Monday / June 17

Four Essentials for Mastering Academic Language With ELLs and SELs

Four Essentials for Mastering Academic Language With ELLs and SELs

All students can benefit from academic language development modeling, scaffolding, and practice, but ELLs and standard English learners (SELs) need it to survive and thrive in school. SELs are students who speak languages that do not correspond to Standard American English language structure and grammar but incorporates English vocabulary. They include African American students who speak African American Language (AAL), sometimes referred to as African American English, and Mexican American–non-new-immigrant–students who speak Mexican American Language (MxAL) or what is commonly referred to as “Chicano English.” ELLs and SELS also need instructional assistance in the academic language necessary to be successful in school, college, and beyond. For both groups of students, academic language represents the pathway to full access in meeting the rigorous demands of the new standards.

ELLs and SELs have plenty of language assets in their primary language that we can leverage to grow their academic English. Yet, all too often, educators undervalue the inherent assets or funds of knowledge that culturally and linguistically diverse students bring to the classroom. The need to replace such deficit thinking with assets-based mind frames has been well documented by researchers. Similarly, school leaders who critically examine and replace institutional policies and practices that decrease the odds of success for marginalized learners have been most effective in closing opportunity and instructional gaps.

In order to systemically address the needs of ELLs and SELs, we educators must share a common understanding of academic language development (ALD). Wong-Fillmore (2013) defines academic language as, “…the language of texts. The forms of speech and written discourse that are linguistic resources educated people in our society can draw on. This is language that is capable of supporting complex thought, argumentation, literacy, successful learning; it is the language used in written and spoken communication in college and beyond” (page 15). Given that we are preparing ELLs and SELs for college, career, and beyond, they should receive ample opportunities to learn and use academic language, both in spoken and written form (Soto, 2014). ELLs and SELs also must be provided with scaffolded access to cognitively and linguistically demanding content, which allows them to cultivate their complex thinking and argumentation.

Language and literacy gaps must be closed as soon as ELLs enter school. SELs come to school with a language variation that, in order to be built upon in the classroom setting, must first be understood. In reviewing the wide range of literature by experts in this field, most agree that the key elements of academic English language for ELLs and SELs include these four dimensions: academic vocabulary; syntax and grammar; discourse; and culturally responsive teaching.

For full proficiency in ALD, it is integral that each language dimension be addressed across disciplines—the dimensions should not be taught as either/or skills. Instead, each of the dimensions should be addressed throughout a course of study or unit. The table below defines each element of ALD, including specific skills that can be taught to address each dimension in the classroom setting.

ALD Dimension Definition
Academic Discourse Academic discourse is putting words and sentences (the other two language dimensions) together to clearly communicate complex ideas.  The essential components of academic discourse include:

·         Message organization and text structure

·      Voice and register

·      Density of words, sentences, and ideas

·      Clarity and coherence

·         Purpose, functions, audience

Academic Vocabulary Words are separate units of information, it is tempting to focus on them as “pieces of knowledge” to accumulate to show learning. Instead, words should be tools and materials for constructing more complete and complex messages.  A focus on explicitly teaching Tier 2 (high frequency words that go across content areas) and Tier 3 (abstract/nuanced words that exist within a particular content area or discipline) academic vocabulary is essential.


Grammar/Syntax in Context The syntax dimension involves putting words and phrases together in sentences. Academic texts contain a lot more complex and compound sentences.  The essential components of academic syntax include:

·    Sentence structure (compound, complex) & length

·    Transitions/Connectives (e.g., however, because, therefore, yet, as, despite)

·    Complex verb tenses

·         Passive voice


Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Practices Culturally responsive pedagogy incorporates high-status, accurate cultural knowledge about different ethnic groups into all subjects and skills taught. It, validates, facilitates, liberates, and empowers ethnically diverse students by simultaneously cultivating their cultural integrity, individual abilities, and academic success (Gay, 2000).


(Definitions adapted from, unless otherwise noted)

ALD is a pathway to equity. With new rigorous state standards and expectations, ALD is the scaffold that provides access for ELLs and SELs, so that high academic expectations can be maintained and reached.

Written by

Ivannia Soto, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Education at Whittier College, where she specializes in second language acquisition, systemic reform for English language learners (ELLs), and urban education. She has presented on literacy and language topics at various conferences and has provided technical assistance for systemic reform for ELLs and Title III.

Ivannia is the author of a number of Corwin titles including The Literacy Gaps, ELL Shadowing as a Catalyst for Change, Moving From Spoken to Written Language With ELLs, and the newly-published Academic Language Mastery Series.

No comments

leave a comment