Connecting ELD & Academic Language

Rights Reserved. RefugeeClassroom, 2018.

Rights Reserved. RefugeeClassroom, 2018.

“Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things.” – Flora Lewis

Language learning engages some of our most complex cognitive capacities.  Growing our understanding of how language acquisition works helps us to better address the needs of our new-to-English learners.  Indeed, "Academic Language is believed to be one of the most important factors in the academic success of English Language Learners, and it has been shown to be a major contributor to achievement gaps between ELLs and English-proficient students." (Willis, 2013).

We’ll look at language acquisition under two distinct umbrellas: English Language Development (ELD) and Academic Language.  The first refers to direct language use and function (social expressiveness), while the latter addresses content-specific communication. New-to-English speakers typically achieve conversational language fluency at or around two years of practice; academic language proficiency can take five to seven years to develop.  

Teaching for ELLs requires a dedication to English Language Development.  ELD instruction is deliberately designed to promote language proficiency and overall school success.  As a learner develops the ability to navigate basic language use and function, he or she can begin to access academic language components.  Basic social expressiveness falls under the realm of ELD.  These elemental mechanisms of inter-personal communication are essential for successful integration and can be heard in the hallways and lunchrooms and on the bus or playground. 

Here’s what we need to keep in mind about English Language Development:

·       It is the basic infrastructure for language learning

·       It is necessary for communication

·       Language acquisition is the primary goal   

·       ELD is structured around Tier 1 and Tier 2 words

·       ELD instruction should be continued, even as academic language is introduced

·       ELD instruction benefits cooperative structures, team building, classroom culture, information processing.  

·       ELD techniques can be effectively used in whole class settings across a range of language ability levels (including non-ELLs!) to grow command of the English language.

 English, in the context of ELD, is explicitly taught using specific strategies that are shown to enhance and accelerate language acquisition.  Instruction often occurs in small group settings and focuses on the domains of listening and speaking to build efficacy in the areas of reading and writing. ELD efforts provide opportunities to learn and practice English vocabulary, syntax, conventions, functions, grammar and registers.  Student engagement is enhanced through the implementation of sheltered instruction techniques and consistent ongoing feedback toward student growth.

The goal of ELD is to provide ELs a foundation on which academic language constructs can be mapped, built and renovated.  Students require academic language proficiency in order to navigate the classroom experience, to fully participate content learning and to express knowledge in school-appropriate ways.  Students encounter academic language in learning objectives, textbooks, course/content exercises and standardized testing materials.  Writer and researcher Todd Finley summarizes: "Academic language is a meta-language that helps learners acquire the 50,000 words that they are expected to have internalized by the end of high school."

Here’s what we need to keep in mind about academic language, or integrated ELD:

·       It is discipline and content specific

·       It grows from basic conversational fluency

·       Academic language is explicitly taught in direct content context   

·       It is standards based and essential for school success

·       Academic language is structured Tier 2 words and beyond

·       Academic language includes and expands upon essential ELD principles (vocabulary, syntax, grammar, conventions and functions)

·       Sheltered instruction techniques can also used for the purpose of teaching and clarifying academic language 

·       ELD/social language aptitude is not an accurate indicator for academic language proficiency

As educators, we can encourage the shift from social language to academic content language in organic ways.  One approach is to assist language learners in making conscious moves to “upgrade” known language.  In this way, we can scaffold the transition toward advanced content-specific vernacular, or “juicy” words, in elementary-teacher talk.

Let's look at some examples in shifting from social to academic language:

·       Know: recognize, experience, comprehend

·       See: observe, examine, distinguish

·       Think: determine, consider, summarize

·       Guess: predict, wonder, imagine

·       Show: demonstrate, prove, establish

·       Write: record, compose, formulate 

 It is important to point out that social and academic English need not (and should not) be mutually exclusive entities in the classroom context.  Each serves a unique purpose and supports the other.  In fact, conversational English is an essential tool for teaching, clarifying and exchanging ideas around academic language.  

We can refer to the structure of language building as an "iceberg".  At the tip of the iceberg, above the surface, social language proficiency is demonstrated (as output defined under ELD).  This is what we hear when we engage with our students.  It provides a snapshot of an individual's level of BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills).  Below the surface, we find the deeper, more complex tier of academic-content language, associated with CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency).  The wide bottom platform of the iceberg represents language mastery. 

We can make the (often overwhelming) task of learning a new language more manageable when we shape our instruction in purposeful, developmentally appropriate ways.  That is, we can provide students opportunities to achieve language mastery by building on the brain’s holistic tendency to sequentially stack learning according to accessibility and complexity. We show intentionality in our work with language learners by building on known language and scaffolding into new domains.  


School success for ELLs requires an integrated approach that combines English Language Development and explicit academic-content language instruction in a ways that are tailored to a student's English language capacity at a given time, in a given space.   In this way, students are able to work toward the successful negotiation of both worlds on a continuum toward language mastery.  After all, assures artist and intellect Edmund De Waal, 

"With languages, you are at home anywhere."