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Talking the talk

Social Language vs. Academic Language for ELLs 


Just because a child speaks proficient English does not mean that they have mastered the language needed to help them succeed at school. In “Academic Language for English Learners,” ELT Instructor Areli Schermerhorn, member of Syracuse Teachers Association, helps educators distinguish between social and academic language and how to promote academic language development in the classroom. “Academic language is basically the language of school,” said Schermerhorn.

The difficulty for educators is that English language learners often learn social language first. Students can carry a conversation demonstrating proficiency in English, and as a result, teachers may mistakenly believe that the students can handle grade level academic tasks without support, Schermerhorn said.

Here, she provides some specific strategies for educators who are working with English language learners:

1 - Learn the differences between social vs. academic.

Distinguish the differences between social and academic languages by looking at your texts or lectures and contrasting it with how students actually speak to one another. “Academic language can refer to content specific vocabulary such as ‘evaporation’ and ‘condensation’ when discussing the water cycle in science. It can also involve having conceptual understanding of the role of connecting words like ‘although’ and ‘except,’” said Schermerhorn. These advanced words or phrases are used often in school but may rarely come up outside of school, making it hard for students to practice them

2 - Becoming proficient in a new language takes time.

With all the proper supports in place, mastering social English can take as long as 3-5 years, and gaining proficiency in academic English takes even more time, as much as 7-9 years, said Schermerhorn. Be patient with your students.

3 - Listen, speak, read, write.

When learning new phrases and concepts, build students’ fluency by giving them the opportunity to practice the new material in all four domains: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Sometimes they may be stronger in one domain than another..

4 - Scaffold lessons based on what students already know.

“Design lesson activities that are strategically sequenced to promote the development of academic language,” said Schermerhorn. Begin with what students already understand, and then make a connection with what they are about to learn. Pre-teaching specialized vocabulary can also be an important step before you embark on new subject areas. Background knowledge can help students understand and retain a new language.

ELT coursework is offered year-round and can be used for undergraduate, graduate and in-service credit as well as to fulfill Continuing Teacher and Leader Education requirements. For more information, go to elt.nysut.org.