Daily Academic Language Development

Five minute mini-lessons designed to expose learners to high-frequency academic language.

By Jill Clark

Open book

Academic language is the language used in a classroom setting. It is used during instruction, in textbooks, on tests, in educational videos, and in other supplemental educational materials.  Although many students may proficiently use English in social interaction, understanding the common and technical vocabulary associated with academic language is a whole different skill set. Pupils need academic language to access vital information and grasp content standards. Teaching high-utility and high-frequency academic words in just minutes a day is an effective way to familiarize students with vital vocabulary without using a tremendous amount of instructional time.

The words you choose for study can strategically align with the standards being addressed in your class' coming lessons. For example, if the standard being addressed involves the scientific method, vocabulary like evaluate, analyze, categorize, and/or research may need to be introduced before the lesson begins.  (The Academic Word List, Averil Coxhead, 2000 is also an excellent resource for teachers to use when choosing which specialized vocabulary words to introduce)

Five Minute Academic Language Activities

  • Academic Word Wall and Journal

One way to incorporate academic language into your classroom is with words of the week. Introduce learners to words that will be needed to access content in language arts, science, social studies, or the humanities in up-coming lessons. You can also choose words from the Academic Word List. When you are introducing the words, include the definition, part of speech, and a model of how the word is used in a sentence. You can even have pupils think of a picture that represents the word. Once the meaning is presented, it's time to practice! Students can keep a personal vocabulary journal or you can designate a place in the room for a Word Wall. Offer extra-credit or positive reinforcement when pupils use a target word during the week; either in their speech, or in their written work. 

  • Show Me What You Know

Divide the class into small groups or pairs. Each group should have a white board or a piece of paper.  Referencing the Word Wall or their journals, each group uses the academic vocabulary words to create sentences without letting the other teams read or hear their ideas. The sentences should show that they understand the meaning of the academic vocabulary. (Sentence frames or word sorts could be used for differentiation or to stimulate ideas.) Give each group an opportunity to share their work and/or award teams with points or prizes for correct usage. 

  • Clues

Have one child stand with his or her back facing the white board. This person is the detective. Next, write one of the words on the board so that the detective cannot see it, but the rest of the class (the townspeople) can see it. In order to solve the mystery of the academic word, the townspeople provide clues. They take turns offering clues to the detective so that he/she can guess the word. The townspeople may use definitions, synonyms, antonyms, or sentences as clues. They may not say or spell the word. When the detective correctly guesses the mystery word, switch detectives and repeat the game for other previously learned academic words.

  • Ticket out the Door

After wrapping up a lesson, administer some sort of quick formative assessment as a "ticket out the door."  Gauge students' understanding of the target vocabulary before transitioning to recess or leaving for the day. One way to do this is to use a worksheet. Quick assessments could include a fill-in-the-blank or matching worksheet, a word-definition sort, or a crossword puzzle with definitions. Wait by the door while learners complete the worksheet. Once they are finished, they can give it to you as a ticket out the door. You can also stand by the door and ask assessment questions. When a student answers a question correctly, he can proceed out the door to the next activity. 

  • Words in Context

Give your class ample opportunities to read and/or listen to the academic words in the context in which they might encounter them in the academic setting. You could do this through a short excerpt from a textbook or an article that uses the word.  Depending on proficiency level, the excerpt could be read individually, in pairs, or the class can listen to it read aloud. Check for understanding by pointing out the sentence with the target vocabulary word. Ask pupils to paraphrase the sentence in their own words. Remember, this is meant to focus on vocabulary and be completed in five minutes, so keep the text selections short. This also is a time where you can preview brief sections of articles or a textbook chapter you will be using later for content teaching.

  • Retirement Celebration

Once the words have been taught, practiced, and assessed, it's time to retire them! Create a retirement home where old words can be stored and revisited for periodic review. Students are always excited to retire words and watch their list of learned words grow throughout the year. Revisiting these words is a great sponge activity. 

Five minutes is not a significant amount of class time, but taking these minutes for brief academic language instruction can have lasting rewards. Rather than having to grapple with vocabulary and content in a lesson, learners become more centered on mastering the content because the vocabulary has already been presented and practiced.

Engaging Lessons to Help Facilitate the Use of Academic Language:

Science Vocabulary Game

Play a memory game with science vocabulary words. Build understanding and retention of new vocabulary words by setting up a matching game for your learners to play in small groups of three to five pupils. A basic variation on memory matching games, this type of learning is always fun for students. It also really does help them remember vocabulary!

Vocabulary Development

Have your class try some different vocabulary strategies. They use vocabulary logs to record strategies they have been taught, such as the Frayer Model (definition, picture, examples, non-examples), writing their own definitions, and using sentence stems to describe a word. They can use these strategies for vocabulary that is introduced in any subject. Reproducibles are attached.