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Academic Language: Speaking the Language of Your Discipline

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Last week I had the pleasure of presenting at the Region 11 Conference in Whitesettlement, TX. The title of my presentation was Moving Beyond Misconceptions with Composing and Decomposing Fractions. Even though this was my first time presenting on this topic I thought that this particular session could provide teachers with another tool for their math instruction.

I was amazed at the depth of discussions that took place during my 2 sessions. The next day after  the session I checked my Twitter feed an assistant principal tweeted it’so vital to speak the language our discipline.

Speaking the language of your discipline means using the terms or Tier 3 words that are only used in a specific content area. These words are important to building knowledge and conceptual understanding within the different domains.

I have found that many teachers who teach grades K-2 have a difficult time with using academic vocabulary when teaching this group of  students. Without understanding the effect that NOT using the Tier 3 words has on students, some teachers seem to want to make learning easier by changing the language that they use to teach various concepts. Some popular phrases that are commonly used are:

region 11

  • The alligator eats the bigger number
  • Zero is a placeholder
  • Apostrophe is a comma in the sky
  • Use the butterfly method to compare fractions
  • Go next door to the neighbor’s house (regrouping)
  • Combine means to add (key words)

I’m almost 100% sure that  intentions of K-2 teachers are good, however as an upper elementary teacher and a former middle school teacher I see the far reaching effect of not using academic language. For example, this summer I taught 8th grade math at a local middle school and I was telling the student that they needed to combine like terms when solving equations that have variables on both sides. One of the students brought her paper to me and guess what, she had added the terms. I was mortified because I immediately knew where that came from! A teacher told her that combine meant to add. So, in her mind every time she heard combine she thought that she was supposed to add.

As I ended my session one of the teachers asked me if I could post a list of words on my blog. I searched for a list of Tier 3 words and found that the Common Core Standards has a Tier 2 and Tier 3 Vocabulary list. Using the language of your discipline is important because it decreases misconceptions and helps students seamlessly extend their learning beyond the current grade level.

3 thoughts on “Academic Language: Speaking the Language of Your Discipline”

  1. This is an excellent observation. As a high school math teacher, I often have to work on improving their mathematical vocabulary. I’ve had students who thought when you performed the order of operation, you did all the multiplication, then the division, then addition, then subtraction in that order. I have to work to retrain them on it. Thank you for your observations.

  2. I totally agree with this. With words as simple as “vertical” and “horizontal”, middle school students struggle with this. Science is one of those areas where vocabulary is learned daily and the words take on multiple meanings. The intent is great on the part of elementary teachers. However, I think it narrows their thinking as well as the broadening of their vocabulary.

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I help math teachers who teach high need students to effectively manage their classrooms and deliver high quality math instruction. Learn more about me


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