Academic Language and Literacy

Academic Language Construct > Capacity to Make Meaning > Academic AchievementAcademic language proficiency generally refers to the types of language proficiencies that are necessary for learners to perform successfully in academic contexts. In the late 1970s, Jim Cummins helped to focus educational research on a distinction between English spoken in classrooms and English spoken on the playground when he described two discourse types, Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) and Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS). In the decades since, researchers have tried to explain the features of the language students need to succeed in school. There is now general agreement that all students are learning to manage new sociocultural and language routines in classrooms and schools and that in each content area, student make use of specialized vocabulary, grammar, language functions and related discourse structures, and text types. We see three questions emerging in this area of research:

1. What academic language skills are most critical for students who arrive at school with limited experience with English or American academic cultures?

2. How do these students develop academic language proficiency?

3. How can teachers and schools promote academic language proficiency?

Nearly all the research projects indexed on the WIDA Research web pages deal with academic language in one way or another. In projects focused on academic language proficiency, WIDA Research seeks to synthesize work from across disciplines in order to provide students, practitioners, and policy makers with useful knowledge about what academic language proficiency ELLs need and how schools and teachers can help ELLs develop that proficiency.

Research Agenda

Goal 1. Clarify and expand our understanding of academic language proficiency
Goal 2. Explore the relationship between academic language proficiency and academic achievement
Goal 3. Better understand students' development of academic language proficiency

Studies and Outcomes

WIDA District Survey (Goal 1): This thematic analysis explored the ways that district ELL leads define academic language.

PowerPoint from webinar given to WIDA Consortium State Educational Agency representatives about findings, March 8, 2011
AERA presentation about findings, April 11, 2011

Designing Classroom Contexts for Learning Academic English in Interaction (Goal 3): This longitudinal analysis of classroom practice will develop grounded professional knowledge that content-area teachers can use to reflect on their teaching and improve their design of classroom contexts so that ELLs are afforded opportunities to learn the forms of English that all students need to master in order to excel in U.S. schools. The research questions guiding this study are:

1) How do ELLs participate in the classroom learning community?

2) How do teachers support the development of AL in ELLs?

3) What role does AL seem to play in students' mastery of subject area content? (pilot project initiated in 2011)

Policy Briefs

WIDA Research has begun to produce white papers and articles on a range of policy issues related to academic language proficiency

Why Who Takes the Test Matters: Thinking Differently about ELLs and Content Tests (Goal 2): This Ed Leadership policy brief argues that a coherent position on the relationship between academic language proficiency and academic achievement must inform accountability systems. (in revision)

Academic Achievement for English Learners - What Can We Reasonably Expect? (Goals 2 and 3): This article by Gary Cook and Tim Boals (published in The Phi Delta Kappan) describes the journey to English proficiency for English learners and offer insights on how to establish clear expectations for English learners and their schools.

Academic Achievement for English Learners - What Can We Reasonably Expect?