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Best Practices for Teaching ELLs
May 24, 2012 | Volume 7 | Issue 17
Table of Contents 

Identifying Academic Language Demands in Support of the Common Core Standards

Susan O'Hara, Robert Pritchard, and Jeff Zwiers

As issues of equity arise with the achievement gap and differing dropout rates between English language learners (ELLs) and their English-speaking counterparts (Kindler, 2002; Ruiz-de-Velasco & Fix, 2000), meeting the needs of ELLs is an increasingly urgent focus for education practitioners and researchers. Underscoring this urgency are the performance results of ELLs on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation's only ongoing assessment of what students know and can do in various subject areas.

The national assessment's results (Rampey, Dion, & Donahue, 2009) show a large gap between ELLs and their English-only counterparts on achievement scores in science and mathematics at grades 8 (ELLs score 31 points behind non-ELLs in math) and grade 12 (ELLs score 28 points behind non-ELLs in math). The literacy results for ELLs are more worrisome: Only 4 percent of 4th grade ELLs scored at the proficient or advanced levels in reading, while only 3 percent of 8th grade ELLs and 20 percent of students classified as "formerly ELL" scored at the proficient or advanced levels.

In response to these data, many educators and policymakers are calling for improved academic language development within content-area classrooms to address the learning needs of ELLs (Anstrom et al., 2010), and the Common Core State Standards call for specific attention to academic language development across core content areas.

Focus on Academic Language

Academic language is believed to be one of the most important factors in the academic success of ELLs, and it has been increasingly cited as a major contributor to achievement gaps between ELLs and English-proficient students (Francis, Rivera, Lesaux, Kieffer, & Rivera, 2006).

The Common Core State Standards will place academic language demands on English learners, and a group of national experts in academic language development mapped out what they will include:

  • Reasoning abstractly and quantitatively;
  • Constructing viable arguments and critiquing reasoning of others;
  • Constructing explanations and designing solutions;
  • Engaging in argument from evidence; and
  • Asking questions and defining problems (Hakuta, 2011).

These new standards require effective, simultaneous teaching of academic language skills and the rigorous content that all students must master.

However, academic language—which includes the vocabulary, syntax, and discourse styles of particular content areas—is complex and requires both teachers and students to understand the specific academic language demands of the content. For example, Schleppegrell (2007) outlines a number of language demands in math that can challenge ELLs, including

  • The use of symbolic notation.
  • Visual displays, such as graphs.
  • Technical vocabulary.
  • Grammatical features, including complex noun phrases.

In addition, the language of academic texts, both the ones students read and the ones they produce, has distinctive features and meanings that may contrast with the language they use in informal spoken interactions (August & Shanahan, 2006; Schleppegrell, 2007).

Identifying Academic Language Demands

Others (Clancy & Hruska, 2005; Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2004; Fisher & Frey, 2010) have noted the importance of identifying language demands in subject-matter materials, but their focus has been on unpacking standards and articulating content and language objectives or purposes.

We believe that identifying specific academic language demands requires an additional step: an analysis of the text, tasks, and tests to be used in a lesson. What follows is a look at the process we have developed and implemented with teachers to help them conduct this analysis.

As part of a professional development initiative designed to help teachers implement best practices for ELLs, one day's focus was on introducing a framework for integrating language and content instruction. This framework (see figure 1) begins with the development of content objectives (step 1), proceeds through an analysis of the text, tasks, and tests to be used in a lesson as the basis for identifying language demands (step 2), and concludes with the development of language objectives that are based on the language demands (step 3). Here, we'll focus specifically on how step 2 was introduced to and modeled for teachers.

Figure 1. Graphic Organizer of a Framework for Integrating Language and Content Instruction

Click on the image to open a full-size version of the organizer.

The professional development began with a discussion of academic language features (lexical, syntactic, and discourse), and teachers were provided content-specific examples and then applied this knowledge to the process of identifying language demands. To increases teachers' capacity for explaining and modeling to their students, the approach was based on teachers experiencing the process of identifying language demands as learners and then reflecting on their learning and the effectiveness of the process from the students' perspectives.

Teachers were given a set of instructional materials developed for a history lesson: a content objective, texts used, and instructional tasks for students. The group worked in pairs to find the key language demands in each of three academic language features by

  • Analyzing the content objective.
  • Considering data on students' language strengths and needs.
  • Analyzing texts and student tasks.

Once teachers completed these steps and discussed them as a group, they were given a second set of instructional materials and worked independently through the same process.

These experiences were designed to build teachers' understanding of academic language and their ability to identify the academic language demands inherent in content-specific instructional materials. A subsequent session focused on how teachers could use this information to develop language objectives that support content objectives, texts, and tasks of a lesson.

Because academic language development is particularly problematic for ELLs, who have the dual task of mastering content and developing language proficiency, they need skillful teachers who have the knowledge and expertise necessary to facilitate their development of literacy in English as they simultaneously learn, comprehend, and apply content-area concepts through that second language (Garcia & Godina, 2004; Genesee, Lindholm-Leary, Saunders, & Christian, 2006). As teachers implement the Common Core State Standards, identifying academic language demands in content-area materials is a crucial aspect of teacher expertise.


Anstrom, K., DiCerbo, P., Butler, F., Katz, A., Millet, J., & Rivera, C. (2010). A review of the literature on academic language: Implications for K–12 English language learners. Arlington, VA: George Washington University Center for Equity and Excellence in Education.

August, D., & Shanahan, T. (Eds.). (2006). Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on language-minority children and youth. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Clancy, M. E., & Hruska, B. L. (2005). Developing language objectives for English language learners in physical education lessons. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 76(4), 30–35.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M. E. & Short, D. (2004). Making content comprehensible for English language learners: The SIOP model (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2010). Unpacking the purpose: Vocabulary, structure, and function. TESOL Journal, 1(3), 315–337.

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.

Garcia, G. E., & Godina, H. (2004). Addressing the literacy needs of adolescent English language learners. In T. Jetton & J. Dole (Eds.), Adolescent literacy: Research and practice (pp. 304–320). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Genesee, F., Lindholm-Leary, K., Saunders, W., & Christian, D. (2006). Educating English language learners: A synthesis of research evidence. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Hakuta, K. (2011). Educating language minority students and affirming their rights: Research and practical perspectives. Educational Researchers, 40(4), 163–174.

Kindler, A. L. (2002). Survey of the states' limited English proficient students and available educational programs and services: 2000–2001 summary report. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition.

Rampey, B. D., Dion, G. S., & Donahue, P. L. (2009). NAEP 2008 trends in academic progress (NCES 2009-479). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences.

Ruiz-de-Velasco, J., & Fix, M. (2000). Overlooked and underserved: Immigrant students in U.S. secondary schools. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

Schleppegrell, M. J. (2007).The linguistic challenges of mathematics teaching and learning: A research review. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 23(2), 139–159.

Susan O'Hara is an associate professor of teaching and executive director of the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching at Stanford University. Robert Pritchard is chair of the Department of Education at California State University–Sacramento. Jeff Zwiers is a clinical associate at the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching at Stanford University.


ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 17. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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