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Academic Language in Second Language Learning

reviewed by Hoe Kyeung Kim - September 27, 2013

coverTitle: Academic Language in Second Language Learning
Author(s): M. Beatriz Arias & Christian J. Faltis (eds.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1623961149, Pages: 252, Year: 2013
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This edited book is timely and a valuable contribution to both second language Learning (SLL) and bilingual education. In SLL, the notion of academic language (AL) has been understood and used in relation to Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) (Cummins, 1984). This dichotomous analysis on language development of ELLs does not enable educators and researchers to define AL and find ways to meet English Language Learners (ELLs)’ needs. AL is a useful concept for understanding ELLs’ low achievement scores on academic tests and a key to identifying ELLs’ challenges in subject areas. However, there is little discussion on what AL is and in what ways it should be taught to ELLs. Instead, a common misconception about AL is that it is naturally acquired by ELLs as their language proficiency advances from BICS to CALP, which diminishes the significant role of mainstream teachers in ELLs’ language development. This assumption is not very helpful for ELLs in that both ESL and mainstream teachers need to collaborate to support ELLs effectively and to make them experience academic success. It requires the responsibility of both content teachers and ESL teachers to make content knowledge accessible to ELLs and to support their ELLs’ ongoing language development.

One of the attempts to assist mainstream teachers in teaching ELLs is the development of the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol, but this does not provide mainstream teachers with information on ELLs’ L1 and L2 language development and offers little pedagogical support, such as how to identify AL which ELLs need to learn. An issue with these sheltered instruction practices is they are mostly based on meaning-focused and teacher-focused approaches, such as comprehensible inputs, while ELLs need explicit instruction of forms and comprehended inputs.

As stated in the book, AL is the third language to ELLs. Thus, this is the language ELLs should be explicitly taught, instead of being expected to master it by themselves as they are pushed into mainstream classrooms. It is not naturally acquired by ELLs as their social language develops, but should be instructed through scaffolded instruction by classroom teachers. In addition, AL should be defined and conceptualized in order to identify ELLs’ needs and support them in gaining access to experience with AL.

The value of this edited book is its attempt to discuss AL in broader contexts, such as its linguistic, cultural and social dimensions, and to provide useful frameworks, such as sociocultural theory and Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), for educators and researchers to work with, as promised in the beginning of the book.

The book is divided into three sections and consists of nine chapters, a foreword and an afterword.  The first section begins with an overview of AL definitions and the ways that content teachers scaffold AL to ELLs in classrooms. In Chapter One, Faltis provides an overview of the definition of academic language and a history of discourses on AL in SLL. He criticizes the overly simplified distinction of BICS and CALP and argues that AL needs to be understood in a broader context as discipline-specific social practice.

Chapter Two presents a research study examining eight fourth and fifth grade teachers’ instructional scaffolding to teach AL. From SFL and sociolinguistic perspectives, Fitts and Bowers develop an observational tool to investigate teachers’ explicit teaching of AL and ELLs’ opportunities to engage in interaction using AL. Based on observations and exit survey data, the authors conclude that the teachers practice a limited support for ELLs in terms of capitalizing on background knowledge and providing explicit instructions of forms. They recommend on-going teacher development to support mainstream teachers in scaffolding AL effectively to ELLs.

In Chapter Three, Lucero presents a qualitative case study examining how first grade teachers make AL comprehensible to ELLs and what challenges they face. The author demonstrates how three mainstream teachers scaffold their ELLs and practice their pedagogical language knowledge. The discrepancies between interviews and observational data, however, point out the difficulty in integrating their language knowledge into classroom practices. As a result, Lucero suggests practical recommendations for teacher education to promote teachers’ pedagogical language knowledge.

To better prepare mainstream teachers, the second part of the book discusses how teacher education can support teacher candidates and educators to teach AL. In Chapter Four, Merino, Pomeroy, Mendle, and Gómez present the stories of two exemplary beginning teachers, discussing how they identify and scaffold AL to their ELLs during a lesson cycle. Using the theory of embodied understanding of practice, the authors argue that these teachers’ credible performances are based on their strong disciplinary knowledge, which allows them to make content accessible and meaningful to ELLs.

Chapter Five presents two pre-service teachers’ cases from a teacher education methods course to explain how the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) can provide an authentic context to discuss and foster teachers’ pedagogical language knowledge. Using the realistic approach, Galguera argues ICT requires new literacies that challenge pre-service teachers’ existing knowledge to raise language awareness and further develop pedagogical knowledge.  

Chapter Six presents a qualitative research study on k-16 educators’ perceptions of AL. Based on an analysis of 89 surveys, Athanases and Wahleithner report that the participating teachers have widely varied notions of the functions and dimensions of AL, and their understanding of AL shows increasing specification of AL as well. The authors, however, argue that these educators’ understanding of AL is limited in that it focuses more on linguistics and literacy and pays less attention to the cultural and social dimensions of AL. This raises a need for clarifying and grounding the concept of AL in order for teachers and practitioners to support their ELLs effectively.

The last three chapters in Section Three discuss classroom applications for social studies, science and math teachers. Chapter Seven provides examples of challenges that ELLs face in social studies from a linguistic perspective. Based on a SFL framework, Oliveira discusses the unique features of history texts and presents in-depth analysis of history discourse. Using excerpts from 8th and 11th grade history textbooks, Oliveira illustrates how words, sentence structure, and organization of the particular content texts make ELLs’ comprehension of the texts difficult and further challenge their construct of content knowledge.

In Chapter Eight, Ramírez-Marín and Clark present summaries of their review of research on teaching AL in science education. They criticize western dominant culture and imbalanced mainstream cultural values in science education and introduce two frameworks; the instructional congruence model and the effective science teaching for English Language Learners framework, which are suitable in science education. These frameworks are also presented with a list of relevant research. Based on their review, the authors stress the importance of teacher support and conclude with recommendations for teacher education, including a need to support content teachers in understanding content-specific linguistic features and moving beyond general instruction strategies.

Chapter Nine, the last chapter, focuses on mathematics instruction. Middleton, Llamas-Flores and Guerra-Lombardi discuss how mathematics uses a “highly compressed form of language” and provide examples of difficult semantics, mathematical symbols, and representations and syntax that ELLs could confuse and struggle with.  Also, the authors offer recommendations that teachers need to provide opportunities for ELLs to engage actively in not only doing mathematics but also talking mathematics. This involves identifying ELLs’ resources, their funds of knowledge, which they bring to class, and further legitimating their prior experience and knowledge.

In this book, many recommendations are made for teacher education to prepare content teachers and teacher candidates to be linguistically aware of the content they teach. However, there is not much discussion on the direction for future research based on the research findings and the recommendations each chapter presented. It is important to continue a dialogue on AL through active research where our ELLs’ voices are included and the instructions suggested here are assessed. This edited volume provides a foundation for educators and researchers to develop pedagogical practices that address and support teaching AL to ELLs effectively.


Cummins, J. (1984). Bilingualism and special education: Issues in assessment and pedagogy. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 27, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17262, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 7:04:41 PM

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About the Author
  • Hoe Kyeung Kim
    Binghamton University
    E-mail Author
    HOE KYEUNG KIM is an Associate Professor of TESOL at Binghamton University SUNY. She is a co-editor of Teachers’ roles in second language learning: Classroom applications of sociocultural perspectives (2012). Her research interests include second language learning, teacher education, sociocultural theory, and educational technology.
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