You are here

Supervisors Opinion

Narrow the Academic Language Gap to Reduce the Achievement Gap

You must teach academic vocabulary if you expect your students to use it.

Garfield Charter Elementary School serves 677 K8 students in the Redwood City Elementary School District in California. Ninety-four percent of the students are Hispanic or Latino. Eighty-five percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Seventy-eight percent of the students are English Language Learners. Sarah Twiest teaches eighth-grade language arts at Garfield. She sees firsthand that her students lack the background knowledge needed for academic success. This gap in knowledge is expressed in language. Her students not only grapple with everyday English, but they do not have the academic vocabulary needed for success in classroom assignments and state-mandated standardized tests. They must bridge this language gap in order to be successful in the worlds of school and work.

Twiest does not leave this to chance. She explicitly teaches the academic language that her students must develop to be successful in school. Words such as compare, order and analyze are the mortar needed to build the capacity to speak and write in functional academic language. Twiest does not assume that students know these words. Her students may recognize these words as part of the receptive language that they have built up, but they often can't use the words properly. They are not yet part of their expressive language. Twiest selects academic vocabulary from the texts that students will read in class and-here is the key-students must use them in specially structured classroom activities and must reproduce them in their writing.

Vocabulary lists in textbooks are often chosen by frequency, not utility.

A visit to her classroom will reveal students actively engaged in the acquisition of high-utility academic vocabulary. Lessons are designed so that everybody uses the target words repeatedly, using an "I do it, we do it, you do it" type approach. All students pronounce these words, see and hear explanations of them, and engage in choral response of them. Multiple examples of the words in different contexts are offered. Students say and explain words to a partner, finish sentence starters with the words, and record the words in a cumulative word journal. Her approach reflects the recommendations for direct instruction of vocabulary by the National Reading Panel in 2000. According to these recommendations, specific word instruction should:

-- Focus on words that are useful to know in many situations and that are essential to understand text.

-- Go beyond definitions of words, with clear explanations and opportunities to use, discuss and analyze target vocabulary.

-- Involve multiple exposures to target words.

-- Engage students in active and deepprocessing of words and word associations.

I asked Twiest how she knows what words to teach. She replied that she uses a vocabulary list, called the Academic Word List, developed by Averil Coxhead, which has 570 high-incidence and highutility academic word families for secondary school and higher education. Mostly, however, she selects her own words, having developed experience in word selection from working with her students and looking to the texts that they have to read. Her instruction is research-based and reflects to a large degree the work of Kate Kinsella at San Francisco State University.

There are other word lists. Vocabulary lists in textbooks are often chosen by frequency, not utility, so teachers have to be more selective than that. English teachers sometimes choose esoteric or infrequently used vocabulary words that are of use to the linguistically gifted only, if that.

Researchers such as Robert Marzano and Isabel Beck offer word lists. Marzano advocates explicit instruction in content-based vocabulary-the term feudalism in world history, for example. Beck's working definition of the right word to teach is perhaps most useful for teachers. A high-utility word is just right for instruction if students already have the words to explain it. A new word will, therefore, expand vocabulary.

Kate Kinsella would argue that direct vocabulary instruction is essential for all students, not just English Language Learners. Academic language is almost like a second language for students with English as their home language. Any teacher would support this proposition based on the casual language that students use in written assignments. All students must be provided with opportunities to use academic vocabulary in classroom assignments.

Direct vocabulary instruction is often neglected in favor of building vocabulary through reading. Reading, of course, is essential for vocabulary growth; however, it is not enough by itself, and English learners and reluctant readers don't read enough to build word wealth, creating a linguistic effect where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Eamonn O'Donovan is director of middle school support at Capistrano Unified School District in California.