Don’t Just Keep It Simple

This post is the first in a new series to address the question of teaching academic language to ELLs. This was inspired by the fact that many readers who find my blog are searching for “juicy sentences”, a term often used to refer to complex sentence structures.

Also, I was inspired to dig more into this topic now because of a recent workshop I attended regarding the language demands in math and science, especially with its emphasis throughout the new Common Core standards. At this conference, the confusion and surprise shared by most of the middle school and high school content area (non-ESL) teachers attending told me that this is not the common focus of all the supports schools are giving teachers, or not enough. Given the questions many had by the end, I don’t feel the workshop really clarified the different levels of challenges for ELLs when accessing academic content. One new teacher whose subject is math even refused to participate in the last activity because she “doesn’t teach language” because the kids don’t write in her class. I know that often times schools can start setting expectations without the proper supports or training since, like the students we teach, we often need multiple exposures to and different ways of examining and trying something new before we can really make it our own. Otherwise, just telling people to do something can engender resistance. Hopefully, this is will be a useful resource for those curious or wanting to teach it.

I must caution you though: there are some in the field who see this as the “magic bullet” to pull ELLs toward proficiency. It isn’t. It is, however, a necessary skill they need for accessing academic texts. And as long as reading complex writing is a part of school, then learning the language involved will be crucial.

I will address looking at texts for “juicy sentences”, choosing the words to teach, and the kind of work kids can do to put it all into practice. Some of my suggestions will be most useful for elementary classroom teachers, but most will have broad application. Please feel free to share your experiences, questions, and concerns below or via email.

For example, today I’m going to share something that I imagine many elementary teachers already do but maybe don’t consider it academic language, don’t know the term to describe what they are doing, or don’t think it’s appropriate for beginner* ELLs.


Specifically, Tier 2 words that are synonyms of more common words ELLs pick up more readily. Tier 2 are words that involve more depth and require more context or description when explaining, and can even represent shades of a similar meaning (like surprised vs amazed), or they are polysemous (words with multiple meanings like words with different meanings depending on context like the word “even”), homonyms, homophones, words with prefixes/suffixes, or words that I’d say play pivotal roles in a paragraph like “except” or “although”, etc., and are not technical words students will rarely encounter outside the subject area (like hydroponic or submarine or equilateral). Those are Tier 3. Tier 1 are basic, everyday words.

Teaching synonyms allow you to use words students know already (mad, angry), and build on it. We act out the words, discuss different contexts in which these words work, draw pictures or write comics for the kids to refer to. Then the kids are on the lookout for them as they read or are read to. The Frayer model works well here (though for non-example, I prefer “sentence with the word”). I have had kids write the word on one side of an index card and then do the Frayer boxes on the back, or they can do it in their notebooks.

When time is short, having a chart like this that you refer to, or that you use as a reminder to use these words yourself, even if you can’t teach into them right away.

You can take a week, a month or more to teach them; it depends on your kids.


*The term beginner, just like the term ELL, covers a vast and diverse area of language comprehension. One teacher’s idea of beginner is different from another’s. I will address this throughout subsequent posts, in terms of how I teach academic language for the multiple levels, but for the sake of clarity, when I say beginner I am not referring to newcomers who arrived yesterday from their country. They, too, can be taught to use academic language, but when I use the term beginners, I am referring to students who have a very basic understanding of English (struggle with past tense, possessives, personal pronouns, and writing beyond the most basic of sentences; subject/verb/object).


One thought on “Don’t Just Keep It Simple

  1. Pingback: Remainders: Resistance to special ed push at selective schools | GothamSchools

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