Academic language is known to be more difficult to learn than everyday social English. Students’ mastery of vocabulary is directly connected to their ability to comprehend what they read, and academic literacy is an even stronger indicator of a student’s ability to access higher education. It is by using words that students demonstrate their mastery of content, and in school students need academic literacy to support them as they acquire new content, discuss ideas increasing in complexity, and achieve higher levels of competency. This research review illustrates the importance of selecting key terms within content areas that will support students the most. Providing explicit instruction in academic vocabulary for English language learners to positively affect their achievement in reading comprehension is also discussed. Evidence-based strategies are suggested as ways to support English language learners across all grades and content areas.
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Keywords: academic vocabulary, English language learner, explicit instruction, reading comprehension
Academic vocabulary is more content specific than social English. It is found in the instructional setting; therefore, students need to be competent and fluent with academic vocabulary words to comprehend new ideas and demonstrate mastery. These vocabulary words allow students to acquire new concepts, connect ideas, and perform higher order thinking. Academic vocabulary is, however, not as easily learned as social English. It is also more difficult to infer the meaning of academic vocabulary within content since the text in which the words are found often does not have visual or context clues to assist students. DeLuca (2010) goes as far as defining academic English as a third language. This is significant given that English language learners already face the challenge of learning both a new language and content in that new language. Greater comprehension of academic vocabulary will improve students’ ability to understand more content.
According to Franquiz and Salinas (2013), English language learners (ELLs) have traditionally been taught content separately from English language development. This system developed out of the belief that proficiency in English is a prerequisite for students to access the curriculum in other subject areas. Where ever students are being taught, they must receive direct explicit instruction in academic vocabulary to help them succeed in school. In addition, students are expected to transition from learning to read to reading to learn, which results in increased expectations for students to perform higher order thinking to solve complex problems. This is a critical shift, because DeLuca (2010) explains that academic English is equivalent to a third language due to its variance from the social English and a student’s native language. The gap in reading achievement is affected by limited vocabulary knowledge among ELLs (Jozwick & Douglas, 2017). Unfortunately, students who are unprepared in academic literacy are at the greatest risk for being unable to access higher education. This risk and lack of preparation is found in greater proportions among students who are learning English as a second language and/or are from an economically disadvantaged population (Franquiz & Salinas, 2013).
Heppt, Haag, Bohme, Stanat (2015) concluded that the lexical features of academic language had a negative effect on the reading comprehension of language-minority students. Knowledge of academic language is directly linked to knowledge of content, but academic language is significantly more difficult to acquire than conversational language due to its specificity and occasional abstract nature (Sibold, 2011). Heppt, Haag, Bohme, and Stanat (2015), explained that academic language differs from everyday language due to its characteristics and use specifically in an academic setting to relay information. Their discussion was influenced by Jim Cummins, who made the distinction between basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). Using Beck, McKeown, and Kucan’s (2002) three tier model for vocabulary words helps teachers identify which vocabulary words need to be explicitly taught to help students understand content. Tier 1 words are the most common and basic words we use in everyday conversation. Tier 2 words are words that are used across the academic curriculum and may include common words that have another meaning in this setting. Tier 3 words are words that are specific to the content area, are much more technical, and are not used in everyday conversation.
Vocabulary is a part of curriculum instruction, but many of the tier 2 words are not consistently taught across grade levels and subject areas, which can affect students’ reading comprehension. In addition, Heppt, Haag, Bohme, and Stanat (2015) state that academic vocabulary is more prevalent in some content areas such as math. This increases the chances that the vocabulary will be explicitly taught in some areas more than others. In areas such as social studies and language arts, the texts that students need to comprehend include broader topics with a range of academic vocabulary that increases the chances that students will not have the background knowledge to fully comprehend the passages, since much of the vocabulary may not have been taught at school. According to Smith, Sanchez, Betty, and Davis (2016), it is not sufficient to simply provide students with dictionaries. Traditional dictionaries lack visuals and contextual support, and they require students to process a substantial amount of lexical information that many ELLs do not have the skills to do. They end up looking up even more words from each definition to try to understand their target word.
Lesaux, Kieffer, Faller and Kelley (2010) further explained that once a word is decoded, students must understand its meaning to comprehend text. This understanding is both complex and multidimensional. For students to have a thorough understanding of a word, they must know its definition, its connotations, its relationship to other words, and its other morphological forms. Many language-minority students have below average vocabularies even if they are not designated as limited English proficient. Trying to close the gap by simply teaching many vocabulary words without depth is ineffective. Students receive greater benefit from gathering a deeper understanding of a few words at a time along with any morphologically related counterparts. High utility general-purpose academic words are essential and support students across the curriculums. Students need direct instruction of academic vocabulary balanced with word learning strategies to give them the tools they need such as morphological awareness skills and context clues to independently acquire new vocabulary.
Explicit instruction can be defined as instruction that states a purpose, provides explanations, modeling, and demonstration of learning targets, and gives multiple opportunities for students to practice with feedback until mastery is achieved. It is an effective means to increase academic vocabulary proficiency and has a significant effect on achievement, when it includes the use of cognates and morphemic analysis (Jozwick & Douglas, 2017). Sibold (2011) concluded that explicit instruction can help ELLs develop their academic vocabulary and understand content, when they are directly taught technical words and words with multiple meanings using visual aids and given opportunities to work with the words in context. Keisler and Bowers (2012) further explained the importance of explicit instruction of academic language for English language learners. Vocabulary words that are necessary for students to understand the unit or lesson must be identified. The function of language within the unit or lesson including if there are specific features students need to know should also be identified.
The language development plateau that occurs during the intermediate grades is a major reason there is a literacy gap. This is when students are required to do more reading, speaking, and writing as content changes from narrative to expository text. In addition, there is an increase in academic language that is used mostly in specific disciplines. Students find themselves challenged by familiar words that are now used in an unfamiliar way combined with complex grammatical combinations, increased complexity of sentence structure, and text filled with figurative and idiomatic language. Keisler and Bowers (2012) research supports the explicit instruction of academic instruction within the context of content. Removing academic language and teaching it as isolated vocabulary makes it seem separate from the text or content. The same is true for complex grammatical features. Students should learn complex grammatical features along with the content to understand the meaning and be able to respond both orally and in writing.
Language is dynamic, and students will benefit from additional opportunities to practice their skills in an authentic way. Heppt, Haag, Bohme, & Stanat (2015) explained that exposing students to the linguistic features that make comprehension challenging as early as possible is important for school success. Since long sentences with complex words are more difficult for language-minority students, they need more time, exposure, and practice opportunities with characteristics such as text organization within expository writing. Sibold (2011) suggests partnering with ELLs parents by sharing examples of strategies that can be used at home and providing parents with vocabulary words in both English and their home language. Jozwick and Douglas (2017) suggested the use of cooperative learning structures to establish opportunities for students to converse rather than being limited by traditional one on one student-teacher model. Using cooperative learning structures in an inclusive setting allows for increased vocabulary instruction and practice in context within a content area.
Sibold (2011) suggests incorporating relevant vocabulary into the before, during, and after reading stages by providing direct instruction on key words and multiple meaning words. Strategies for both the elementary and secondary levels include incorporating vocabulary games, quick writes, or the use of signal words to help ELLs acquire new vocabulary. Franquiz & Salinas (2013) suggested building English content vocabulary with activities such as producing brief statements, using primary documents to scaffold learning, and using the Internet to assist in composition were all strategies suggested to allow teachers to check comprehension and reasoning. In addition, they suggested that teachers should be willing to accept compositions written in a student’s native language, English, or a hybrid format, since developing academic writing in second language can take up to nine years of instruction.
Jozwick & Douglas (2017) gave five recommendations for supporting students in the classroom. First, they suggested that teachers provide repeated opportunities for students to work with cognates and morphemes. Second, they suggested that students be provided with frequent opportunities such as think-pair-share to orally discuss content-specific vocabulary. Third, they suggested that teachers require students demonstrate their understanding of key vocabulary by using interactive tasks such as illustrating a comic book to show the meaning of “flashback”. Fourth, teachers should use games such as memory or charades to frequently review vocabulary. Finally, the authors suggested that teachers have students self-monitor their goals to support self-regulation as they acquire new vocabulary.
DeLuca (2010) compiled scaffolds that can be used in all content areas and should be a part of a gradual release model giving the students strategies that they can use in the future when support may not be available. First, both open and closed vocabulary sorts can be used as classification activities to help students refine their understanding of various vocabulary words. Second, key-points reviews give the teacher an opportunity to assess understanding, and the teacher can further support emergent English by reformulating any nonstandard English responses. Third, learning logs give students an opportunity to reinforce their understanding of new vocabulary words by using those words in their responses. This gives them additional opportunities to practice and use new vocabulary in context. Fourth, metalinguistic awareness development is a way for ELLs who speak a Latin-based language to take advantage of the cognates and the relationships between roots and affixes.
Smith, Sanchez, Betty, and Davis (2016) suggest the use of Four Corners Vocabulary Charts (FCVCs) as an effective alternative to using traditional dictionaries. Since FCVCs can provide examples of the words in context and include visuals, they offer greater support to ELLs. The act of creating a FCVC supports students, because they must make meaningful choice as they process the vocabulary words. Also, FCVCs are more flexible, because they are not bound in a book like a dictionary. Vocabulary words can be re-organized alphabetically, by part of speech, by level such as easy or difficult, or by subject at any time based on a student’s current instructional needs. They can also be color coded to indicate their parts of speech, synonyms/antonyms, or content area(s). Students are essentially creating their own personal dictionary that is relevant to their needs and coursework. In addition, creating FCVCs on index cards easily lends itself to their use in games such as Bingo, Connect Four, or Heads-Up.
Academic vocabulary can be compared to learning a third language (DeLuca, 2010), and it should be explicitly taught to students to support their comprehension and acquisition of new content. Students will not acquire the vocabulary that they need by only using dictionaries or increasing their amount of reading. It is imperative that teachers have flexible and effective ways to identify and teach key academic vocabulary within the context of the unit or lesson. Since ELLs are learning English at the same time as other content, they need additional support through direct and explicit instruction in academic vocabulary to help them comprehend more thoroughly. Teaching students to use cognates, roots, and affixes to infer word meaning is more effecting than simply having them translate from a dictionary (Deluca, 2010). Academic vocabulary should be incorporated into the before, during, and after reading stages by providing direct instruction on key words and multiple meaning words (Sibold, 2011).
Academic language is an area I focus on with my students. I have found that all students can benefit from explicit instruction in academic language, but it is especially important for ELLs and students with special needs. These students need more exposure, time, and practice to academic vocabulary, so that they can build and strengthen the cognitive connections to be able to access content accurately and independently. Visuals, use in context, and repeated practice are all strategies that I have found to be effective at increasing the academic vocabulary of ELLs. I have also found that teaching cognates, roots, and affixes helps students acquire academic vocabulary at a faster rate, and it increases their ability to independently infer a new meaning in the future. This allows me to give them the skills they need to be able to comprehend content with fewer scaffolds and less differentiation.
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