Wednesday / April 24

Academic Language as an Equity Imperative

Academic Language as an Equity Imperative

It’s time to challenge the status quo of K-12 education for historically marginalized students—English language learners (ELLs), students with disabilities, and speakers of other varieties of English—in regard to the role of academic language in learning. As a lifetime advocate of multilingualism, I know that school has the potential to serve as a linguistic equalizer in today’s interconnected world. But how do we even begin to make a difference? Let’s take a look at some important questions about bringing about linguistic equity into our schools.

  1. What does academic language mean to underserved students? Is it equated with their vocabulary use in oral and written expression or does it extend beyond individual words in context?

Academic language should never be confined to learning content-related vocabulary, indeed a proven contributor to academic achievement; it should also portray the wealth of multi-literacies that expand beyond the printed word to encompass the richness of linguistic diversity and multimodal forms of linguistic expression and representation. Historically, data on students’ vocabulary only seem to have exacerbated the divide between the haves and the have nots rather than being a stimulus for promoting equity. In reshaping the literacy landscape to be inclusive of gestures, imagery, technology, music, among other modalities, we come to understand the interrelated ways in which we make and communicate meaning. In doing so, students who may be challenged by traditional print as the sole depiction of literacy have more equitable opportunities and venues in which to demonstrate their comprehension.

  1. What constitutes linguistic equity in schools? Can it be defined as each student’s opportunities to use academic language to access, participate, achieve, and thrive in content-area classrooms? If so, are we privileging certain students over others?

One would think that a major language right in a democracy would be the ability of students to learn in and use their own language or preferred variety of English—that indeed would be linguistic equity—but in the US, often this right is either overlooked or denied. If linguistic equity is to become a reality in our schools, practitioners must take responsibility for cultivating and maintaining an environment where all languages (and cultures) are equally respected. School leaders, in turn, must take the responsibility for building linguistically sustainable schools where all students, in particular, multilingual students are positioned, recognized, and treated as equals alongside their peers. That translates into school-level policy that is enacted in each and every classroom where multilingual students have the latitude of pursuing learning in their home language as a goal unto itself or as a medium to fortify their English language development. It means that linguistic equity is a belief held by educators and a reality for students.

  1. How has the K-12 vision of academic language use been unduly twisted by federal policy that is tied to the reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary School Act (ESEA)? What has been the impact of this far-reaching, anti-poverty civil rights legislation designed to promote equitable access to high-quality education for all students?

Starting in 2002, with the passage of the past two reauthorizations of ESEA, namely, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), we have witnessed an increased reliance on English-dominant instructional models for students classified as ELLs as an expedient for meeting short-term school, district, and state level academic goals. Counter to the growing body of research that now has strong evidence to support students’ academic language development in multiple languages (alongside other benefits), students’ home languages have, in large part, been neglected as media of instruction. That is, due in part to restrictive accountability requirements, K-12 education has not been responsive to nor has served to diminish the inequities that so many ELLs experience as these students continue being deprived of the academic language development of their full linguistic repertoires.

If educators demand that academic language truly be an equity imperative in elementary and secondary schools, it can’t be confined to and equated with only the global language of power, English. For far too long the paradox of multilingualism here in the US has somehow resulted in valuing academic language only from a monolingual, anglocentric perspective. Hopefully with the passage of proposition 58 (LEARN) in California and the unprecedented growth and validation of dual language and two-way immersion education across the US (and worldwide), we as a nation can come to embrace, respect, enhance, and perpetuate our deep multilingual roots so that linguistic equity can indeed become a reality for schools.


Written by

Margo Gottlieb, Ph.D., is Lead Developer of WIDA, a consortium of 39 state education agencies and 200 international schools, housed at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. Earlier this year, Margo was honored by TESOL International Association “as an individual who has made a significant contribution to the TESOL profession within the past 50 years.”

Margo is author of Assessing English Language Learners: Bridges to Educational Equity (2nd Edition) and co-author of the Corwin series Academic Language in Diverse Classrooms with separate volumes for English Language Arts, Mathematics, Definitions and Contexts for Grades K-2, 3-5, and 6-8. She can be contacted at

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