Making Academic Language Accessible to ELL Students

Instructor: Sarah Mills

Sarah is an educational freelance writer and has taught English and ESL in grades k-12 and college. She has a master's degree in both Literacy and TESOL.

Academic language is different from the social language that students often pick up naturally in conversation. In this lesson, teachers will learn how to make academic language accessible for English language learner (ELL) students.

Social Versus Academic Language

Fourteen-year-old Diego recently moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic. When his ninth-grade teachers first meet him, they were impressed with his English language skills. He quickly makes friends, converses with other students in the hallways and the cafeteria, can follow simple instructions, and even sticks around to talk to his teachers after class. Diego is acquiring social language, the kind of English used in informal, everyday conversation.

Social language can be very different from academic language.
social versus academic English

However, academically, Diego is not doing so well. He often puts his head down in class, doesn't participate in discussions, forgets to do his homework, and fails tests and quizzes. This is a common problem among ELL students. Social language is everywhere, and students pick it up naturally. Academic language-the language needed for school success-needs to be taught directly.

Content Area Vocabulary

Content vocabulary is specific to a given subject area. For example, content vocabulary for science includes words like test tube and Fahrenheit, while content math vocabulary includes coordinate and multiply.

Examples of academic language tasks.
academic language tasks

Another consideration is that many English words have multiple meanings across different subject areas. For example, the word rock might refer to a natural material composed of minerals, a type of music, or a back-and-forth swaying motion. Additionally, the word rock appears in slang, such as in the phrases 'you rock!' and 'rock on.' A huge diamond ring is often referred to as a 'rock.' And then there are idioms, such as 'stuck between a rock and a hard place.'

As you can see, the topic of academic vocabulary is complex. Let's look at specific strategies for making academic language accessible to ELL students.

Preview and Pre-Teach

The first step to help ELL students acquire vocabulary is to preview the lesson and determine which words are essential. Then, decide how you are going to teach those words. There are many methods for pre-teaching vocabulary, including:

  • Games, such as charades or vocabulary bingo
  • Graphics and illustrations
  • Multimedia, such as PowerPoint presentations
  • Graphic organizers

Also, consider keeping an illustrated word wall in your classroom. As you teach new vocabulary throughout the year, add the words, along with an illustration, to the wall for easy reference.

Graphic Organizers

If you do a quick Internet search, you will find hundreds of graphic organizer templates for vocabulary. One simple, effective method is a vocabulary rating chart.

A graphic organizer to help learners rate their level of understanding for certain words.
rate your understanding

Students fill in the chart whenever they are taught a new word. They rate the word based on how well they know it, both before and after instruction.

Sentence Frames

Sentence frames are sentences that are partially completed for students. Typically, students read the first part of the sentence and complete the rest on their own. Sentence frames provide a model for proper writing, and they reinforce the correct usage of academic language. Here are some examples of sentence frames:

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account