Part 12 of WIDA’s Essential Action Series. Click here to return to the first article in the series.

Teaching ELs to use academic specific language

I took a random biology class once to fulfill a science requirement in college.  I clearly remember writing the words, “The sediment was sandwiched between layers of slate rock.”  The professor returned the lab report with a menacing “See me” comment inked in a red pen and underscored three times.  When I met with her, she stressed that, “scientists do not write with this language.”  

This anecdote illustrates the importance of Action 11 from WIDA’s Essential Actions: A Handbook for Implementing WIDA’s  Framework for English Language Development Standards (Gottlieb, 2013).  It recommends teaching how language is organized in different ways depending on the content.  In my example, using “sandwiched” was praised in literature class but shunned in science. When we explicitly teach the language used in a particular content area, students gain access to a community that expects a particular form of communication. But our inability to make visible the language expectations in content classes often leaves ELs out on the curb.

What does the research say?
  • “Within curriculum, each content area has its own language or communicative functions (Schleppegrell, 2004) and each of these functions is related to a set of grammatical rules and organizational patterns” (Gottlieb, 2013, p. 49).
  • Because every subject has its own style, teachers should teach content-specific language (Chamot & O’Malley, 1994).  
  • Explicitly teaching language function helps students distinguish between social and academic language.  Doing so enables ELs to construct meaning and precisely communicate conceptual knowledge (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2008; Gee, 2008; Moschkovich, 2002).

The research suggests that learning content is not enough to prepare ELs to succeed.  We have to also teach them the language of the content, so they can access and engage with discipline-specific knowledge.  A student fluent in English can still fail her science report because she uses social language like “Bubbles came out” instead of science-appropriate language like “The chemical reaction produced a reactant in the form of bubbles”.  

The difference between mastering and misunderstanding content-specific language is like the difference between scuba diving and snorkeling: One lets you to skim the surface, while the other lets you explore the depths of the ocean.

Content-Specific Language: A Science Case Study

ELs often find science to be extremely difficult because of the abundance of Tier 3 vocabulary words and the very specific way scientific text is written.  Reading science text is hard enough; producing it is significantly more difficult.  Lab reports are especially challenging to produce without the proper scaffolding.

For the past three years, I’ve worked with a talented science teacher, Mr. A, to make the process of writing a lab report more manageable by incorporating four scaffolds that promote science-specific language:

1). Providing a Template

Mr. Arno provided a document that guided students to use a specific format to write the lab report.  The students only had to insert certain parts such as their names and date.  The document included a college header, bolded headings, and indented sections that were already sequenced.

When helping ELs learn the content-specific language of your discipline, try to follow Mr. A model by providing a finished format. Rather than being distracted by obscure formatting rules,  ELs can focus on communicating the content itself.

2.) Supplying Sentence Frames

The language in a lab report is quite specific, and there’s often a standard procedure for writing it. Sentence frames help ELs produce science-specific language by walking them up the first step.  They structure the path of reasoning itself – empowering ELs to think like scientists.

It’s best to provide multiple frames, as we did for the “Research Question” because it offers more choices while writing and allows the teacher to differentiate based on ability. For example,  Jane Echevarria, one of the founders of the SIOP model, recommends offering ones that are increasingly more difficult so that the ELs continue to grow after they have mastered the basics.  Her article on the topic is entitled “Are Language Frames Good for English Learners”.

Empowering ELLs

3.) Incorporating Tables

Whenever possible, Mr. Arno and I also incorporated tables to label the science-specific content ELs were to provide.  In the tables, I also added a few phrases to clarify key content vocabulary, reminding ELs what each meant.  For example, after the term “independent variable”, I added “something that you’re changing”.

Empowering ELLs

4.) Using Images

We found that the most difficult part of the lab report was the highly abstract “Data Analysis” section.  After years of tweaking,  I created two graphs to demonstrate the concept of “reliable” and “unreliable” data. By showing Graph A, the students could better understand what reliable data looks like. Students that have data that look like Graph B will know that their results are unreliable.

Empowering ELLs

Takeaways: Application to other Disciplines

Other content areas can use these same principles to help students format writing, organize ideas, structure complicated thinking, and visualize abstract concepts.  For example, if an art teacher wants students to present work in a portfolio, he can provide sentence frames that can guide them as they annotate different art pieces.

If a business teacher requires students to create a resume, she can offer several model templates ready for students to add their information.  Using these four practices when your discipline prescribes a particular way to use language or to present information ensures that language is not a barrier that prevents ELs from demonstrating their depth of understanding.

Is using these scaffolds the best way to teach a lab report? No!  The scaffolds aren’t actually meant to teach writing itself – they’re  more like plugging and chugging parts of a lab report together.  The ELs didn’t learn to organize their ideas themselves nor internalize the role of each section because Mr. Arno and I created the structure for them to follow and fill in.

The best approach would be to take the time to deconstruct and co-construct a mentor lab report.  However, when co-teaching, sometimes you can’t choose the best language approach, so you have to settle on the one that both teachers can live with. If that is the case, then you can use these plug and play scaffolds to support your instruction whenever and wherever you can.

In the end, ELs are still able to produce writing that appropriately uses content-specific language, and that is a success.

Next Post

We won’t continue to WIDA’s Action 11 next week because there’s a second part of Action 10 that I want to share with you.  While the science lab report is one of the most specific form of text ELs will be expected to write,  most disciplines require students to communicate in at least four ways: recount, explain, argue, and discuss. I’ll explain how teachers can scaffold communication in these four ways in a variety of content classes.


Chamot, A. U., & O’Malley, J. M. (1994). The CALLA handbook: Implementing the Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Gee, J. P. (2008). Social linguistics and literacies. Ideology in discourses. London, UK: Routledge.

Gottlieb, M. (2013). Essential Actions: A Handbook for Implementing WIDA’s  Framework for English Language Development Standards. Madison: Board of Regents of the U of Wisconsin System.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M. E., & Short, D. J. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP® model (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Moschkovich, J. N. (2002). A situated and sociocultural perspective on bilingual mathematics learners. Mathematical inking and Learning, 4(2&3), 189–212.

Schleppegrell, M. J. (2004). e language of schooling: A functional linguistics perspective. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.