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Vista Teachers Demystify ‘Academic Language’

By   /  February 12, 2016  /  No Comments


Ray Huard….The way people talk on the job and in college uses a vocabulary that may seem commonplace but can be mystifying to students who are just learning English, who come from poverty or homes where no one has gone to college before.

Words like thesis, summarize and simulate, diminish and conclude.They can keep smart students from participating in classroom discussions.

They can be the stumbling block that prevents students from taking advantage of opportunities and cause them to become apathetic toward school.

coding breeze hill

Breeze Hill Elementary School teacher Samantha Hastings working with a student on computer coding.

These words sound simple enough, but they’re not the kinds of words kids toss around the playground.

Want to be a car mechanic? … It used to be good enough just to be skilled with your hands,” said Sandra Ceja, principal of Foothill-Oak Elementary School in the Vista Unified School District.

“Now, to become a car mechanic, someone must speak the language to work with computers that are in the cars, and they must be able to read technical manuals,” Ceja said.

Planning to go to college? There are those words again, in text books, lectures and study sessions with other students.

Academic language is what educators call the words students must know for college and careers. It’s a more formal way of speaking, the difference between talking to a buddy and giving a speech at a political rally.

“It’s a form of literacy,” said Sharmila Kraft, Vista Unified’s Executive Director of Elementary Curriculum and Instruction.

Foothill-Oak is one of six district elementary schools that are part of a pilot program to provide that literacy by providing teachers with research-based methods and support to incorporate academic language in lessons so that students use it with ease.

The others schools are Beaumont Elementary, Bobier Elementary, Breeze Hill Elementary,  Grapevine Elementary and Maryland Elementary.

In the 2014-15 school year, about 24 percent of Vista Unified students were classified as English learners and five of those elementary schools were among district schools with the highest concentration of English learners in the district.

A majority of students at five of the schools also qualify for free or reduced price meals based on their family’s income.


Engineering teacher Keri Avila working with students

At Maryland, nearly 66 percent of students were classified as English learners; at Bobier nearly 63 percent; at Foothill-Oak nearly 61 percent; at Grapevine 50 percent; and at Beaumont 46 percent.

With about 30 percent of its students classified as English learners, Breeze Hill was included in the program to compare how students’ proficiency in academic language improves in a more diverse student body, Kraft said.

The program initially had the tongue twisting title of Targeted Professional Development for Academic Language and Literacy for Academic English Learners, Kraft said.

It’s been shortened to Stanford 6 – six for the number of schools in the pilot program, and Stanford for Stanford University, where much of the research underlying the program was done, Kraft said.

Among other things, that research showed that children who were just learning the English language and those from low-income families started out with a word gap over their English-speaking peers from middle-class backgrounds. They tended not to have the same experiences to acquire academic language, Kraft said.

When no one in a family has been to college before, “You’ve never heard people speak with that vocabulary,” Ceja said.

“That’s a critical piece that’s missing in a lot of students,” Kraft said. “Students are very capable but they simply don’t have those experiences, and so we built the program to give them those opportunities too.”

As part of the Stanford 6 project, 10 Vista Unified veteran teachers were trained as demonstration coaches. Once every five weeks, the demonstration coaches take over the classes at each of the six schools.

Principal Ceja said a bonus of the Stanford 6 program is the use of seasoned local teachers as coaches, who are available to help the classroom teachers as needed.

“You have people who are known and respected in the district, who are familiar,” Ceja said. “They’re going to be here to see it through. It’s not some outside person who’s coming in, telling us what we have to do.”

Kraft said the teachers “bring expertise with English learners and literacy, a perfect combination.”

The demonstration coaches use the teaching methods and lessons developed through the research to foster academic language.

They do this through innovative learning experiences using Minecraft video game, Ted Talks, Mathematical Reasoning text books, engineering and coding that give students chances to close the word gap.

While they do that, the classroom teachers they replace spend the day in training to learn how to tailor what they do to promote academic language.

It’s much more than a matter of having students memorize vocabulary, Kraft said.

It’s getting students comfortable with the words by hearing them and using them in conversations with other students. It’s working in that formal vocabulary so using it becomes as normal as walking, Kraft said.

With the adoption of Common Core standards and their emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving over memorization, more is expected of students.

“The whole thrust of Common Core is that we have to prepare kids for the world they’re going to transition into,” Ceja said. “There are very few jobs out there that don’t use some academic language.”

The idea is to get students talking to each other and their teachers about everything from how to solve a math problem to details about a story they’ve read, using academic language.

“It’s kind of just infused into the way we’re teaching,” said Nicole Curley, a second grade teacher at Maryland Elementary. “The whole way we’re teaching is shifting now.”

Students might use the video game Minecraft to build a city that responds to invasive species or engage in a “pro/con” discussion in which two students work as a team, listing the pros and cons on a topic.

For instance, Curley said that her class was making a field trip to a fire station so she had them discuss the advantages and disadvantages of becoming a firefighter.

“It has them thinking about both sides to a question,” Curley said.

In learning vocabulary, Curley said that students write down a word they might not know, predict what it might mean by the context in which it’s used, look up its definition, and use it in a sentence.

They also go into lessons in far more depth.

“The first time, we’ll go through a story, focusing on the main idea,” Curley said. “Then, we might read it again, and, now, we’re just going to focus on how the author uses illustration or captions. And the third time, we might compare and contrast this story with another.”

Kraft said, “Text, talk and write is our focus with everything with our students.”

“Teachers are shifting the cognitive load of learning on the students so that they can learn from text, discuss it with peers, and contribute their ideas by producing text from text,” Kraft said. “In doing this, we are not only closing the word gap, we are closing the opportunity gap.”



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