Developing Academic Language (notes from a workshop presented for Hayward Unified, Summer 2014)

This past week I had the privilege of presenting a two day workshop with an incredible group of middle school English teachers in my school district. The workshop was part of a larger, four day Summer Institute on implementing Common Core, which we have structured around inquiry projects that we are encouraging our teachers and their departments to pursue. Mine was one of three workshop tracks that participants could have chosen, and I want to capture some of my presentation and our discussion on academic language in a series of posts here.

The presentation, like the training itself, was not meant to be a definitive “final take” on academic language, and we were more concerned about embarking together on inquiries than offering foolproof solutions or pre-packaged strategies. This is not because there aren’t a lot of curricular options when it comes to academic language. There are many. One that our district is starting to implement is Kate Kinsella’s English 3D program, targeted towards Long Term English Learners. More on that program later in these posts.

But I have to admit I’m not wholly satisfied with what’s out there. I’ve learned a lot about academic language from scholars like Mary Schleppegrell, Patricia Duff, Catherine Snow and Paola Uccelli, and Douglas Biber; and from the world of practitioner/writers, Jeff Zwiers, Fisher and Frey, Benjamin and Oliva, Don and Jenny Killgallon, Janet Allen, and others I’ve probably forgotten. I’ve also learned a lot about approaches to teaching language and literacy from various scholars and teachers, too many to list. But I still have yet to find the combination of deep awareness of academic language, instructional approaches relevant particularly to youth who are pushed away from academic language, and language- and literacy-acquisition conscious approaches that satisfies me. I think this workshop was a first attempt at putting that together with teachers who I respect and enjoy working with.

As an introduction, I shared a bit about my own personal history with forms of standard and academic English (I think personal histories in this regard can be very relevant). I’ll spare some of those details except to say that in some ways, I have had a tenuous relationship with academic English and English in general, being an immigrant as a child, often feeling left out or locked out from certain kinds of discourse, and questioning the identities that I would be putting on if I spoke and wrote in certain registers of academese. On the other hand, I’m also the opposite, a kid who found great vistas of imagination in things written by Victorian writers, a school and media nerd who knew how to interpret Thoreau before he was super clear on the difference between stoves and ovens (not for lack of using those appliances, but because they were called their Chinese names in my house), and an adult who traffics in academic language all the time. My larger point was that it’s way too simplistic to say that some of us “have” academic language and others don’t, or even that there’s such a thing as a stable, bounded set of things that would be called “academic language.” It’s all continua, spectra, hybrid and cross-flowing features.

But the workshop as a whole was segmented into five parts, which are what I will write about in these posts. In a cheesy alphabetic AND logical ordering (I told you I was a nerd), they were:

“Aspects of Academic Language and Vocabulary.” We tried to understand what distinguished academic language, and focused in on dimensions of vocabulary.

“Beyond Sentence Starters: Syntax Impacts.” We tried out a particular way to build students’ generative syntactic repertoire, and considered how grammar could be taught in a way tied to expression, imitation, and creation.

“Conversations leading to Critical Thinking.” We considered the role of academic discussion, using Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford’s Academic Conversations as a set of tools for building critical thinking through discussion and tying those to linguistic pieces. We also considered sociocultural theory of learning and the relationship of talk to writing.

“Discourse is My Favorite Course: Motivation and Social Aspects of Learning English.” We thought about discourse (language-in-use) and how it is tied to identity and participation in social groups, and how we could introduce and connect students to academic language in ways that made it meaningful to their development as social creatures.

“Editing and Evolving toward Academic English: Elaboration, embedding, explicitness, and elevated diction.” I offered some suggestions for developing students towards academic language in their writing through workshops and mini-lesosns focused on certain aspects of academic language, aspects which tend to separate the typical 7th grader’s writing from a more academic register.

The participants were awesome. I learned so much from them and owe them gratitude for teaching me quite a bit. We had fruitful exchanges and I’m eager to learn from what they do in their classrooms, how they take the work we did and extend it further in their practice.

I’ll try to do one post a day for the next week or so, putting down some of the ideas that we conveyed in our workshop. Stay tuned!
Photo on 7-3-13 at 3.20 PMMe, the presenter of “Developing Academic Language,” in Someone Else’s Office