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Developing Academic Language in Secondary English Language Learners: What the Research Says (and Doesn’t Say)

Recently the Ask a REL Reference Desk at Education Northwest received a request for research-based resources on how teachers can develop the academic language of their English language learner (ELL) students. Indeed, the importance of ELLs obtaining the academic language necessary to succeed in all content areas cannot be overemphasized. According to the Center on Instruction’s Practical Guidelines for the Education of English Language Learners (2007), “use of―and control over―academic language is the key to content-area learning” (p. 7). When students lack the ability to comprehend and analyze texts and are not able to write and express themselves effectively, they will not master the content necessary to succeed in academic subjects.

Below we list a few of the publicly available, practitioner-oriented resources that focus on developing academic language in ELL students. For additional research and resources on this or other topics, contact research librarian Jennifer Klump at the Ask A REL Reference desk.

Academic Literacy Instruction for Adolescents: A Guidance Document from the Center on Instruction (2007)
This document makes recommendations for improving academic literacy instruction for students in grades 4–12 in content areas or across the school day. This includes students reading below grade level and ELL students. The study also offers experts’ responses to questions about the best methods for improving the academic literacy of adolescents and provides examples of state activities in support of improved adolescent literacy in California, Florida, Rhode Island, and Washington.

AccELLerate! (Summer, 2009)
This issue of the quarterly review of the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA) features articles on promoting the academic language skills of ELL secondary students, reading in the content areas, vocabulary strategies, writing fluency, and other related topics.

Improving Science and Vocabulary Learning of English Language Learners (2010)
This brief from the Center for Research on the Educational Achievement and Teaching of English Language Learners (CREATE) reviews research on effective science instruction for ELLs, as well as on the importance of English language proficiency for accessing subject-area content. The review also summarizes the findings from two intervention studies that were effective in building academic and discipline-specific vocabulary and science knowledge in English language learners. A

Integrated Content and Language Instruction (2008)
This digest from the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) describes four key principles of practice found in classrooms that effectively combine content and language instruction:

  • Clear content and language outcomes in each lesson
  • Goal-directed opportunities for interacting with classmates and teachers to jointly reflect and build specific content knowledge and skills
  • Tasks that promote the development of reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills within the content areas
  • Outcomes that are reviewed, consolidated, and assessed during lessons

Teaching Mathematics and English to English Language Learners Simultaneously (2007)
This article from the Middle School Journal discusses ways in which middle school mathematics teachers can assist their students, and particularly ELLs, to learn both mathematics and discourse skills needed to successfully participate in reform-oriented mathematics classrooms. Much of the discussion can be applied to other content areas.

Using Cognitive Strategies to Develop English Language and Literacy (2002)
This CAL digest describes ways to develop students' English language and literacy skills and to make academic content challenging, interesting, and accessible. These strategies include: building conceptual frameworks for new knowledge; teaching learning strategies; focusing on reading in all classes; providing free-reading opportunities; and helping students move beyond the text to reexamine, reconnect, and rethink the major ideas or concepts.