What History Teachers Need to Know about Academic Language to Teach English Language Learners

Article excerpt

Abstract

This article describes what history teachers need to know about the demands and expectations of academic language in their specific discipline in order to address the needs of English language learners (ELLs). The article focuses on three key academic language patterns in history: abstraction, agency, and cause.

Academic content is constructed in language that differs from the language we use every day to communicate with each other (Schleppegrell, 2004). Students need opportunities to develop this language in school and the classroom is a place where students can learn how language participates in constructing knowledge in different content areas. History is a content area that presents challenges to students. School history is presented in textbooks and primary source documents in dense and abstract language. To develop their content knowledge in history, students have to read difficult texts and engage in discussion of complex issues (de Oliveira, 2008). They also have to be able to distinguish the historical interpretations that are built up in every text they read in the history classroom. These are difficult challenges for all students, but particularly for English language learners.

The work presented here originates from my involvement with the California History-Social Science Project. Working closely with teachers and historians, I assisted in the development of a "literacy in history" approach for in-service professional development. The approach draws on a meaning-based theory of language, Halliday's systemic-functional linguistics (SFL) (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004), a theory that does not separately address language and content, but instead sees language as the realization of meaning in context (Schleppegrell & de Oliveira, 2006). The main goal was to help teachers become aware of the challenges of the discourse of history and make grade-level content accessible to English language learners and other students who may struggle with academic language. This work made apparent that developing teachers' knowledge about academic language features specific to the content area of history was instrumental as they learned more about how to develop their students' literacy skills while focusing on historical content.

This article draws on this extensive work to describe what history teachers need to know about the demands and expectations of academic language in their specific discipline in order to address the needs of ELLs. To better equip them in supporting the content development of ELLs, history teachers need an understanding of the pervasive role of language in learning the specialized knowledge of history.

Academic Language in History

History has its own ways of using academic language. History textbooks, in particular, pack a lot of complex information within a single paragraph. Because of this, history teachers may feel the need to have their ELLs read less than other students, use different ways of presenting some of the same information to ELLs through graphic organizers, or simplify some texts for ELLs. While these ways of presenting information to ELLs may be helpful for them at very low levels of language proficiency, ELLs still have to deal with the reading challenges of complex language in textbooks. They also need to be prepared for the assessments mat are not simplified or represented visually for them. Therefore, ELLs must have access to this complex academic language in history. Otherwise, as teachers, we are doing a disservice to them by not preparing mem to read this academic language. Therefore, history teachers must understand how academic language is used in their discipline so they are able to assist their students, and particularly ELLs, to access this discipline-specific language.

Different linguistic patterns are prevalent in history discourse. The use of abstraction to generalize from particular events enables the history author to name things, places, or ideas. …