

One of the most common myths regarding the acquisition of language is that once language learners are able to speak reasonably fluently, their problems in school are likely to be over. When a student can talk about a movie or discuss what they ate last night, it does not automatically transfer into better grades at school. This fluency merely reflects their acquisition of BICS. The ability to speak a second language, especially in conversational settings, does not guarantee that a student will be able to use the language effectively in academic settings or to acquire ALP.

Many believe that if we expose English language learners to HOTS, they will achieve CALP. I have come to realize that learning HOTS does not necessarily lead to CALP. English language learners need a third component to achieve academic success; they need to learn academic language. By academic language, I mean the language of power that will ensure that students express themselves in ways that people will listen to them and take their ideas seriously. Language that will also ensure that teachers assess their writing more positively. No one is born with the ability to use academic language; it is a second language for everyone. English language learners must be explicitly taught academic language and given consistent practice with it, as well as HOTS, in order to achieve CALP.

During the past year, I have made the explicit teaching of academic protocols a part of my teaching. After attending a staff development session with Dr. Kate Kinsella, I decided to focus on the academic protocols that she presented. I wanted my students to use academic protocols in classroom settings across the curriculum in all their classes. This article will discuss the protocols, how I infused them into my teaching, and some of the results that were observed with one of my students, Shirley.

I teach in an urban high school where 52% of the student body is Asian, while 47% is Latino. About 31% of the student population is classified as English Language Learners. During the past four years, I have taught a class called “Advanced Writing for English Language Learners”. This is the last class students take before they are placed in a regular English-only class. Students in the class range from freshmen to seniors. I have students for daily fifty-five minute periods.

I started the year by talking about language. I explained to my students why I believe that “language is power” and about the value of being able to speak and write effectively. We discussed social registers (i.e. the way you talk to your friends vs. the way you speak to the school principal) and this way, I introduced the topic of academic language. My students were interested and excited because they realized that it could give them power. I explained that I would be giving them papers to which they could refer when they were speaking or writing and that these papers were to be kept in a special part of their binders. I further explained that I wanted them to try and use what they learned in my class in their other academic classes and to report what happened when they did.

I then passed out the academic protocols sheets and told my students that these would be their “cheat sheets”. Protocols are sentence starters that can be used to scaffold the acquisition of academic language. When I asked the class to use academic protocols, they could refer to the sheet. I then modeled how the protocols could be used to report out from a group. For example, “The author stated that men had heart attacks more often than women. He explained that men did not often express their feelings. This is of significance because men die at earlier ages than women.”

My students sit in groups of four to facilitate cooperative group work so I asked them to discuss what they did over the weekend with each other. While they did this, I walked around and asked them to pick a 3x5 card with the number “1, 2, 3, or 4” on it. The number was placed in front of them while they continued their discussions. This strategy is called “numbered heads” and can be used when students are going to share out from a group.

After a few minutes, I asked that the student with the number 2 in each group (for example) stand and report about their group’s activities over the weekend using one of the protocols from their cheat sheets. I modeled how this could be done first, ie. Van mentioned that she went shopping. Moi added that he went to the movies. Shirley was among this first group to report. Shirley had come from Taiwan and like many of my students, never spoke in class. She was very hesitant about her English skills and rarely, if ever, smiled. One of her early papers had spoken of her anger about being brought to a country where she did not have friends nor the ability to talk to anyone. She represented the majority of my class. I had three Latino students, while the rest were from Taiwan, China, and Vietnam.

After this first reporting session, I asked the reporting students how they felt using the academic protocols. Shirley said, “Funny. It’s not the way I talk.” I then asked the listeners what they thought as they listened to their classmates using academic terms. Cindy immediately piped up, “They sound so smart.” Moi said, “It [don’t] sound like us.” I reminded them about the social registers we had discussed. We then listed some benefits in using academic protocols when we speak and when we write. I also emphasized that academic language is a second language for everyone. And I wanted to make sure that someone taught them this valuable language.

When I taught summary writing, I modeled writing a summary using the academic protocols on their cheat sheets. After they had copied my model, we practiced how we could use the various protocols. For homework, I asked my students to summarize a book or movie and to be sure to include three academic protocols in the summary.

The next day, I asked the students to do a “read around” with their homework summaries before they turned them in. I asked them what they thought about the writing they had shared. Their comments ranged from “it’s ok” to “they [the protocols] made our writing sound better.” Students also shared that the protocols had helped them to organize their writing and that looking at my model had helped them to really understand how summaries should be written. When students reflect on what they have done and why, they are practicing matacognition and this helps them to internalize what they have learned.

The poem, “Elena”, was written by Pat Mora. The poem is about a mother who was [try] to learn English and was try[ing] to help her children when they needed it.
The author discusses that this mother was embarrass[ed] when she couldn’t speak English correctly but her children could. She [trying] her best because one day her children would need her help.
The author concludes that mothers always think of their children, and they do whatever they can in order to help their children. The author also points out that people need to learn to speak the language of the country [where] they live.

— Summary written by Shirley after one month of working with protocols

As the year progressed, I had my students read and discuss articles from the Los Angeles Times newspaper. When I read their summaries, I was amazed at the difference the academic protocols had made in terms of helping to organize and to clearly express the students’ thoughts. Shirley’s writing was clear and concise while many had managed to reduce a summary from two pages to three paragraphs!

Throughout the year, I tried to use the “numbered heads” strategy, the academic reporting protocols as well as the summarizing protocols at least once a month with my students. I also asked them to try to use the strategies in their other classes.

By March, I had begun to see development in my students’ writing. Many were using the protocols in their writing without my urging. Members of the class were consistently writing better summaries and Moi, Cindy, and others were even joking and using the oral protocols when reporting to the class. Overall, I was happy with the results I was observing. Most of the students had progressed in their knowledge and use of academic language.

Shyly, hesitantly at first, but with growing confidence as the year progressed, Shirley had begun to smile and to greet me with a quiet “Good morning.” During the year, I often asked my students if they were speaking in their other classes. In April, Shirley admitted that she had been trying to speak in other classes and that it was “getting easier.” I asked her why. She told me that the monthly poetry recitals in my class and the reporting out from the group activities had helped her feel better about speaking in English. Students told me, “We need to practice our English but teachers don’t ask us to speak.” After further questioning, I realized that they were referring to the lack of “opportunities to speak” in other classes. As their teacher, I need to provide opportunities for my students to speak and to learn from each other, as well as opportunities to report on what is learned.

One of the ways I have attempted to do this is by having students share an opinion using academic protocols, before they leave my class. If we have been discussing or reading about intelligence, for example, I will write on the board, “Girls are/are not more intelligent than boys because… they think before they speak.” They can complete the statement any way they please as long as it makes sense and they use an academic protocol. I explain that we will do this once or twice a week to practice using academic language. I try to do it at the end of the period, and I either stand by the door and listen as each student completes the statement (and leaves) or do a “whip” around the room (and no one can leave until everyone has shared).

At the end of the school year when I asked my students to do an evaluation of the class, the two things that they mentioned most were how “using the oral protocols to report for the group was hard but they felt more confident about using English and speaking in their other classes.” They also felt that they could now do better summaries because “they could use academic language to say what they wanted.”

When I asked Shirley to comment on her writing and speaking during the year, she thanked me because “she hated talking and writing in English before, but the protocols helped.” She also added that “now I feel I can write a summary in any class.”

This year my students taught me that the use of higher order thinking skills and academic language protocols, when used consistently over time, can facilitate the acquisition of cognitive academic language proficiency. This in turn can lead to academic success for all learners, especially English language learners. Teachers of English language learners, at all grade levels, need to infuse their lessons with both Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) and academic protocols, so that all our students can be fluent in academic language, everyone’s second language!

Publication Date:

This National Writing Project article first appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of California English, the journal of the California Association of Teachers of English.