Effective learning for excellence
Pupil learning: Developing academic language
Many very able pupils simply lack the level of language required to achieve the higher grades. Others find it difficult to express themselves appropriately, orally and in writing. Schools that make a priority of developing academic language can make a substantial difference to these pupils.
The language development of some pupils, their capacity to vary their use of language according to context, audience and purpose, and their grasp of technical and academic terms reflect the language of home and community. For some who speak another language at home or where there are low levels of literacy, this may mean that they fail to understand the question set, or don't use key terms accurately and precisely.
The academic word list (Ref: 00547-2010DWO-EN-01) indicates those words that are required for higher levels of education. This level of language is unlikely to be used in everyday conversation between peers or in most homes, so the only place that pupils can be given the knowledge, comprehension and confidence to use these words is in school.
Another attribute of academic language is being able to communicate in an appropriate register for the audience and purpose: knowing when to use the vernacular (for example, in a drama) and when it would be appropriate to speak in a formal way (for example, in an interview). This is a life skill that some disadvantaged able learners do not have the chance to learn and practise unless it is taught to them in school.
Cameo of practice 1: Academic language – command words
A school that wished to improve the number of higher-level grades decided to focus on developing knowledge of generic key command words. A triad of teachers from English, business studies and science all used a similar sharp focus on examination questions (see Focusing on the question set – an approach to improving pupils' question analysis skills). They used a similar technique, focusing pupils' attention on the key words in a given question. This revealed that many pupils had an imprecise understanding of important academic words, such as 'analyse', 'evaluate' and 'explain'. The teachers shared their findings and produced a table-top laminated resource mat for all pupils to to use in lessons. This resource proved so useful that it was soon offered to every teacher for use in all subject lessons.
Cameo of practice 2: Academic language – appropriate register
A primary school in a multicultural disadvantaged urban community taught Year 5 gifted and talented children formal debating skills. They found that, with good tuition, practice and encouragement, the children were more than capable of presenting high quality-speeches and engaged well in formal interaction with their opponents. The debate habit spread across the schools as the Year 5 children became debate mentors to others and shared their skills in school assemblies. Even teachers got the debate habit and put on a show debate for children. The school is now winning competitions locally against more traditionally academic schools.
The English Speaking Union Discover Your Voice programme (link opens in new window) can support schools who wish to develop a similar programme.