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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