Create a Community that Promotes Academic Language

Set your elementary, middle, and high schoolers up for success by implementing a variety of strategies to build academic language.

By Stef Durr

group of students

There are certain items that high schoolers need to know before they reach college. They need to analyze text in English class, be fluent in fractions in math class, and be able to conduct basic experiments in science class. But what if they can’t understand the academic language used to describe these processes and, as a result, can’t apply this language themselves?

Academic language is becoming a focal point in education as it has been recognized as something we need to develop in our students, starting in elementary school, strengthening in middle school, and rounding out in high school. If our high schoolers can’t apply these vocabulary terms fluently, it could prevent them from reaching success in school and beyond. Start building an academic language bank early to give your kids the tools they need to succeed in college.

What is Academic Language?

Academic language is an umbrella term that includes both the language used across subject areas (ex. analyze, synthesize, hypothesis, etc.) and content-specific vocabulary, or words that are bound primarily to one subject area (ex. alliteration and personification in an English class). It is different than the everyday, informal, social language that we use with our family and friends. It is more formal and commonly used in both academia and professional realms. Developing your students’ skills to both understand and use this type of language in your classroom should be an objective each year.

While this list is in no way inclusive, here are some of the non-domain-specific vocabulary words you might want to define and continually revisit in your classroom. Ensure that your learners are capable of both understanding and applying these words as they progress through their pre-collegiate education:

Bloom’s Related Words

These are words you might use when asking your class to apply their content knowledge. If your class doesn’t understand these words, their assessment scores might not align with their actual content knowledge:

  • Justify
  • Evaluate
  • Represent
  • Compare
  • Examine
  • Illustrate
  • Restate
  • Classify
  • Compose
  • Summarize
  • Memorize
  • Differentiate
  • Assess

Transition Words

Transition words link ideas and help readers, writers, and speakers understand the information provided in a logical way:

  • To begin
  • Initially
  • In addition
  • Furthermore
  • Including
  • Similarly
  • On the other hand
  • Alternatively
  • Consequently
  • In other words
  • In conclusion

Accountable Talk

These phrases, sentences, and questions can be used to guide discussion among partners or groups. Using these stems can help a speaker present clear ideas:

  • In my opinion
  • I would like to add on to that idea
  • I noticed that
  • Another example of that is
  • I politely disagree because
  • I hear what you’re saying, but
  • A better solution would be
  • Can you say that in a different way?
  • What evidence supports your idea?
  • Can you give me another example?

How Can I Teach Academic Language in a Purposeful Way? 

Developing your class’s academic language doesn’t have to add a lot planning on your part. Encourage your school to focus on academic language as a common goal, and the consistency throughout your school will help keep kids accountable for developing this vocabulary. Here are some ways you can build this development into both your classroom and your school:

  1. Require complete sentences at all times, in all classrooms. Whether learners are answering a question, agreeing or disagreeing with a previous statement, or taking notes, requiring complete sentences is an easy way to improve their language. 
  2. Create a word wall in your classroom. You might color code this word wall to distinguish academic vocabulary from content-specific terms, or you could ask your kids to categorize the words as a language activity.
  3. Use synonyms for the academic vocabulary you’re using in your classroom, and then ask your class to provide you with a better vocabulary word. For example, if you’re going to have students analyze a poem in the next activity, tell your kids that they are going to explore a poem. Then, ask your class for a better way to say explore. Provide bonus points, candy, or some sort of class recognition when your learners can correctly identify the academic vocabulary word you’re looking for.
  4. Provide sentence stems, or frames, to get all kids using the same academic language on a regular basis. For example, when asking your class to provide text evidence, ask them to use the following sentence frame to familiarize themselves with the term text evidence: The text states, “                            .” This text evidence supports the claim because…
  5. Require learners to use accountable talk while working in pairs or groups. Consider posting a list of these phrases either on the board, or paste a short list at every table.
  6. Make it an expectation for learners to explain their answer choices. Never accept a simple answer. Continually push your kids to explain their answers, or call on additional students to do it for them (and involve the rest of the class!).
  7. Require your pupils to write with some of your academic vocabulary on a regular basis. Consider identifying 3-4 keywords kids need to use in a summary or while explaining an answer. Note: these key words change depending on the assignment.
  8. Spend time studying words. Consider teaching a word of the day, spending time deconstructing words in class, or using the Frayer Model to fully define and familiarize your class with a new idea, word, or concept.
  9. Post academic language around the school whether it’s in bathroom stalls, at the water fountain, or on the wall where students line up for lunch. The more kids are exposed to these words, the more they will internalize them.
  10. Spend time restating questions using informal, everyday language. Consider pulling up a few questions off your state’s released testing items, and ask your learners to restate each question (and maybe even answer) using their own words.

When scholars have the same high expectations in each classroom, they are more likely to internalize these vocabulary words. How do you, personally, build this academic language in your classroom? Are there any school-wide strategies that are particularly beneficial to your learners? The Lesson Planet community would love to hear how you’re developing these skills in your elementary, middle, and high schoolers.