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The Language Demands of School: Putting Academic English to the Test

reviewed by Avary Carhill - February 01, 2008

coverTitle: The Language Demands of School: Putting Academic English to the Test
Author(s): Alison L. Bailey (Ed.)
Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven
ISBN: 0300109466, Pages: 226, Year: Nov 28, 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

Today, more than one in five school age children in the United States is the child of immigrants, and projections suggest that this ratio will increase to one child out of three by 2040 (Hernández, Denton, & Macartney, 2007). As the school-age population continues to diversify, standardized tests have steadily increased in quantity and significance in American schools. All students need to acquire specialized oral and written English in order to participate successfully in schooling. For English learners and children from linguistically diverse communities, the language of schooling plays an especially prominent role in academic success or failure. English learners have become the flashpoint in a national debate about how to measure learning inclusively. The often unarticulated relationship between language and learning drives policy and praxis today.  Debates about ‘adequate yearly progress’ and how well students are ‘learning English’ could greatly benefit from accurate representation of the relationship between content-area knowledge and language in schooling. What is academic English and how can we measure proficiency in it?  Alison Bailey’s edited volume, The Language Demands of School: Putting Academic English to the Test, contributes timely insights to this important issue by examining the underlying construct of academic language.  

The introductory chapter advances an argument for the explicit assessment of academic English language (AEL). Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), English learners are included in content-area assessments from which they were previously excluded, and schools are held accountable for their progress in acquiring English. Both policies have contributed to the development of new assessments of English proficiency and serious thought about how to support English learners in content-area learning. Bailey proposes defining and measuring student proficiency in AEL in order to differentiate language issues from content issues. The broad construction of academic English outlined by Bailey is based on a common core of features used throughout the different contexts of schooling. Although appropriate language use varies across grades, content areas, modalities and tasks, the notion of an academic English (as elaborated by Cummins (1980) for example) has proven useful to researchers and teachers. Bailey’s definition of AEL as a “precise and predictable way of using language that places demands on the user not typically encountered in everyday settings” retains much of that flavor. However, Bailey is able to operationalize AEL through careful analysis of actual classroom language use.  

The conceptual development of AEL is laid out in Chapters 2, 4 and 5.  Specifically, Chapter 2 describes two studies in which Butler, Stevens and Castellon (2000, 2005) explored the relationship between student performance on content-area assessments and on language proficiency assessments. The CRESST (Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing) researchers found that English proficiency tests were not aligned with the language requirements of mainstream classrooms. Therefore, content-area assessments designed to measure students’ academic achievement were instead reflecting limited academic English proficiency, and the growth in English proficiency scores mandated by Title III was not capturing increases in the skills that English learners need to do well in school.

In Chapter 4, Butler and Bailey expand on these findings to conceptualize a framework for assessing AEL that clearly links a defined AEL construct to a test task. Their goal is to “create prototype AEL tasks that respect the interwoven nature of language and cognition but that have as their goal the assessment of language ability.” The framework presented by Bailey and her colleagues edges beyond the rough distinction between academic and social language that is commonly made in research by transparently linking descriptive linguistic research to assessment.

Butler, Stevens, Lord and Bailey provide a detailed portrait of the language used in mainstream middle school classrooms in Chapter 5. The descriptive linguistic analysis of teacher-centered classroom discourse and textbooks is one of the strengths of this edited volume because it presents tools for understanding academic language use in context. The authors attempt to account for the speaker’s intention through analysis of language function (explanation, comparison, description, and assessment) in addition to analysis of lexico-grammatical features. In oral classroom discourse, teachers were frequently found to use unsupported AEL and specialized academic vocabulary. The analysis of math, science and social studies textbooks highlights the need to develop a sufficiently large corpus to tease apart the use of specialized academic language from general academic vocabulary and structures (AEL). The resounding message in this chapter is that an expectation of language transparency puts students at risk.   

The remaining chapters attempt to form a practical complement to the strong core chapters. Chapter 3 considers some of the administrative issues involved in implementing accountability for English learners (Title III of the NCLB Act) in California. Chapter 6 explores the test development process of the WIDA.  Finally, Chapter 7 aims to provide a view of formative assessment in the classroom.  

In the final chapter, Bailey calls for alignment of ELD standards and assessments with content-area standards within and across states. She also highlights the need for further differentiation of domain specific language competencies, as well as articulation of the roles of social and academic language in language development. One area that could receive greater attention in this volume and in other work on second language learning is the role of oral academic language in the development of academic literacy (Genesee, Lindholm-Leary, Saunders, & Christian, 2006).  The division of language skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking) maintained in the AEL framework appears to be a testing artifact and may not accurately reflect realities of classrooms which are moving away from “chalk and talk” and towards integrated tasks which rely on combinations of skills.

This edited volume may draw criticism for explicitly framing the need to better understand academic English proficiency as a reaction to policies that fail to build on the strengths of linguistically diverse students. Bailey echoes Hakuta, Butler, and Witt (2000), in emphasizing that research and policy develop hand in hand. Hakuta et al. (2000) noted that,

First, the quantitative measurement instruments available for English language proficiency can still only be sensibly divided into these rough categories; and second, this distinction makes sense in the current California policy context where very basic issues of English development still need to be resolved. (p. 4)

The potential of Bailey’s line of inquiry is to infuse the educational policy debate surrounding English learners with greater clarity about the language needed to engage in school.  

Understanding and working with English learners under No Child Left Behind is challenging for educators precisely because language and learning are so closely linked. The book advocates what common sense supports, that to serve all students better, we need to understand better the role of academic English proficiency in teaching and testing. While English learners comprise the explicit focus of this volume, understanding how language and content-area knowledge are linked through schooling is useful for all teachers. Further, educational policy, including the interpretation of high-stakes tests, should be grounded in this type of research.


Cummins, J. (1980). The construct of proficiency in bilingual education. In J. E. Alatis (Ed.), Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics: Current Issues in Bilingual Education, 81-103.

Genesee, F., Lindholm-Leary, K., Saunders, W., & Christian, D. (Eds.). (2006). Educating English language learners: A synthesis of research evidence. Cambridge University Press.

Hakuta, K., Butler, Y.G., & Witt, D. (2000). How long does it take English learners to attain proficiency? Santa Barbara, CA: The University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute.

Hernández, D.J., Denton, N.A., & Macartney, S.E., (2007). Children in immigrant families-the U.S. and 50 States: National origins, language, and early education. Research Brief Series Publication # 2007-11. Albany, NY: The Child Trends Center for Social and Demographic Analysis at SUNY.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 01, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14967, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 10:17:20 PM

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About the Author
  • Avary Carhill
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    AVARY CARHILL’s research focuses on the roles of peer social networks and school context in individual language learning among adolescent immigrant students. She is currently a research assistant at Immigration Studies at NYU and she teaches a graduate seminar in Educational Linguistics at New York University.
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