Academic journal article Journal of Developmental Education

Theory to Practice: Cultivating Academic Language Proficiency in Developmental Reading Classrooms

Academic journal article Journal of Developmental Education

Theory to Practice: Cultivating Academic Language Proficiency in Developmental Reading Classrooms

Article excerpt

Research on the role that academic language plays in reading comprehension (Kamil, 2004; Lesaux & Kieffer, 2010), disciplinary thinking (Fang & Schleppegrell, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008), and overall academic success (Short & Fitzsimmons, 2007) has ushered in a wave of new educational reforms (NG A Center & CCSSO, 2010) designed to support academic language development across the disciplines. Academic language proficiency (Bailey, 2007; Nagy 8c Townsend, 2012) refers to the ability to understand and command the specialized language practices of the academic disciplines in order to learn, communicate, and participate in these disciplines. Academic language proficiency is especially vital at the postsecondary level since, as Francis and Simpson (2009) note, "if college students are to succeed, they need an extensive vocabulary and a variety of strategies for understanding the words and language ofan academic discipline" (p. 97). This rationale is embedded in the College and Career Readiness Standards for Language (NGA Center 8c CCSSO, 2010), standards that some believe are equally important for developmental education students (Tepe, 2014).

Although it is recognized that academic language plays an important role in reading comprehension, disciplinary thinking, and overall academic success, all college students have not been immersed in meaningful experiences with academic language (Zwiers, 2008). This can result in an achievement gap that can disproportionately affect students who are English Language Learners and students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged (Snow 8c Ucceli, 2009). Historically, developmental reading instructors have engaged in efforts to build academic language through an emphasis on vocabulary (Francis 8c Simpson, 2009; Willingham 8c Price, 2009). This research corpus has made important contributions to understanding vocabulary as a dimension of academic language at the college level, but new insights about the nature of academic language (Fang 8< Schleppegrell, 2008) present new possibilities for cultivating academic language proficiency in the developmental reading classroom.

For example, it is often believed that disciplinary texts are difficult because of the technical vocabulary or lexis. Although technical vocabulary is certainly a complicating factor of disciplinary texts, Halliday (1994) sheds light on some of the other challenges that academic language poses. He uses the term lexicogrammar to underscore the interconnected nature ofvocabulary and grammar The complexity of disciplinary texts is also related tc the grammatical features such as long noun phrases that can be difficult to break down and comprehend, such as "the unjust and problematic totalitarian regimes of the Axis powers." Indeed, when several long noun phrases are connected together, meaning making can become especially difficult.

If, as Halliday (1994) suggests, academic language involves both words and grammar, developmental reading students need a more holistic approach to academic language instruction. This will enable students to process, critique, and engage with the academic language they encounter while reading disciplinary texts.

The purpose of this article is to describe academic language through the lens of Systemic Functional Linguistics or SFL (Halliday, 1994), theoretical framework and analytical toolkit for examiningthe relationship between language, text, and context. This article will also propose implications for developmental reading instructors. SFI has been utilized by educators worldwide since the 1980s (Martin & Rothery, 1986) when the Sydney School of Genre began their pioneering efforts. SFL provides a metalanguage, or a language for talking about language, in order to "identify and expia i n d i fferences between texts, a nd relate these to the contexts of culture and situation in which they seem to work" (New London Group, 1996, p. 80). A metalanguage can help developmental reading students gain an awareness of how academic language operates within disciplinary texts. …

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