Migrant and Bilingual Education Academic Language Toolkit
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Academic Language Toolkit

In classrooms all over Washington, the Common Core Standards (CCSS) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are placing rigorous academic content at the center of the teaching endeavor. As a result, academic language, the language required by students to understand and communicate in subject area disciplines, has become the heart of grade-level curriculum (Gottlieb & Ernst-Slavit, 2014).

Academic language (also referred to as academic English, disciplinary language, scientific language, critical language, and language of school) helps define school success for all students. It is the language of textbooks and homework, the language found in assessments, and the language students should hear and see in all classrooms. This language is different in register, structure, and vocabulary from everyday language.

Dimensions of Academic Language
Many equate academic language to tier 2 and tier 3 words, vocabulary lists, or just “hard words.” Without a doubt, vocabulary is one important aspect of academic language. However as Figure 1 illustrates, academic language is comprised of more than vocabulary or short phrases. In fact, academic language includes a variety of sentence structures (e.g., compare and contrast, sequencing) and discourse types (e.g., lab reports, story problems).

Fig. 1. Dimensions of Academic Language. From: Gottlieb & Ernst-Slavit (2014), Academic Language in Diverse Classrooms: Definitions and Contexts)


  • General, specialized, and technical words
  • Nominalizations (Converting verbs and adjectives to nouns)
  • Multiple meaning words and idiomatic expressions

Sentence Structures

  • Types of sentences: simple, compound, complex
  • Prepositional phrases
  • Word order


  • Genres or text types
  • Cohesion of text
  • Coherence of ideas

Students might know the meaning of certain academic words. However, if they cannot put them in a comprehensible sentence, or cannot understand the difference between writing a lab report and a book report, knowledge of academic words alone will not help them be successful.

If we think about a content objective, such as, “students will be able to explain the life cycle of a butterfly”, all students, including ELs, will need certain linguistic knowledge to understand and express their understanding. For example, we could look at the vocabulary: metamorphosis, pupa, larva, and chrysalis. However, vocabulary alone will not be enough to describe the butterfly’s life cycle. Students will need sequencing words, such as, first, second, next, and last. Students will also need additional information to complete those sentences and perhaps even produce paragraphs or longer oral texts.

As teachers plan instruction for all their students, including ELs, it is important to design both language and content objectives. One way to think about language objectives is to ask the following question: What language do my students need to know in order to read, understand, write, and talk about the content to demonstrate understanding about this lesson or unit.

The Academic Language Toolkit provides background information, materials for professional development, and additional resources for teachers, schools, and districts.

Prepared by Gisela Ernst-Slavit, PhD, with Washington State University Vancouver on contract with the Bilingual Education Program, June 2016. Special thanks to Heather McClelland, teacher at Fruit Valley Elementary School in Vancouver, for her assistance with this project.



   Updated 6/21/2016

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