How to foster rich academic language

Academic language—the vocabulary and phrases we use to talk about what we are studying, such as “factor,” “amendment,” or “gerund”—begins early in a student’s life.  “Add” and “subtract” are academic words.  So are “vowel,” “consonant,” and “syllable.”

Today it seems there are more academic language words than when I was a student.  “Digraph” was a word I didn’t learn until I was an adult.  I didn’t need it.  As a student, I learned “blend” which meant both blends and digraphs.  I learned “evaporate” in high school when I studied the water cycle for the first time.  But my four-year-old grandson was taught evaporation in his preschool.  He explained: “The rain comes down and then it goes back up again.”

What can we do to help our youngest students become comfortable with academic language?  According to researchers Friedberg, Mitchell, and Brooke* we can do plenty.

We can foster a language rich environment, whether at home or in the classroom.  We can use precise, adult words which are just as easy to learn as “baby” words.  “Explain what you see.”  “What can you infer about the feelings of Cinderella?”

We can teach essential vocabulary, and repeat those words often so that students learn them.  “Before,” “during,” “next” and “after” are essential to describe sequences.  Synonyms and antonyms need to be taught.  “Sufficient” means “enough.”

We can teach words showing shades of meaning.    An “incident” is a small “event.”  A “catastrophe” is a big “problem.”

We can teach content area words.  In a math class, we can teach “addend” and “sum.”  In a reading class, we can teach “sentence” “fragment” and “run-on.”

We can model the use of academic language.  We can say “spider” and “insect,” not “bug.”

To reinforce meanings, we can show photos, draw pictures and use diagrams.  We can post graphics on the refrigerator or bulletin board for students to scrutinize up close.

As students become a bit older, we can teach root words, prefixes and suffixes to show word relationships.  “Un” means “not” so “unhealthy” means not healthy.  “Ful” at the end of a word turns a noun into an adjective, so “grace” becomes “graceful.”

We can model self-monitoring of comprehension.  We can read a sentence or a paragraph and then paraphrase aloud what we just read to prove we understand it.

*“​Understanding Academic Language and its Connection to School Success​” (Friedberg, Mitchell, & Brooke, 2016).




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