My Experience with Academic Language

By Junior Associate: Noora Mahmassani

Talking to kids is one of the most important things parents and teachers can do set students up for academic success. As a Linguistics major, I have known this fact for years, but as a UELIP I’ve come to understand how it can be applied with kids and teachers in mind.

During my time as a UELIP, I’ve worked in the Academic Language specialty of the Elementary Literacy Team in the Office of Teaching and Learning. The goal of this specialty is to provide teachers with the tools that they need to increase the Academic English skills of students.

All kids, not just English language learners (ELLs), need support developing their Academic English. This type of language differs from Social English in that it is more complex and includes a specific vocabulary. Essentially, while Social English is the kind of  language you’d use to talk to a friend or cashier at the grocery store, Academic English is kind of language you’d find in a scholarly journal or use to give a presentation to your boss. Students need academic language to be successful in school.

My project this summer has been to help my supervisor create a Vocabulary Plan for students in grades K-8. For each grade level, the plan maps how fifteen academic vocabulary words can be taught to students over the course of the school year using the existing DCPS Curricula.

First, we choose the words by reading through the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts (ELA) and Math and DCPS curricular documents and listing salient words from each. Then, we cross-check these lists with a list of the most common words in Academic English. We then narrow the list of words that appears in both until we are left with about ten to fifteen words.

My role has been to find both explicit and implicit instances of these words in the Common Core ELA and Math State Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, and DCPS ELA, Math, Social Studies, and Science curricula. Using these instances, I’ve created a document that contains example usages of each word in ELA, Math, Science, and Social studies.

Put simply, the Vocabulary Plan is intended to ensure that students learn the words they’ll need to grasp new concepts and content. By including the words in multiple content areas, students should gain a deeper, more nuanced understanding of their meanings and applications.

While conducting this project, I’ve learned so much about my work style and the tendency of tasks to grow and grow. As I worked, my supervisor and I added new components to the plan, like lists of example “kid-friendly” synonyms each word is designed to replace and lists roots and affixes kids should learn on each grade level. And though large parts of the document we’ve created will likely never be used (or be used by very few), I feel satisfied with the work we produced. Work like this is all about expanding and cutting down, reshaping ideas, genuinely listening to feedback, and making sure you stay true to the central mission: meeting teachers’ and students’ needs.

When we stay loyal to that underlying duty, I believe the work we are doing as a District is at its best.

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