Beyond the Use of Academic Language
By Megan M. Bettis
“Using academic language,” a session attendee offered. This was in response to a question about what norms need to be in place so we can create a classroom environment that is conducive to productive talk. This suggestion gave me pause, but I ended up moving on in my session on “Productive Talk in the Science Classroom.” But let’s talk about that for a minute - in order for students to engage in productive talk in the science classroom do they need to use academic language? Are “proper” scientific terms needed or even important? I would argue no.
We want all of our students to be able to engage in rich scientific discourse to demonstrate their deep content knowledge and understanding of complex scientific vocabulary.
But I would argue that making this the expectation, especially from the beginning, defeats the purpose of encouraging talk in the classroom. Discourse allows students the opportunity to process new ideas, apply concepts to different situations, and generally, to engage in sensemaking. Sometimes, students may not have fully developed their conceptual understanding of a topic until they've had the opportunity to talk about it; talking is a form of processing and reasoning. If we constrain students to using only academic language as they engage in discussion, we run the risk of silencing and limiting student thinking. We also miss the opportunity to hear and understand the progression of students’ understandings as they grapple publicly with new ideas.
So, what should we do instead? First, allow students to express themselves in a way that is comfortable for them. Students are often expected to put aside their own cultural use of language to adopt the language of school. However, honoring students' use of language and their style of discourse helps to honor the whole student and at least subtly, recognize that science is a place for all. Second, focus on concepts before vocabulary. Giving students an opportunity to understand and articulate challenging science concepts in everyday language allows students the chance to build on their existing schema and the personal experiences they bring to the classroom. Naming the concept and applying the specific scientific language should be second to conceptual understanding.
The goal of productive talk in the science classroom is to get students to engage with the scientific concepts and sensemaking. Discussion norms are absolutely essential to meeting this goal, but norms should focus on honoring student ideas and making a safe space for students to express their developing understandings. Expecting students to use academic language in their discussions risks limiting participation to those who might already come to class with a deep conceptual knowledge.
It may even intimidate those who are just beginning to develop their grasp of a concept. Let’s focus on making productive talk in the science classroom a part of our everyday instruction for all students, without focusing exclusively on the academic language used.
Megan McKenzie Bettis
Lecturer/Supervisor, Science Teacher Credential Program
Program Director, UCD - Young Scholars Program