Thursday, May 31, 2012

Title: Building Academic Language:Essential Practices for Content Classrooms, Grades 5-12
Author: Jeff Zwiers
Publisher: Jossey-Bass
Date: 2007
ISBN: 978-0787987619
Pages: 320

In the past, a good teacher was one who had solid content knowledge and an understanding of pedagogy (the techniques used to teach). However, recently there has been a focus on instructional use of language and how the use of academic language can enhance or restrict student opportunity to engage with content knowledge and ultimately, determine success in school. In addition, the soon to be mandatory Teacher Performance Assessment (for pre-service teacher certification) has a strong focus on the development of student academic language. All of this has made me consider my own use and planning for the use of academic language in the courses I teach – for K-12, undergraduate and graduate. How have I identified and planned for the language demands of each of the content areas I teach? This question led me to pick up Jeff Zwiers' book.

Students come to school with different social and linguistic capital (Bourdieu, 1986). In other words, the “ways of being” - the ways of thinking, determining values, use of language, use of body language and space, personal style and preferences etc – that the student grows up with produced different ways of interacting with the word. Like currency, some ways of being are more valued than others – and this is very evident in schools. Academic language and ways of being in school tend to match the white middle class culture and capital better than other social, economic and racial groups. There is often a mismatch of home and school cultures and if the student's home culture is not values, this can produce anger, frustration and eventual alienation of the student. Therefore, it is important for teachers to recognize their own social and linguistic capital and the assumptions they make about their students' capital – which may not match their own. When recognizing that school culture and academic language are one of the keys to success, teacher need to both value and challenge the knowledge and language students bring to school.

Academic language is not just particular vocabulary, but it includes the functions and features of language, according to Zwiers. Functions include describing complexity, higher-order thinking and abstraction. The features of language that allows it to function include figurative expressions, being explicit for distant audiences, using models, qualifiers, and intonation. The grammar of academic language also differs significantly from everyday language. Therefore, teachers need to model and scaffold academic language and thinking in ways that encourage students to use and make the language and thinking their own. Each subject area and discipline has it own particular ways of thinking and speaking, so it can't just be the English teacher's job! When teaching history, the teacher needs to be explicit about how to think, speak and write like a historian et cetera.

Discussion is a way for students to work with information and knowledge (Mercer, 2000) in ways that allow them to manipulate and make it their own. However, deep and productive discussions in classrooms need thoughtful planning and awareness of the academic language demands. Supports need to be provided to model the functions, features and grammars of the discipline using various graphic organizers or discussion formats. Zwiers provides a multitude of examples of these supports for reading, writing, speaking/listening for each of the big four content areas – English, Math, Social Studies, and Science. I was familiar with a lot of the examples Zwiers provided, as I am a firm believer that learning is a social activity and a proponent of discussion-based learning. However, there were ideas that I haven't tried yet!

Additional Resources:
Here are some resources that I've given to my student teachers to support discussions -

Here is a nice summary of Zwiers' brick and mortar words metaphor from Houston Independent School District's Literacy Support Network Wiki -  Academic Language - Bricks and Mortar

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