What do surgeons, construction workers, and sculptors have in common? Without the right tools, they cannot effectively use their skills. Similarly, without the linguistic tools needed for abstract thinking, students struggle both to understand academic content and to demonstrate their understanding.
All students need a wide range of linguistic tools to effectively think and communicate in different disciplines. Describing abstract concepts requires complex words and grammatical structures. Many teachers assume students have more skill using language to describe thinking than they actually possess (Cummins, 1984) and focus more on teaching content than on fostering language. But as the cognitive demands of school increase after 3rd grade, students who are less skillful at using the academic language that permeates textbooks and instruction begin an uphill struggle (Scarcella, 2003).
That uphill climb is often steepest for English language learners and students from families that speak nonstandard dialects of English. But teachers must deliberately cultivate in all students a familiarity with the kind of language that teachers, authors, and assessment designers use—what I call cognitive language.
Recognizing Cognitive Language
Of course, our students use thinking skills in their daily lives. But they need classroom experiences that help them learn to think, read, write, and discuss topics as a discipline's experts might do. To create lessons that give students such experiences, teachers must learn more about the key features of language used in academic disciplines (Wong Fillmore & Snow, 2002).
The first step is to identify key thinking skills used in a discipline—such as analyzing, comparing, interpreting, and inferring cause and effect. Many state and district standards list such skills. The more challenging step is to become "language watchers." As you identify thinking skills, notice specific cognitive language—phrases and ways of structuring sentences—that describes and clarifies each skill. For example, in describing causes and effects, texts often use such terms as led to, ramifications, and as a result that may be unfamiliar to language learners. To interpret academic information, students need to recognize and use such terms as meant that, signified, or underlying message.
Often the cognitive tools students most need are not the "big" words defined in glossaries, but rather the expressions commonly used across disciplines. It's difficult for teachers to identify such expressions because we're immersed in academic language. We are like fish trying to describe water. But we can train ourselves to spot cognitive language and teach students to understand and manipulate key features of such language.
Increasing Students' Comfort with Cognitive Language
Several years ago, I was a mentor teacher at Parkman Middle School1
on the West Coast of the United States. One-third of the student population came from immigrant families at this school. I watched teachers increase students' comfort level with three aspects of academic language: figurative language, complex sentences, and organizing structures.
Demystifying Figurative Expressions
Figurative language includes metaphors, analogies, idioms, and other terms that use concrete nouns to describe abstract concepts or relationships. Although we associate figurative expressions with literature, they are also prevalent in articles, speeches, lectures, and textbooks.
For example, in the sentence, The politicians danced around the issue, the term danced around is far from literal. Or consider this example from science lesson materials that compares circulation to a trip: Blood cells go on a long and circuitous journey to supply oxygen to the body's cells. Some words take on a literal meaning in one content area and metaphorical connotations in another, such as a plant's roots versus a family's roots in a city.
Other figurative terms that teachers often use include sidestep the issue, read between the lines, outweigh, set the stage, crux of the matter, on the right track, immerse, and woven into. Many students, especially those from non-English-speaking backgrounds, don't automatically grasp the ideas that such terms describe.
Figurative expressions can throw students off track in their thinking when they encounter them in class discussion, reading, or even in the instructions to an assignment. We must help students become familiar with figurative language so that it becomes a tool to guide their thinking (as when we ask students to "weigh the evidence") rather than a hindrance.
One middle school teacher at Parkman had learners review common expressions and tease out how the metaphor involved enhances each expression's meaning. Students created a chart of metaphorical sayings they encountered in texts, videos, and class discussions; they recorded not only what each phrase literally means, but also what the underlying metaphor implies (see fig. 1). Guiding students to compare the abstract with the concrete also expands their ability to use figurative language.
Figure 1. Figurative Language Chart
Why This Metaphor Works
What It Means
The Golden Age of Society
Gold is beautiful and something people desire.
The most prosperous and productive period of a society.
The argument doesn't hold water.
It's like a weak bucket that has holes in it.
The argument doesn't have convincing enough evidence.
These research results were a red flag.
A red flag signals warning.
The findings show something unusual.
This chart helps students understand—and remember—figurative expressions.
Deconstructing Long Sentences
In academic language, writers construct messages by chunking words and expressions together into clauses, which they then combine into sentences. Long sentences have multiple clauses that require students to think more complexly as they read or listen. Students may need practice focusing on the main clause that contains the essential information. For example, consider the sentence, World War I began to reshape American attitudes toward immigration, fostering distrust of immigrants and leading to passage of several anti-immigration laws. The most crucial information—that the war affected American attitudes toward immigration—is in the main clause, but students also must note that legal changes followed attitude changes. Long sentences like these require a reader to keep straight in his or her mind—and prioritize the importance of—causes, effects, and perspectives.
One good place to start is with subordinate clauses, many of which begin with such words as despite, before,
and if. We should train students to notice these words that reveal clues to which information is central to a sentence's meaning.
I watched one science teacher model for students how to identify the most important points in long sentences in a science text. As he read aloud, he read subordinate clauses with lower intonation and at a quicker pace; for example, he read quietly the italicized words in the sentence "Even though the need for cheaper fuel is high, we must think about the hidden costs of and dangers of growing corn for ethanol." He then had student pairs choose sentences in the book, identify the essential information, and read each sentence aloud together, emphasizing the main information through intonation.
Discovering Organizing Structures
Experts organize messages that require complex thinking in ways that they consider logical but that may not be obvious to novice readers. Historians tend to organize information sequentially, whereas scientific texts break a topic down to explain its parts. Works of literature play with language to symbolize key understandings about life. Authors use different kinds of transitional phrases and headings to help readers create meaning. When we dissect model texts from different genres and point out these kinds of signposts, we help students recognize and use organizing schemes.
An engaging activity called pro-con (Duffala, 1987) that my colleagues and I used at Parkman gives students practice in forming long sentences and using transitions. This game also fosters skills of persuasion and argument.
Students break into pairs to discuss a common topic, such as fast food, camping, or movies. One student in each pair—designated the director—claps and says, "Pro!" The other student—the speaker—must quickly describe positive aspects of the topic: "Camping lets me forget about school, breathe fresh air, and I love scenery and …" until the director interrupts with a clap and yells, "Con!" At this point, the speaker must list the negatives of the topic, first using a fitting transitional phrase other than but: "On the other hand, camping is a pain because of the insects and the hard ground. My back hurts in the morning and . …" The speaker continues alternating between pros and cons until the students switch roles.
After students are able to smoothly use transitions with everyday topics, they try the activity with academic concepts, such as free trade. Teachers can adapt this activity to writing as well as speaking and have students use transitions to signal switching their message between cause and effect or between compare and contrast.
Actively Teaching Cognitive Language
Familiarizing students with the tools of cognitive language is not enough to make them fluent in the language of school. Educators must also become language teachers, drawing on the following three principles of second-language instruction to teach cognitive language.
Providing Understandable "Input"
Research shows that people acquire any language by reading or listening to it, understanding it, and encountering increasingly challenging vocabulary and grammar (or "input") in meaningful settings (VanPatten, 2003). Providing understandable language to students is difficult when we are discussing abstract ideas and when we are teaching linguistically diverse students. But teachers can make cognitive language more understandable through visual aids, intonation, drama, or music.
Visual aids accompanied by explanations are especially effective for exposing students to academic concepts and the language behind them. For example, I use a graphic organizing technique called a persuasion scale (Zwiers, 2007) that depicts evidence for each side of an issue being stacked on each side of a scale (see fig. 2). I model academic language by thinking aloud while filling in the blocks on either side of the scale with specific arguments, using such terms as outweigh, heaviest, sway, and argument strength.
Figure 2. Sample Persuasion Scale
It's good to supplement this strategy by modeling for students (and posting on the wall) phrases typically used to introduce a thesis ("I believe that …"); provide evidence ("This is supported by …"); and explain counterarguments ("Yet some people argue that …"). As a follow-up, students collaboratively fill in a persuasion scale, discussing how they can put their "heaviest" evidence onto the side of the scale that they support.
Helping Students Produce Language
Producing language pushes learners to process a language at deeper levels than when just listening to it (Swain, 1995). Teachers should create situations that challenge students to communicate with words and conversational patterns characteristic of cognitive language. Urge students to take the perspective of their listeners into account, exchange ideas respectfully, and clarify their message at key points.
We can help students practice cognitive language even in math class. One 8th grade algebra teacher at Parkman had students analyze graphs and corresponding equations. The teacher gave each student group 14 cards. Each card showed an equation and a graph representing that equation; some were lines with positive and negative slopes, and others were parabolas. She instructed students to discuss commonalities among the equations and put them into logical groups. They were then to examine the relationship between each equation and its corresponding graph and form conclusions about these relationships.
The teacher posted key cognitive terms (such as we notice that, similar, and different) on the wall and encouraged students to use phrases and communication patterns associated with mathematical observation. Students had to use such language accurately as they analyzed, compared, and justified their ideas. Both critical thinking and language growth blossomed during this activity as students tested their ideas about the equations together—as opposed to simply memorizing formulas or problem-solving steps.
Capitalizing on Gestures and Expressions
Gestures, facial expressions, and other nonverbal cues help emphasize and clarify complex ideas and language (Harris, 2003). When students observe relevant body movements while an abstract concept is introduced—or make movements themselves—they form lasting mental images of that concept. For example, in doing the persuasion scale activity, a teacher might "become" a scale, putting his or her arms out and leaning over to show how evidence can favor one side. Students can also participate, leaning to one side or the other as they state reasons that give credence to either position. These movements will help embed the meaning of the term weight of evidence in their minds.
Academic learning is a big job for all students. It's more challenging for students from diverse language backgrounds whose ways of communicating may not neatly align with the style of communication expected at school. To help all our students fulfill their potential as thinkers, teachers need to put into their hands the tools of cognitive language and make sure they know how and when to wield each tool. When we do so routinely, students will leave our schools equipped with the heavy-duty language skills needed to tackle the next job.
Cummins, J. (1984) Bilingualism and special education: Issues in assessment and pedagogy. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Duffala, J. (1987). The teacher as artist. Santa Rosa, CA: Author.
Harris, T. (2003). Listening with your eyes: The importance of speech-related gestures in the language classroom.
Foreign Language Annals, 36(2), 180–187.
Scarcella, R. (2003). Academic English: A conceptual framework (Technical Report 2003-1). Santa Barbara: The University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute.
Swain, M. (1995). Three functions of output in second language learning. In G. Cook & B. Seidlhofer (Eds.),
Principle and practice in applied linguistics: Studies in honour of H.G. Widdowson (pp. 125–144). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
VanPatten, B. (2003). From input to output: A teacher's guide to second language acquisition. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Wong Fillmore, L., & Snow, C. (2002). What teachers need to know about language. In C. A. Adger, C. E. Snow, & D. Christian (Eds.), What teachers need to know about language (pp. 7–54). McHenry, IL: Delta Systems; Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
Zwiers, J. (2007). Building academic language: Essential practices for content classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Names used in this article are pseudonyms.
Jeff Zwiers teaches at Stanford University. He is the author of
Building Academic Language: Essential Practices for Content Classrooms (Jossey-Bass, 2007).
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