The lack of opportunity to develop oral language skills hinders students’ progress in all subject areas. Passive learning—sitting quietly while listening to a teacher talk— does not encourage engagement. In order to acquire academic language, students need lessons that are meaningful and engaging and that provide ample opportunity to practice using language orally. Successful group work requires intentional planning and giving students instructions about how to work with others effectively; teacher expectations need to be made clear. Grouping students in teams for discussion, using partners for specific tasks, and other planned configurations increase student engagement and oral language development.
Another related influence on language development is access to the language and the subject matter. Think about a situation in which you hear another language spoken. It could be the salon where you get a manicure or your favorite fast food place. Just because you regularly hear another language, are you learning it? Typically, not. Likewise, many English learners sit in class and hear what amounts to “English noise.” It doesn’t make sense to them and thus, they are not learning either academic language or the content being taught. Without the kinds of practices that are promoted by the SIOP® Model, much of what happens during the school day is lost on English learners.
Finally, some teachers have low expectations for EL students (Lee, 2005). They are not motivated to get to know the students, their cultures, or their families. Poor perform- ance is not only accepted, but expected. Rather than adjusting instruction so that it is meaningful to these students, these teachers attribute lack of achievement to students’ cultural background, limited English proficiency and, sadly, ability.
How Can We Effectively Teach Academic Language in English-Language Arts?
In a recent synthesis of existing research on teaching English language and literacy to ELs in the elementary grades, the authors make five recommendations, one of which is to “Ensure that the development of formal or academic English is a key instructional goal for English learners, beginning in the primary grades” (Gersten, Baker, Shanahan, Linan- Thompson, Collins, & Scarcella, 2007, pp. 26–27). Although few empirical studies have been conducted on the effects of academic language instruction, the central theme of the panel of researchers conducting the synthesis was the importance of intensive, interactive language practice that focuses on developing academic language. This recommendation was made based upon considerable expert opinion, with the caveat that additional re- search is still needed.
Because you are already familiar with the SIOP® Model, you know that effective instruction for English learners includes focused attention on and systematic implementa- tion of the SIOP® Model’s eight components and 30 features. Therefore, you should use the SIOP® protocol to guide lesson design when selecting activities and approaches for teaching academic language in the English-language arts.
Jeff Zwiers (2008, p. 41) notes that “academic language doesn’t grow on trees.” Rather, explicit vocabulary instruction through a variety of approaches and activities pro- vides English learners with multiple chances to learn, practice, and apply academic lan- guage (Stahl & Nagy, 2006). Teachers must provide comprehensible input (Krashen, 1985) as well as structured opportunities for students to produce academic language in
What Is Academic Language?