Becoming an Academic Language Mentor for ELLs

As you settle back into your post-Thanksgiving, pre-holiday classroom routine with your ELLs, you may be looking for some strategies you can use right now with your ELLs to help support their access to the CCSS.

I came across an article written by Kate Kinsella for Language Magazine in November 2012 called Cutting to the Core: Disrupting Discourse. The article details how teachers can make immediate changes in their use of academic language in the classroom that will help their ELLs become accustomed to the academic language they need to succeed with the CCSS.

Sending Mixed Messages?

In the article, Kinsella describes the need for teachers to use rich oral language to support students’ academic literacy development, stating that language minority students “understandably struggle to read and write what they cannot articulate verbally.” With the new demands of the CCSS, students must “articulate their text comprehension, summarize, make inferences, and justify claims using complex sentences, precise vocabulary, and grammatical accuracy.” Yet, we, as teachers, may not consistently model academic language using a formal register when we interact with ELLs. We may be inadvertently sending mixed messages by shifting from social English (OK guys, let’s get out our stuff and start working) to academic English (Could you cite the evidence that supports that prediction?).

Practical Ways to Launch an Academic English Register Campaign in Your Classroom

As teachers of ELLs – and of all students who need some support with their academic language – we should turn our attention to consistently modeling the kind of academic English language we would like our students to use. Kinsella suggests that we be “academic language mentors” for our ELLs and offers practical examples of how teachers can incorporate the very kind of academic discourse the CCSS demand from all students, including ELLs. As you may suspect, I am all about practical examples teachers can use that will help their ELLs succeed with the CCSS.

She suggests teachers:

  • Use complete sentences
  • Model precise vocabulary
  • Introduce the term register to K-12 students with accessible examples
  • Employ a more formal register during lessons
  • Clarify for students the essentials of constructing an appropriate academic response
  • Visibly display questions and appropriate complete responses
  • Monitor the ways in which they refer to students throughout a lesson (e.g., if guiding them in writing a brief constructed response, addressing them as “co-authors”; if analyzing data or evidence-based text, referring to them as “investigators” or “scientists”)
  • Teach students how to properly address teachers, administrators, and other district employees they encounter
  • Make mindful, meaningful word choices when assigning verbal directions or eliciting verbal contributions throughout a lesson
  • Use focused questions interlaced with precise terminology (“Where did you identify the data that led you to draw this conclusion?”)
  • Coach students to listen attentively as the teacher poses a question, tune in to the target vocabulary (e.g., example, experience, prediction), and respond beginning with the key term

Academic Language Reflection

So, as you and your students spend these last four weeks before the holiday break together, I encourage you to take a minute and think about the kind of academic language mentor you are for your ELLs.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • To what degree do I consistently model academic language use when interacting with my ELLs?
  • Can my ELLs explain and give examples of what the terms formal and informal register mean?
  • Am I giving my ELLs enough support to gain more practice using the formal register and academic language?

Then, try and incorporate some of Kinsella’s suggestions if applicable. Please let our Colorín Colorado community know about any effects these changes have in your classroom by posting a comment to this blog.

5 thoughts on “Becoming an Academic Language Mentor for ELLs

  1. Thank you for taking this article to your readers! In my work coaching teachers implementing Dr. Kinsella’s instructional routines, we often write out the language we plan to use during our lessons, and collaborate on improvements. After reading our “first draft” scripts, we offer suggestions to each other about academic terms or phrases that can be used to replace the worn-out, casual words. Many teachers have remarked about how difficult it was to remove some words like “you guys” from their instructional repertoire without a new term prepared in advance. Having a new set of academic terms ready to use has helped immensely! Many teachers have taken to replacing “you guys” with “scholars” and career-ready “professionals”. The outcome is reflected in the students, who seem to sit up a little straighter, fully engaged with a new sense of importance and enjoyment at practicing such rich academic language modeled and rehearsed by their thoughtful teachers. Thank you for the inspiration!

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