Helping students negotiate conversational and academic language

Four high school students in uniforms talking with a female teacher

What was the last good movie you saw? Was it a comedy, a drama, or a mixture of both? After you watched it, did you have a chance to talk about it with anyone? If so, what was the nature of your conversation? Did you talk about how the movie was written? Or about how well (or not) the actors portrayed the characters? Did you relate in a personal way to the characters or to their conflicts? Was there any part of your conversation after the movie that bordered on academic talk, rather than just social talk?

The last four movies I saw (and all were excellent) were Academy Award nominees: Joy, The Big Short, Spotlight, and Room. Three were based on actual events (Joy, The Big Short and Spotlight), while Room was based on a novel. Although they were very different movies, each engendered rich and interesting conversations with my husband and friends. After each, we talked about a variety of topics related to the movies, including the events as they were depicted; news accounts that were published at the time; liberties the writers and directors had taken with the subject matter; things we’d learned or found disturbing or funny; and how well actors had portrayed their characters. These topics of conversation were interspersed during after-movie dinners or drinks, and our exchanges flowed smoothly from serious topics to funny ones, and then back again to something more thoughtful. We never considered, after the movies, whether we were using conversational language or academic language—we just used both fluidly.

The advent of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, or other equally rigorous standards, have focused attention on the need for all students to be able to engage in rich, meaningful discussions, whether orally or in writing. This requires that they have facility with aspects of academic language, such as: “comprehend and evaluate complex texts across a range of types and disciplines…construct effective arguments and convey intricate or multifaceted information….discern a speaker’s key points, request clarification, and ask relevant questions…build on others’ ideas, articulate their own ideas, and confirm they have been understood” (CCSS for English Language arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, p. 7). As educated people, during our talk after the movies, we were able to move easily across a continuum of language use from conversational to more academic, and then back to conversational. How can we prepare students to do the same?

The following activity may help students in grades 3 and above learn to navigate along a continuum of conversational and academic language (see Figure 1):

  1. Help students understand that conversational language and academic language are not opposites. Rather, they exist along a continuum from conversational to academic. Select three or four students to engage in a social conversation (in front of other class members) about a familiar topic, such as their favorite foods. After five minutes or so, debrief the conversation with your class. How did the conversation look and how did it sound? Gently nudge students to recognize that some students used facial expressions and gestures when communicating; they used words and phrases they all knew; the topic (favorite foods) was easy topic to talk about since they had lots of experience with it; and their sentences were primarily simple rather than complex (“I love hamburgers because…..”). List on the white board or chart paper, how students characterize the conversational language used by the small group. Hint: If you’re working with younger students, you may have a more productive conversation if you identify three or four students, and allow them some time to “practice” their conversation beforehand.Continuum of Conversational and Academic Language
  2. Now, ask three or four other students to engage in an academic discussion about a topic that they’re currently learning (such as healthy and unhealthy foods, and the Food Pyramid). For this task, it will definitely work better if you select the students beforehand and help them settle on the topic and some key vocabulary that they can use during their discussion. The key vocabulary words (no more than 5-6) are content-related, with some cross-curricular Signal Words1 for review. You might also provide a list of evidence-based frames that the students can use when referring back to their text for support. Examples include:
    1. The author said …
    2. ……… because …………
    3. According to the article (or chapter), ……..
    4. For instance, …….
    5. For example, …….
    6. On page ….., it said, ………
    7. From my reading, I learned ……

    As with the social conversation, debrief and list how students characterize the academic language used during the modeling. What kinds of words and sentences did the students use? How was their language different from the first group? How did they support their positions with evidence from their reading? It may be helpful to have the class complete a Venn diagram, comparing and contrasting conversational language and academic language, based on the students’ models, or they can write a few sentences about each type of language use to clarify their understanding.

  3. After students have compared and contrasted conversational language and academic language, create on your white board a continuum, with “Conversational Language” at one end, and “Academic Language” at the other end. Together with your class, fill in the continuum, using students’ examples. For instance, the first spot on the left (currently “texting family about whereabouts”), could be “talking about your favorite food with a friend.” The other end of the continuum (currently “reading and taking notes…”), could be “explaining the food pyramid with specific examples from our book.” Of course, you don’t need to include as many examples as are found in Figure 1.

Four corners vocabularyHere’s what’s important to convey to your students, whether native English speakers or English learners: Conversational language is easier to learn because it has lots of clues built in (such as facial expressions, simpler sentences, known words and phrases, a familiar topic, a “friendly” face to whom you’re speaking, and so forth,). Academic language is more challenging because the topic may not be as familiar, the sentences may be more complex, and the vocabulary may be new. As educated people, we need to know both conversational language and academic language if we’re to navigate life effectively. The more academic language students know and practice, and the more opportunities they have to produce academic language, using aids such as the Signal Words posters and 4-Corners Vocabulary Charts (see Figure 2), the better.

I wish I could be a mouse in the corner to watch your students engage in their conversational and academic language demonstrations. I hope they work! Best wishes and enjoy the remainder of the school year!



1  Signal Words: Download (for free!) Signal Words posters at Click on Resource Library; then click on Signal Words. Enlarge posters for your classroom use. For more ideas, see: Vogt & Echevarria (2008). 99 Ideas and Activities for Teaching English Learners with the SIOP Model. Boston: Pearson; and Vogt, Echevarria, & Washam (2015). 99 More Ideas and Activities for Teaching English Learners with the SIOP Model. Boston: Pearson.


About the Author
MaryEllen Vogt, Ed.D.

MaryEllen Vogt, Ed.D.

MaryEllen Vogt, Ed.D. is distinguished professor emerita of education at California State University, Long Beach. Dr. Vogt has been a classroom teacher, reading and special education specialist, district reading resource teacher, and university teacher educator. She received her doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley. A co-author of fourteen books, including the SIOP® Series and Reading Specialists and Literacy Coaches in the Real World (2007), Dr. Vogt has provided professional development in all fifty United States, and in eight other countries. She served as president of the International Reading Association in 2004-2005.