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In the United States, educators dedicated to closing the academic achievement gap between minority students and their white peers and decreasing the staggering high school dropout rate are digging to determine the root causes of the problems plaguing so many of our nation's students. As a high school principal, my experience in classrooms has confirmed the research, which shows that the education achievement gap is directly influenced by a literacy gap (Barone, 2006).
This literacy gap affects students’ abilities to access core textbooks and communicate and write effectively within the various subject areas. The literacy gap catches up to many of our students as they enter high school and feel overwhelmed by the challenges of increasing academic standards and more difficult vocabulary.
Because they lack the language that will help them access and understand math, science, language arts, and social studies, many students struggle with content-area reading and writing in these subjects. This "language gap" can have a devastating effect on students (Hirsch, 2001). Children who come to school speaking a different language or lack the academic language of school struggle to meet literacy requirements, and they often feel overwhelmed in the classroom. So, as we examine the root causes of student difficulties, a lack of academic language may be the biggest factor that contributes to language gaps; literacy gaps; and, ultimately, an achievement gap.
Francis, Rivera, Lesaux, Kieffer, and Rivera (2006) state the issue this way, "Mastery of academic language is arguably the single most important determinant of academic success for individual students" (p. 7). Students' future success, therefore, depends on our helping them learn academic language.
Academic language provides the basic building blocks and material for learning in school. Academic language can be organized into two main categories: specific content language and general academic language. Specific content language serves as the building blocks of learning, while general academic language serves as the mortar or glue of learning.
Marzano and Pickering (2005) outline the methods for teaching specific content language in Building Academic Vocabulary. By effectively covering the vocabulary included in the core content areas, teachers can better prepare students to advance to the next grade level and achieve academically. Examples of specific content language terms include
As educators, we should place more emphasis on teaching specific content language to develop students’ content knowledge and vocabulary.
General academic language ties together specific content vocabulary. Consider the following types of general academic language that are also important for students to master:
General academic language is the language that powerfully influences learning. Most teachers recognize the importance of following Marzano and Pickering's six-step method for instructing in specific content language, yet many teachers are unaware of the importance of explicitly instructing students in the general academic language of actions, transitions, and concepts.
Students who try to build knowledge without a firm grasp of general academic language may struggle to learn specific subject matter content. When teachers help their students build the formal academic language of school, then students can begin to bridge the gaps in their language, literacy, and achievement.
Barone, D. (2006). Narrowing the literacy gap: What works in high-poverty schools. New York: Guilford.
Francis, D., Rivera, M., Lesaux, N., Kieffer, M., & Rivera, H. (2006). Practical guidelines for the education of English language learners: Research-based recommendations for instruction and academic interventions. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.
Hirsch, E. D., Jr. (2001, Summer). Overcoming the language gap: Make better use of the literacy time block. American Educator. Available at www.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/summer2001/lang_gap_hirsch.html
Marzano, R., & Pickering, D. (2005). Building academic vocabulary. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Eli Johnson is a consultant for early literacy and math/science projects for the California Department of Education.
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