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Many ELs have difficulty with reading, writing, and oral language in English, which interferes with their academic work in all subject areas. In order to help ELs succeed in school, teachers need to know the specific linguistic challenges faced by ELs in different subject-matter classes, including textbook difficulty, demands made by classroom interactions, and characteristics of the language challenges present in standardized tests (Valdes, 2001). This kind of academic language is different from the English used in everyday conversations and requires at least several years to develop (Cummins, 2000).

Scarcella (2003: 10-11) defines academic language as “a variety or register of English used in professional books and characterized by the specific linguistic features that are used in particular situational contexts." Chamot & O’Malley (1994: 40) define it as “the language that is used by teachers and students for the purposes of acquiring new knowledge and skills ... imparting new information, describing abstract ideas, and developing students’ conceptual understanding." Saunders & Goldenberg (2010: 49-50) define academic language as “the specialized vocabulary, grammar, discourse/textual, and functional skills associated with academic instruction and mastery of academic material and tasks." Students need academic language to perform sophisticated tasks such as synthesizing and evaluating information, arguing persuasively for or against a point of view, and analyzing a set of data.

Academic language is different from one content area to another. Thus, the language of mathematics is different from the language of social studies, from that of science, and so on. Different disciplines require knowledge of specific technical vocabulary and make use of different grammatical forms and discourse patterns. For example, in order to write an analysis of data presented in a graph in a math class, students would need to know the vocabulary of graphs as well as the sentence structures and discourse features required for writing an analysis (e.g., “The population of X decreased from 1965 to 1990. Then the population increased from 1990 to 2005. The population of Y increased slowly from 1965 to 1985, then increased more rapidly from 1990 to 1995. Between 1965 and 2005, Z showed the greatest increase in population."). In an English language arts class, students may need to know the differences between an informal summary of a short story written in their reading journals and a formal summary of a journal article written for a term paper, including use of expressions such as “According to the author" and “The author maintains" (Dutro & Kinsella, 2010).

Advanced language development for ELs requires teachers to understand the specific textual demands of a discipline. Schleppegrell, Achugar, & Oteiza (2004) believe that history provides a particularly good example of discipline- specific literacy demands because it is constructed through texts that cannot easily be experienced hands-on. They show that many ELs have difficulty in identifying the events that are relevant to the historical content. To help students to identify historical events, the authors recommend analyzing the verbs. They classify the verbs used in history texts into (1) action verbs (e.g., fight, defend, build, vote); (2) saying and thinking-feeling verbs (e.g., said, expressed, suppose, like, resent); and (3) relating verbs (e.g., is, have, is called). This categorization helps students understand when authors are writing about events (action verbs), when they are giving opinions or telling what others have said (saying and thinking-feeling verbs), and when they are giving background information (relating verbs).

What makes history texts particularly difficult is that even when students do this type of analysis, they find that verbs are sometimes used in unconventional ways or metaphorically, as in Examples 1 and 2 from a text about the Missouri Compromise (Appleby et al., 2000: 437-438, cited in Schleppegrell et al., 2004: 77):

  • 1. By 1819 the Missouri Territory included about 50,000 whites and 10,000 slaves.
  • 2. The admission of a new state would upset that balance.

The authors point out that while the verb included is usually used as an action verb (e.g., to be included in a game), in this text, it functions as a relating verb that establishes the situation in the Missouri Territory at the time of the Compromise debate. In 2, the verb upset is used metaphorically. The authors observe that these academic uses of verbs can make it difficult for ELs to make sense of what is happening in the text.

In my own research on the development of academic English by high school ELs, I found that the students’ lack of knowledge of the grammar of academic English can also get in the way of their adequately understanding the texts (Shin, 2009). Consider the following three sentences from an article that the students read about disputes over trademarking Ethiopian coffee beans (from The Economist, 2006, cited in Shin, 2009):

(1) No wonder Starbucks, [a global coffee chain that prides itself on being socially responsible], has reacted like a scalded barista to criticism from Oxfam, [a development charity] ... (2) [Although it denies being behind coffee-industry lobbying against the Ethiopian government], Starbucks argues that trademarking coffee beans might introduce legal complexities that will deter firms from buying trademarked beans, [thereby hurting farmers instead of helping them] ... (3) Indeed, Mr. Holt’s suggestion [that the Ethiopian government is being frustrated in its attempts to help coffee growers become more entrepreneurial] is laughable.

Each of the bracketed clauses in (1) is a type of nonrestrictive relative clause also known as an appositive, a group of words following an expression that further defines that expression (Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, 1999: 596). The first bracket in (1) contains a relative clause, “that prides itself on being socially responsible." The bracketed clauses in (2) are adverbial phrases. The main sentence in (2) contains a relative clause, “that will deter firms from buying trademarked beans." In (3), the long embedded clause, “that the Ethiopian government is being frustrated in its attempts to help coffee growers become more entrepreneurial" is a complement to the complex noun phrase, “Mr. Holt’s suggestion." Notice that this complement clause has a passive construction in which the implied agent (i.e., Starbucks, coffee-industry lobbyists) is not explicitly mentioned because it was stated in the preceding passage. Formal writing in English is replete with such complex syntactic constructions, and failure to grasp the structural complexities at the sentence level prevents ELs from adequately comprehending the texts.

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