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December 10, 2009
Vol. 5
No. 5

Increasing Exposure to Academic Language by Speaking It

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    For teachers to increase students' exposure to academic language, it's important that they approach almost any verbal interaction as an opportunity for developing academic language. They can support ELLs by using academic language in meaningful contexts and following difficult words with synonymous terms.

      We don't sound like the books we read. For the most part, even we adults speak in conversational English. But what would our speech sound like if we focused on building academic language so that students could acquire non-content-specific academic vocabulary in ways that made the language comprehensible? What if we peppered our communications with sophisticated language made comprehensible by the context of the situation or embedded synonyms in our sentences to make what we say comprehensible to students? What if we took advantage of every opportunity to teach academic language?
      • Using synonymous tags. Use academic language (non-content-specific “fancy” words), and then buffer it with a synonymous tag that makes the meaning clear to students. For example, say, “What are some ideas for categorizing your words? How can you make categories, or different groups?”
      • Embedding in meaningful contexts. Use academic language in such a way that the meaning of the words is obvious to students because of the context, as in, “I'm sorry that you injured your knee. Let's get a bandage.”
      Three 3rd grade teachers at Washington Elementary—Quirine Fischer, Krista Grimm, and Roseann Sinkosky—decided to drench their students in selected academic vocabulary from the book The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (DiCamillo, 2006). At the end of the unit, Grimm made the following observation: “If we used it, they used it. If we talked a lot using a certain vocabulary word or we kept coming back and using it, it would show up in their journals. . . .We deliberately used big words and then consistently revisited the words we wanted them to know. . . .We repeated them in ways within the context of different activities.”
      In addition to speaking the words, these teachers also took every opportunity to present the words in written activities that would remain posted on the walls and thus be seen repeatedly. According to Fischer, “We always made sure to use the vocabulary that we had highlighted in the summary in the time line. Vocabulary was repeatedly revisited.”
      The result of these efforts was student journal entries peppered with beautiful academic vocabulary used correctly by English language learners and native English speakers alike. For example, Kelvin had arrived in English-speaking schools in 1st grade knowing no English. Now in 3rd grade, he wrote, “Edward is a rabbit with penetrating blue eyes. . . .Edward was mortified when Amos and Martin took his clothes off.”
      Native English speakers also benefited. David, a non-ELL, wrote, “I think Edward is a self-centered rabbit, because he only cares about himself, his clothes, his eyes, his ears and his bendable elbows. I think Pellegrina is the person Edward is comforted by, because Edward thought her eyes were like stars.” Sean, also a native English speaker, wrote, “Edward feels despair. Edward feels hollowness.”
      Teacher Krista Grimm also noted that words like smug and conceited, which the teachers had used to describe Edward, were now being used by students to describe one another when experiencing conflicts on the playground during recess.
      DiCamillo's books are great tools for developing academic language because of the rich context in which she places these normally difficult words and the range of personalities that allow for in-depth discussions using higher levels of thinking. Keely Potter, a literacy coach, and Brianne Mull, a 4th grade teacher, also placed an intentional focus on certain words in the story The Tale of Despereaux (DiCamillo, 2003).
      Before reading each section, Potter selected certain words on which to ask the 4th grade class to focus, including aspiration, outrage, tragedy, and integrity. She wrote these words on strips of chart paper before reading each section and introduced them to the class by first reading the sentence in which they appeared. She then asked students to use the words when they referred to the story. “I would ask them to use our words. So, if they were going to say he was nice, they would end up saying, he had a lot of integrity,” Potter said. I told them at the beginning, “We're going to speak these words and we're going to write these words, so everything we do is in the context of using these words in the book.” . . . I set it up the at the beginning of Despereaux, showing them what it means to conform, showing them what it means to be prejudiced, showing them what symbolism is and light and dark. Those to me were really big-big ideas, and so I gave it to them, and then I talked off of them. And Brianne's idea was that they would have their own individual word walls, A–Z, on paper to plug those in.
      When asked whether she noticed if learning the words in class had transferred into usage outside the classroom, Potter immediately replied, “Absolutely.” Then she told the story of how the ELL teacher of a student at the beginning levels of language development stopped her to tell her how surprised she was to hear the student, who normally struggled with basic conversational skills, toss in the words conform and empathetic in her discussion during ESL class.
      “It floored her that they were able to just pull those things out,” Potter said. “So just that whole idea of immersing them and using it, so that they can own it, and they can understand it, and all of it was done with me modeling the vocabulary first before the reading.”
      The following excerpts from literary essays written by ELLs attest to the use of the academic language targeted by Potter and Mull. The use of imagery is also pronounced.
      He treated her like a princess, because he felt empathetic. . . .He betrayed her and felt very guilty and sorrowful inside. . . .She probably felt despair, but when her dad came back she felt like the light came back to her.—by Daniella
      Antoinette only cares about her looks and called Despereaux a disappointment. Antoinette made Despereaux feel sad and betrayed.—by Lois
      I believe that in The Tale of Despereaux, prejudice is a big theme.—by Idalia
      The Tale of Despereaux is not just a book. It is a book that inspires you and has life. Despereaux was born a non-conformist. He was born with his eyes open and no other mice were born like that.—by Norberto
      Creating language-rich classrooms involves students hearing the language in contexts that are comprehensible and engage their emotions through activities that are relevant and authentic. This approach leads to an excitement among the students, who then want to write and use the language in a way that allows them to express and celebrate their emotional attachment to the learning. Janette Hewitt, the principal at Potter and Mull's school, describes the experience in this way:Here you have a class of students with special needs and ESL students, who usually we have not seen achieving at the rate and at the height that they were achieving after using the CHATS process. So, children, because of the way that they were exposed to the vocabulary, were allowed to explore it together as a class and with their teachers and with each other, by reading it, by using it in their own language, and in their writing responses. . . .Sitting there and listening to them, it really was. . .you know, I get chills just now sitting here thinking about it, because of the way in which they were able to express themselves. It was almost like they were released from the way they had minimally responded before in their writing.

      William Himmele is an associate professor at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. He has served as an ESL teacher and a speech pathologist, a higher education administrator, an international consultant, and a speaker on issues related to increasing student engagement and teaching English language learners.

      Himmele also served as the coordinator for the graduate ESL teacher certification program at Millersville University and has been an educational program consultant for several schools in various countries seeking to improve their school programs.

      His is coauthor with Pérsida Himmele of Total Participation Techniques: Making Every Student an Active Learner and Total Literacy Techniques: Tools to Help Students Analyze Literature and Informational Texts.

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