Blogstitute Post 4: Identifying Academic Language Demands in Support of CCSS

June 26th, 2014

I know it’s the end of the week, but stay with us for this important post from Jeff Zwiers, Robert Pritchard, and Susan O’Hara, authors of Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms:Essential Practices for Developing Academic Language and Disciplinary Literacy. The authors share their framework for helping teachers implement best practices for English learners by integrating language and content instruction. Make sure to leave a comment or ask a question for a chance to win a package of eight free Stenhouse books at the end of the week!

Identifying Academic Language Demands in Support of Common Core State Standards

The Common Core State Standards call for specific attention to academic language development across core content areas. As a result, these new standards require effective and simultaneous teaching of academic language skills and the rigorous content that all students must master.  However, academic language, which includes the vocabulary, syntax, and discourse styles of particular content areas, is complex and requires an understanding, on the part of teachers and students, of the specific academic language demands of the content. For example, in math the use of symbolic notation, visual displays such as graphs, technical vocabulary, and grammatical features including complex noun phrases are common. In addition, the language of academic texts, both the ones students read and the ones they produce, has distinctive features and meanings that typically present a contrast to the language used in informal spoken interactions.

Other people have noted the importance of identifying language demands in subject matter materials, but their focus has been on unpacking standards and articulating content and language purposes. We believe that identifying specific academic language demands requires an additional step: an analysis of the text, tasks, and tests to be used in a lesson. What follows is an in-depth look at the process we have developed and implemented with teachers to help them conduct this analysis.

We developed this approach as part of a professional development initiative designed to help teachers implement best practices for English learners. One day’s focus was introducing a framework for integrating language and content instruction. This framework (see Figure 1) begins with the development of content objectives; proceeds through an analysis of the text, tasks, and tests to be used in a lesson as the basis for identifying language demands; and concludes with the development of language objectives that are based on the language demands.  The close-in look that follows focuses specifically on how the analysis of text and tasks was introduced to and modeled for teachers.

The session began with a discussion of the academic language features (lexical, syntactic, and discourse) we discuss in Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms: Essential Practices for Developing Academic Language and Disciplinary Literacy (see Figure 2). Teachers were provided with content-specific examples of these features and applied this knowledge to the process of identifying language demands. The approach was based on the assumption that teachers need to experience this process as learners, and then reflect on their learning and on the effectiveness of the process from the perspective of students. This increases the teachers’ capacity for explaining and modeling to their students.

Next, teachers were given the following set of instructional materials developed for use in a history lesson: content objectives, text used, and instructional tasks for students.

Content Objectives:

  •  Students will be able to identify the causes and effects of the Great Depression as well as its widespread impact on all Americans through a persuasive article.
  • Students will be able to explain in an essay how Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” expanded the role of the federal government and how the legislation enacted during his tenure continues to impact our lives today.

Sample Text: Defining the Depression

During the 1930s, many people were out of work, and those who had invested in the stock market lost all of their money. Factories closed down. Families lost their homes. People stood in lines to get free food. In the Great Plains, a drought lasting eight years combined with over-cultivation to create the Dust Bowl. It was very difficult to grow anything, and many lost their farms. Due to overproduction and surpluses the prices for wheat became so low that farming the land was no longer worthwhile. What was happening? What had become of the carefree prosperity of the previous decade?

The United States was going through a depression. A depression is a reduction in activity, amount, quality, or force. The Great Depression in American history was a period of low economic activity that was marked by rising levels of unemployment.

The crash of the stock market on October 29, 1929, signaled the beginning of the era known as the Great Depression. The underlying causes of the Great Depression included over-production in industry and agriculture, unequal distribution of wealth, risky banking practices, manipulation of the stock market by unscrupulous investors, and the use of consumer credit for purchases.

Sample Task:  Primary Source Activity


Sample Task:  Writing Activity


Then the teachers, working in pairs, followed the steps below to find the key language demands in each of the three academic language dimensions

Step 1:  Analyze the content objective(s) for message organization (i.e., discourse) demands, then sentence-level demands, and then word and phrases demands.

Step 2:  Analyze texts that will be used. Texts may include written texts, videos, and visuals.  Identify the most challenging language for message organization (i.e., discourse) demands, then sentence-level demands, and then word and phrases demands.

Step 3:  Analyze tasks that will be used, including assessment tasks. Tasks include activities and products. Identify the most challenging language for message organization (i.e., discourse) demands, then sentence-level demands, and then word and phrases demands.

Step 4:  Choose the most pressing demands. Look back at the lesson objective(s) and decide which language is most useful for learning and showing learning of the objective.

Figure 3 is a composite of the outcomes of these group conversations.

Once teachers completed these steps and discussed them as a group, they were given a second set of instructional materials and worked independently through the same process. These experiences were designed to build teachers’ understanding of academic language and how that knowledge can be used to identify academic language demands inherent in content-specific instructional materials. A subsequent session focused on how teachers could use this information to develop language objectives that support content objectives, texts, and tasks of a lesson.

Academic language is one of the most important factors in the academic success of all students, but it is particularly challenging for English learners who have the dual task of mastering complex course content and developing English language proficiency. Therefore, English learners need skillful teachers who have the knowledge and expertise necessary to facilitate their development of literacy in English as they simultaneously learn, comprehend, and apply content area concepts through that second language. Identifying academic language demands in content area materials as they address the Common Core State Standards is a critical aspect of this expertise.

Entry Filed under: Blogstitute

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Loralee  |  June 26th, 2014 at 1:00 pm

    When I see “Stenhouse Pubilshers” on a book, I know it is a book that will be helpful to teachers. I own many and have a long wish list!

  • 2. Julie DeMicco  |  June 26th, 2014 at 8:24 pm

    This reminds me of the DBQ writing we do in Social Studies in our district. It’s excellent writing instruction that helps us to infuse more writing in the content areas.

  • 3. Dawn Sunderman  |  June 28th, 2014 at 7:19 am

    This gave me a lot to think about. I often think we forget how hard written language is for our English Language Learners. It is good to be reminded so we stop and analyze our teaching and text choices.

  • 4. Elsie  |  June 29th, 2014 at 8:19 am

    I love how you made teachers aware of what students experience. Unfortunately figue 3 link simply repeated figure 1.

  • 5. stenhouse  |  June 30th, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    The link to Figure 3 has been corrected.

  • 6. Tracy  |  June 30th, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    Thanks for the reminder about how important primary sources, like photos, are as a tool to help build vocabulary. So often we are conditioned to think about definitions, context, sentence usage, etc. when teaching kids new vocabulary. Going visual is key, especially when our students may not have much background knowledge in a particular area.

  • 7. Jennifer  |  July 3rd, 2014 at 10:01 am

    What a great exercise for content teachers to work through their own lessons using the lens of language to guide instruction for diverse learners! As is almost always the case, scaffolding instruction for language learners will strengthen the lessons for all learners in the classroom. There is so much implicit knowledge/ skill that we take for granted as fluent users of academic English.

  • 8. Mindi  |  July 3rd, 2014 at 5:26 pm

    Thanks so much for this framework. I like how you included the text and tasks. As a pd provider for teachers who work with ELLs, we have spent a great deal of time helping teachers understand and write strong language objectives. Typically teachers would simply look at the content objective and try to develop an aligned language objective – but I have always felt that the text plays an important role in determining that language objective.

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