What is Academic Language?
To define what is meant by academic language, or academic uses of language, it helps to first define social language.
Social language is the manner of speech used in casual conversation. It’s less formal and develops naturally through conversation with family and friends. Academic language skills, however, require intentional development and are therefore more complex to teach.
The definition of academic language is language that is required to learn in school, including vocabulary words used commonly in informational content. Examples of places where K-12 students often encounter academic language include textbooks, subject-specific lessons, and tests. Most of the academic vocabulary students will encounter falls into one of two categories:
- Words that are used frequently across subjects and sometimes have more than one meaning (Tier 2)
- Subject-specific vocabulary (Tier 3)
Why is Academic Language Important?
Teaching academic language is key to the development of higher-level skills.Broadening students’ academic vocabulary promotes deeper understanding of curriculum content, as the specificity of language helps to clarify and differentiate meaning.
Imagine trying to study the water cycle without knowing the definitions of the terms evaporation, convection, precipitation, and collection. It would be difficult to imagine how effective the lesson would be for a student without prior knowledge of those academic terms. This highlights the importance of developing academic uses of language for all students to meet curriculum standards across subjects.
Academic Language and English Learners
We’ve discussed why academic language development is important for all students. Now let’s take a moment to focus on the importance of academic language in the instruction of English Language Learners (ELL).
While acquiring social language generally takes ELL students about two years, academic language development can take between five to seven years. Now consider the belief that developing academic uses of language is one of the most important factors in the academic success of English Language Learners. If academic language is pivotal to the long-term success of ELL students and it takes the longest to develop, the need for effective instruction in academic language becomes clear.
Teaching academic language with engaging, high-quality podcasts offers opportunities for students to build vocabulary and background knowledge about a wide variety of topics. Gradually building knowledge and academic vocabulary through exposure to authentic language motivates students and provides the foundation they need to continue improving their reading skills.
Download our Whitepaper: Is Listening a Missing Link to Academic Language Acquisition in Today’s Secondary Schools
Research indicates that for many students, especially those who are not yet proficient readers, listening to a passage often results in better comprehension than reading the same passage. Increased comprehension often leads to more active participation in discussions by those students. By listening to academic language, students can focus on developing comprehension strategies without the cognitive load of decoding. These strategies include making inferences and identifying the main idea, which can be applied to building speaking, listening, and reading skills.
Teaching Academic Language With Podcasts
Students need to be proficient with academic uses of language across all literacy domains (listening, speaking, reading, writing). Natural acquisition of academic language often has students listening before reading academic vocabulary fluently. Providing opportunities for students to hear academic uses of language (particularly Tier 2 vocabulary) are critical to student success. Examples of opportunities in the classroom where students might need to access their academic vocabularies while listening are class discussion, lectures, and debates.
Creating opportunities for students to regularly practice listening to academic language is an important part of the acquisition process. Listening to podcast stories is a great way to do this. Podcasts expose students to natural speech, including different speeds of talking and various accents. Podcasts are also typically informational “texts” that are current and can be very meaningful and engaging content for students.
By playing a podcast straight through without pausing, you mirror the situation an EL student may encounter in the outside world. If you add brief pauses, you can create an opportunity to check for understanding. In addition to supporting academic vocabulary and content knowledge acquisition, listening to podcasts can sharpen listening skills. Detailed comprehension of a 5-minute podcast with academic language requires sustained, close listening, a habit that must be taught, supported, and regularly practiced.
Sample STEM academic language podcast: The Perfect Measuring Cup
One example of how podcasts can support academic language acquisition is with teaching Tier 2 academic vocabulary. In the Tiered Vocabulary language acquisition schema, Tier 2 refers to high-utility words that are less common in everyday speech but are critical to ELs gaining a command of academic uses of language. While Tier 1 words can be acquired through social language and academic language, students can struggle with Tier 2 vocabulary due to less frequent exposure. Examples of Tier 2 words include obvious, informed, required, fortunate. While there are many resources for teaching Tier 2 words through reading, there are fewer tools designed to teach that level of academic vocabulary through listening.
Sample Tier 2 vocabulary-filled podcast: Young Inaugural Poet on Her Journey
One of the strengths of Listenwise is that our platform provides EL students with opportunities to encounter Tier 2 vocabulary words through listening and reading. Moreover, listening to podcasts gives students the added benefit of exposure to Tier 2 words used in authentic-sounding language.
Many educators who use Listenwise report that our Weird News podcasts are a great way to support the acquisition of academic vocabulary. Our Weird News segments are less-than-30-second current event podcasts about unusual current events, making them topical and accessible for ELLs. Listenwise includes the academic vocabulary words featured in the stories into the accompanying comprehension and discussion questions to help students engage deeper with the content. In particular, this approach works especially well for elementary students and English learners.
Try out Weird News: Weird News: The Richest Person in History
Listenwise’s library of over 2800 lessons provides students and teachers with a vast academic language resource in podcast form. Regardless of a student’s reading level, language proficiency, or subject matter, Listenwise offers audio content that will help build those academic language skills in students. Additionally, Premium users are able to assign quizzes to assess comprehension and ensure that students are understanding the lesson’s concepts and vocabulary. If you’re not already a Premium user, learn how to get started with a free Listenwise Premium Trial.
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