Unit 1: Why Teach Academic Language in Content Classrooms?

NAVIGATE TO: Arr.GIF About the Author | Arr.GIF ETAP 623 Fall 2017 Section 7619 | Arr.GIF Academic Language Building for ELLs in Content Classrooms

Unit 1 Objectives: By the end of this unit, the participants will:

  • Understand the importance of supporting ELLs develop academic language in content classrooms.
  • Understand the drawbacks of not helping ELLs develop academic language.
  • Reflect on instructional practices related to academic language development for ELLs.
  • Summarize the reasons for supporting ELLs develop academic language in content classrooms.

Section 1: Why is it important to teach ELLs academic language?

  1. Academic language requires explicit and mindful instruction: Most ELLs are born in the US. Many of them are fluent in everyday interpersonal communication in English but struggle with academic English, after all the years immersed in schools.
  2. Low graduation rates: According to statistics, many current ELLs struggle to graduate from schools all over the country. The situation is dire in NYC.
  3. Common Core State Standards & Regents Exams: There has been a push for text complexity and rigor across content areas, making learning daunting for ELLs.

Terms Defined

  • Academic Language: Generally speaking, academic English is the language of schooling and the language that helps students acquire and use the content area knowledge taught in schools (Anstrom, DiCerbo, Butler, Katz, Millet, & Rivera, 2010).
  • ELL: English Language Learner
  • Current ELLs are ELLs who have yet arrived at a native like fluency in the English language.
  • Former ELLs are ELLs who were identified but have tested out and arrived at a native like fluency in speaking, listening, reading and writing.
  • Long Term ELLs are ELLs who have been in the educational system for about 7 or more years but have yet tested out of ENL and reached native like fluency level. Many of the the long term ELLs are born here in the US.

Section 2: Case Study

Yu 2017, case study image.png

Read the classroom scenario and reflect:
1. Do I have an ELL in my class like Carlos?
2. What have I been doing to help him/ her develop academic language?


  • Some ELLs may be fluent in social language but not academic language, especially long term ELLs.
  • Some ELLs are fluent in speaking & listening but struggle with reading and writing.
  • Academic language is important for academic and professional success.
  • Academic language needs to be explicitly taught across all disciplines.

Section 3: Look at Statistics

ELLs in NYC 2009-2016 --Read the full report:NYC high school graduation rates[2

[ New York City: ELLs 4-Year High School Graduation Rates]


1. What surprises you? Why?
2. Do you see a trend?
3. Why do you think caused the low graduation rates?


  • In NYC, 4-year high school graduation rate for current ELLs fell nearly 10%, from 40.5% to 30.8% from 2015-2016.
  • Jointly, only about 50% of current ELLs and former ELLs graduate from high school.
  • If you have ELLs in your class, chances are likely that even though some of them pass your class, they might still not make it for graduation.

JBHS 2015-2016 ELLs graduation rates

[Sample NYC High School Data] John Bowne High School [3]

1. What is surprising? Why?
2. What concerns you? Why?
3. What do you think caused the drop in graduation rate in 2016?
4. How can the graduation status affect the ELLs?
5. How can the low graduation rate affect the teachers and the school?


For years 2015 & 2016:

  • The graduation rate drops drastically from 48% to 22%, after the new common core regents exams for ELA and Math have taken effect.
  • The dropout rate increased from 20% to 33%.

[Go Beyond]
@ For data of ELLs graduation rate in NYS 2015-2016: New York State High School Graduation Data
@ For data of individual schools in NYS: NYS school data
@ For ELL data in different states: ELLs: How Your State is Doing

Section 4: Complex Texts and Rigor/ Regents Exams

ELLs have been confronted with tremendous challenges when they sit for the state mandated Regents Exams. Academic language is the most basic tool ELLs need for them to tackle the challenges. With the Common Core Regents Exams for ELA and Math, ELLs seem to have been struggling even more. Now, let's take a closer look at the high language demands ELLs experience when sitting through the exams.


1. Click on the Regents Exam in your content area. Skim through the exam and select 1 question with extended text.

Read the question slowly. When you investigate, pay special attention to the following and jot down some notes.
We will be discussing the language demands further in Unit 3: Academic Language.

(1) What are some vocabulary words that can be difficult or confusing for ELLs?
(2) What are some sentence structures that can cause difficulties or confusions?
(3) What text structures are most frequently used in your content area?

2. Now, skim through the sample passage of the ELA Regents.
(1) How is the text in the ELA Regents different from the text in your content area?
(2) Which teacher is in a better position to reinforce the vocabulary, sentence structures, and text structures in your content area?
The ELA/ ENL teacher or the content teacher? Why?

Sample Reading Passage of ELA Regents

ELA Regents:
June 2017 English Regents [4]
Office of State Assessment- ELA

Global History & Geography Regents:
June 2017 Global History & Geography Regents
Office of State Assessment--Global

US Government Regents:
June 2017 US History & Government Regents Office of State Assessments-- US History & Government

Science Regents:
June 2017 Living Environment Regents
June 2017 Earth Science Regents
June 2017 Chemistry Regents
Office of State Assessments: Science

Math Regents:
June 2017 Algebra I Regents
June 2017 Algebra II Regents
June 2017 Geometry Regents
Office of State Assessments -- Math

Section 5: ELLs & Academic Language Conclusion

  • Upward mobility: High school is the most critical stage in a child's education because it serves as the gateway to higher education and upward mobility. Academic language is the language for higher education and career.
  • Across all disciplines: Each academic discipline entails distinct features of academic language. Content teachers of ELLs are in the best position to help ELLs to acquire academic language in content area. Besides, knowledge of many Tier 2 academic vocabulary words, language functions and text structures can be transferred and reinforced across different content areas. All subject teachers can and should directly contribute to the language development of ELLs.
  • Academic language = challenging: Academic language can be challenging for mainstream students and it is even more challenging for ELLs.
  • Direct instruction needed: Incorporating direct instruction of academic language in content instruction can go a long way in promoting comprehension in reading & listening comprehension and sophistication of language production in speaking and writing.

Section 6: End of Unit Reflection

Write a Summary

  • Why is it important to support ELLs develop academic language?
  • Why is it important to teach academic language in the content classrooms?


  • How often do I incorporate direct instruction of academic language in my class?
  • Last year, ________ (number) of ELLs passed my class.
  • According to statistics, about _________ (number) of them will graduate/ would have graduated from high school.

Case Study

Yu 2017, case study image.png
  • Do you have an ELL student who is like Carlos mentioned in the "Classroom Scenario"?
  • Student Name: ______________________ Class: ________________ Grade Level: ______________
Let's follow this student along the mini-course and see how we can help him/ her!

Questions or Thoughts:

  • What questions or thoughts do you have after completing unit 1?
Click "Discussion" on the top left hand corner to enter your ideas.

Getting Around

Back to Main Page: Academic Language Building for ELLs in Content Classrooms

Unit 1: Why Teach Academic Language in Content Classrooms?

Unit 2: How to Serve ELLs? The Basics

Unit 3: Academic Language

Unit 4: Language Objectives

Mini-course Summary

Connect with Others

Additional ELL Resources


Main Page: Academic Language Building for ELLs in Content Classrooms-References
Unit 1: Why Teach Academic Language in Content Classrooms- References
Unit 2: How to Serve ELL? The Basics- References
Unit 3: Academic Language- References
Unit 4: Language Objective- References