Academic Language Preparation Is Key to College Readiness

Ensuring that every student is well equipped with the linguistic resources to tackle grade-level curriculum and assessments in the college readiness era is admittedly daunting. Academic language proficiency is widely recognized as a pivotal factor in the school success of English learners, and it has often been cited as a major contributor to achievement gaps between language minority students and English proficient students (Francis, Rivera, Lesaux, Kieffer, & Rivera, 2006). Students who use dialects or regional varieties of the English language that differ strikingly from the language of school are similarly disadvantaged from the outset (Craig & Washington, 2004). Every child is AELL, an academic English language learner, including those from a professional home in which language usage maps more readily onto classroom contexts. However, youths with limited academic English proficiency, primary language delays, or nonstandard dialects will arguably have more acute and compelling academic oral language priorities as schools embark upon college readiness coursework.

Teachers as academic language role models: Leveling the playing field

One concrete and manageable way to begin addressing student language needs is to launch a school-wide academic English register campaign. Instead of focusing immediately on faculty discussions of students' linguistic challenges or attributes, we can turn our attention to teachers' and administrators' adept and consistent modeling of academic English language. When classes are comprised of students with differential exposure to advanced English vocabulary and sentence structures, it becomes all the more vital for teachers to serve as proficient and unswerving academic language models. In many schools, English learners and struggling readers are surrounded by classmates equally challenged by academic language norms and conventions. For these under-performing students, the only reliable context for rich and varied exposure to spoken English is the classroom. Teachers can facilitate advanced English acquisition by serving as an eloquent and articulate user of both academic and social language. Using complete sentences, precise vocabulary, and a more formal register during lessons will model appropriate classroom language and create a supportive climate for academic language production and experimentation.

In my role as a school consultant and instructional coach on academic English language development across the nation, I have become acutely aware of the countless register shifts students experience throughout the course of a school day. Many teachers segue routinely from academic language use to casual vernacular, making it taxing for neophyte academic English speakers to get a handle on school-based language forms. As an illustration of instructional code-switching, consider the linguistic impact when a teacher sets up a collaborative task in this manner: "OK, you guys. I need you to get in your groups right now and make sure you've got all your stuff out so you don't need to go back and get things later and bother anyone. Alright kids, let's look at your job. I need everyone to read the directions with me: Identify the most convincing evidence provided by the author to support his claim that cyberbullying is not adequately controlled on high school campuses." Referencing students informally as "you guys" and "kids" cues informality as does use of imprecise terms like "stuff, "things," "bother" and "job." Transitioning from processing verbal directions posed in familiar social register to digesting written directions and texts framed in sophisticated academic register is tantamount to a linguistic whiplash.

The impact of code-switching: How students benefit from understanding register

Chronic instructional code-switching serves as a confounding linguistic model; It also inadvertently prompts more informal student language use. When we address students during lessons using a familiar register, we tend to relax our physical stance and communicate nonverbally that we are interacting casually, triggering a reciprocal informal student response. Nonverbal cues often accompany informal instructional register, such as approaching a single student within a lesson and speaking tête-á-tête or sitting on a table with crossed legs while inviting additional contributions from the unified class.

As purveyors of the language of school, teachers across the K–12 spectrum must assume responsibility for exposing their vulnerable charges to the most articulate and imitable variety of English that will advance their command of academic register. Serving as a viable academic language mentor begins with comprehending and successfully communicating the meaning of register. A register is "the constellation of lexical (vocabulary) and grammatical features that characterizes particular uses of language (Schleppegrell, 2001). In layman's terms, a register is the word choices, sentence types, and grammar used by speakers and writers in a particular context or for a particular type of presentation or writing. In student-friendly terms, a register is the way we use words and sentences to speak and write in different situations or for different reasons.

Introducing the term register to K–12 students at any age, with accessible examples, helps to concretize a potentially alien concept. Today's digitally savvy secondary students easily grasp the differences between the language they would hastily write to send a personal text message (abbreviated everyday words and phrases, incomplete sentences, emoticons) and the more formal tone, complete sentences, and precise vocabulary they would send in an email message to a strict teacher. Elementary school students easily comprehend the distinctions in the ways we would ask a grandparent, minister, or principal for assistance as opposed to how we might ask a sibling or close friend. Young language scholars in every grade tend to immediately relate to analogies with formal and casual clothing choices. They recognize the inappropriateness of appearing at a family wedding, church service, or formal dance attired in clothing more suitable for weekend chores or playing outside after school with neighborhood friends.

Discussions of register with students should be at once direct, nonjudgmental and respectful. At no point should an educator ever imply that home use of language is anything less than appropriate. In fact, the term "home language" is best left out of this candid conversation altogether. Students need to rest assured that having an agile command of "everyday English" is absolutely imperative if they wish to have friends and intimate relationships. It is the rare individual who prefers to interact regularly with someone who only utilizes formal academic English. Further, "everyday English" varies from one community to another and moving fluidly within home and school environments warrants being sensitive to language uses in different contexts. Clarifying register distinctions with age-appropriate contrasting terms helps learners at successive language proficiency and age levels continue to grapple with this essential linguistic concept. This table offers some category comparisons to get the discussion started.

word table

Dr. Kinsella recently presented a webinar on this topic as part of our Lead the Way to Literacy Leadership Talks. View the recorded webinar and register for additional presentations from our literacy thought leaders.