How Do Students Develop Academic Language in Social Studies?

By Coleman, Rhoda | Social Studies Review, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

How Do Students Develop Academic Language in Social Studies?


Coleman, Rhoda, Social Studies Review


What does the research tell us?

This issue of the Social Studies Review is devoted to literacy and academic language instruction for all students in the History-Social Science, or Social Studies, classroom. According to the California English Language Arts Framework, academic language refers to the language of literacy and books, tests, and formal writing (California Department of Education, 2007). It refers to the sort of language competence required for students to gain access to content and that is essential for success in school and any career where they might encounter large and complex bodies of information and concepts. What is "academic language" and why is it so challenging?

In texts students are expected to read

for school, students usually do not have

an interacting author and audience.

They do not have the benefit of facial

expressions, tone, inflections, or

gestures. Without teacher assistance,

students can only rely on words on the

page to understand meanings that, in

face-to-face interactions, could be

conveyed through various non-verbal

means. Students must therefore acquire

the sorts of language skills that allow

them to understand, talk, and write

about abstract and cognitively

challenging concepts that make up

the core of academic learning.

(Goldenberg & Coleman, 2010, p. 92)

To be certain, academic language vs. conversational speech is not a dichotomy - there is an overlap. For example, while discussing unfamiliar content, the teacher may purposefully provide adequate background knowledge. Both lessons and text may make ample use of visuals such as charts, posters, photos and the like, to make the academic content more highly contextualized for the reader or listener. Teachers may use interpersonal cues such as gestures, speaking rate, pauses, and intonation to make the academic instruction more comprehensible.

The California English Language Arts Framework offers a visual of the components of literacy developed by John Shefelbine (California Department of Education, 2007, p. 23).

Focusing in on the comprehension side of this chart, we see that half of comprehension is made up of comprehension strategies, but sharing equal billing is academic language. In other words, academic language is equally as important to comprehension as is strategy use. What do we mean by academic language, other than that it is the language of books, tests and writing? Often we think of language as vocabulary and academic language as the content-specific vocabulary. However, the framework tells us that academic language has three key components of which vocabulary is only one. These components are: background knowledge, vocabulary, and syntax.

Background knowledge is a part of language because it is the knowledge of important topicrelated concepts critical for understanding reading. What students know about a topic before they read or are read to dramatically affects how much they understand. (California Reading and Literature Project, 2008). Often students just need the correct label for the concept.

It is important to know that academic vocabulary is not only the content-specific vocabulary words, but those vocabulary words that are transferable across the curriculum regardless of the content (e.g., however and consequently).

Syntax is a third key component. Academic language is more than learning content, or "technical," vocabulary. Systemic Functional Linguistics (Halliday, 1994 in Droga & Humphrey, 2005) has received considerable attention as another aspect of academic language. Systemic Functional Linguistics argues that it is the purpose of a text that most influences syntax and word choices. (Dutro and Moran, 2001 ; Schleppegrell, 2001 as cited in Goldenberg & Coleman, 2010, p. 93)

Here are excerpts from The California English Language Arts Framework (2007, p. …

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