The Office of Faculty Development

Academic Language Development

Academic language refers to the vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and conventions for communicating in a content-specific academic setting.  This includes written and spoken communications.  In many disciplines this includes the reading and writing of symbolic notation.  As language acquisition is developmental in nature, so learning to understand and use academic language in context is developmental.

Language development and acquisition are extremely complex processes and include more than memorizing definitions.  When developing their academic language knowledge and skills, students need opportunities to engage with the language in the many different ways that experts engage with academic language.  This includes opportunities to listen, speak, write, and read in context.

When it is said that academic language acquisition is developmental, this means that learning the language will progress through predictable developmental phases on the way to mastery.  Students will require opportunities to fumble with vocabulary and language conventions that are new to them.  They require support, a learning environment where it is safe to take intellectual risks, modeling of language, and feedback.

Use of metalanguage is another strategy that helps facilitate development of academic language (and language in general).  Metalanguage refers to learning experiences that explicitly engage students in thinking (and speaking!) about the language and their understanding of it.  This may look like discussions that connect the meaning of new vocabulary to prior vocabulary knowledge possessed by students.  This could look like students talking about how or why language conventions are useful or confusing.  There are many ways in which we can engage students in metalanguage tasks.

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    Examine selected research on academic language development:

    Cumming, A. (2013). Multiple dimensions of academic language literacy developmentLanguage learning. 63(1) 130-152. in new window)

    Phillips Galloway, E., Dobbs, C., Olivo, M., Madigan, C. (2019). ‘You can…”: An examination of language-minoritized learners’ development of metalanguage and agency as users of academic language within a multivocal instructional approachLinguistics and education. 50 13-24. in new window)

    Schleppegrell, M. J. (2013).  The role of metalanguage in supporting academic language developmentLanguage learning. 63(1) 153-170. in new window)

    Uccelli, P., Phillips Galloway, E., Barr, C., Meneses, A., Dobbs, C. (2015). Beyond vocabulary: Exploring cross-disciplinary academic-language proficiency and its association with reading comprehensionReading research quarterly. 50(3) 337-356. in new window)


    Ready to apply academic language development strategies to your teaching? Here are some ideas and strategies to get you started:

    1. Create an advance organizer(opens in new window) that includes academic vocabulary for students to use to take lecture notes or guide their work during an activity.
    2. Plan opportunities for students to engage in discourse related to the topic you are teaching.  This provides opportunities for students to engage in what Michael Long(opens in new window) calls negotiation of meaning(opens in new window).
    3. Explicitly connect the academic or formal language used in class to informal, accessible language used by your students.
    4. Develop learning activities and assessments that authentically model the contexts in which students will need to use the skills they are developing, including academic language.
    5. Develop and apply rubrics that use the academic language that is needed to successful completion of assignments or otherwise focus on using academic language in the written and spoken feedback that you provide to students.