Teaching content and academic language concurrently

Latina teacher helping a female student at her desk

One reason that the SIOP Model has struck a nerve with so many educators, in addition to the proven academic gains for English learners, is that teachers see that we cannot wait until English learners are proficient in academic English before we teach them the grade-level content concepts they need to succeed.  Also, teachers have realized that just because students seem to speak English effortlessly when they’re on the playground or in the lunchroom, it doesn’t mean that they have mastered academic English, “the set of words, grammar, and organizational strategies used to describe complex ideas, higher-order thinking processes, and abstract concepts” (Zwiers, 2008, p. 20).  We now know that in order for English learners to succeed academically, they must be taught content concepts and the related academic language of that content concurrently.

What follows are some practical tips and ideas for teaching content and academic language together during your lessons. For this blog entry, I’m using science as the content but the principles certainly extend to any other content area (see Short, Vogt, & Echevarria, 2011, for more science ideas).  Remember that the SIOP Model has been shown to be effective for all students, not just English learners.

  1. Know the academic language of the content you’re teaching.
    • Your state science standards and the WIDA language standards can help you identify specific vocabulary and other terms students need to know.  For example, note the terms in the following sample science standards. Terms that are specific to science are bolded; general academic words are underlined; polysemous words are in italics (Short, Vogt, & Echevarria, 2011, p. 9-10). Polysemous words are those that students may think they know, but they may not know the definition of the word as it is used in the standards. Note that some words are both specific to science and polysemous (bolded and in italics).
      • K-2: Students know how to identify resources from Earth that are used in everyday life and understand that many resources can be conserved.
      • 3-5: Students will collect data in an investigation and analyze those data to develop a logical conclusion.
      • 6-8: Students will plan and conduct investigations in which independent and dependent variables, constants, controls, and repeated trials are identified.
      • 9-12: Students will be able to define probability and describe how it helps explain the results of genetic crosses.
    • Remember that academic language is more than vocabulary, so also think about the English syntax that is used in various content areas. For example, the passive voice is often used in scientific texts: “In photosynthesis, the sun is captured by plants and is converted into carbon dioxide and water that is used as food.”  An example of this sentence in the active voice is: “In photosynthesis, plants capture the sun and they use it to convert carbon dioxide and water into food.” The passive voice is often more difficult to understand, especially for English learners.
    • When teaching a new, abstract concept, use “everyday language” when first introducing it: “Photosynthesis is a process by which plants capture sunlight and use it to convert carbon dioxide and water into food.”  A scientific definition is: “Photosynthesis is defined as a process wherein the synthesis of compounds is facilitated with the aid of radiant energy, usually in plants, but also in some species of algae and bacteria” (buzzle.com). Of course, the scientific definition needs to be taught at some point, but English learners and other students will benefit from hearing it in “everyday language” first.
    • To help students understand the differences between conversational or social language and academic language, record and then transcribe brief examples of students’ conversations with each other.  Have students analyze the transcripts, pointing out examples of what makes talk conversational.  Also, record a brief academic discussion between two or three students, or between you and a student. Repeat the previous process and have students identify the phrases and sentences that include academic language.
  2. Incorporate as much context as possible into your content lessons.
    • Context here refers to additional information that promotes students’ access to content and language concepts. For example, many teachers have Word Walls, where words are organized by some feature, such as alphabetical, meaning, part of speech, and so forth. While Word Walls can be effective for students, you can add more context through an activity called the Four Corners Vocabulary Chart (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2013, p. 81; Vogt & Echevarria, 2008, p. 40-41).  Three of the chart’s corners of the chart include additional information about a vocabulary word. As an example, students are studying various cloud formations in science class. The key vocabulary word is cumulus, written in the bottom right quadrant of the chart. To help students remember the word’s meaning, additional contextual clues on the chart include a picture of a cumulus cloud (top left quadrant), a student-friendly definition of a cumulus cloud (bottom left quadrant), and a sentence that includes the term (“The fluffiest clouds, that look like cotton, are called cumulus clouds”), in the top right quadrant. During a unit, the vocabulary charts can be posted for easy reference, and students can also make their own 4-Corners Vocabulary booklets.
    • A similar chart with four quadrants can feature general academic terms such as “discuss,” or “summarize.” Because many academic terms are abstract and can’t be illustrated, take a photograph of your students when they are engaged in a small group discussion or are working with a partner on a written or oral summary. Use the photograph in place of the picture in the top left corner of the chart. A definition and sentence using the academic term are included in their respective corners for added contextual support.
  3. Provide a variety of scaffolds throughout lessons.
    • While there are many ways to providing scaffolding during a lesson, here are two ideas for scaffolding academic language practice:
      • Show how academic terms and phrases are used in authentic texts.  Using an overhead projector, Elmo machine, or interactive white board, project text that students are reading including academic terms and/or phrases. Cut a piece of tag board and place it on the wall or screen where the text is projected. Cover the word or phrase so students are reading it on the tag board. Slowly, pull the card off the wall so that the word is “taken out of the text.” It can be discussed and defined before it is put back into the original text—that is, the tag board is placed back on top of the word or phrase.  Students and teachers alike love this idea because students quickly see that how the academic language they’ve been studying is used in “real” text.
      • Oh Yesterday! (Short, Vogt, & Echevarria, 2011, p. 32):  This is a great way to recall and review information learned in a prior lesson. Choosing a sentence starter, individual students theatrically state something that was learned, using academic terms and phrases that are listed on the board. The sentence starters may include:
        • Oh Yesterday! I heard that …
        • Oh Yesterday! We studied …
        • Oh Yesterday! I discovered that …
        • Oh Yesterday! Our class …

The most important take-away here is that all students need instruction and practice with academic language to be successful in content classrooms.  Attention to your students’ content and language needs, where both are taught systematically and concurrently in your lessons, will reap benefits for them in the coming years.


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.