Charming Readers
Academically Speaking
  • September 24, 2019

When was the last time you sat around your supper table and had an academic discussion with your personal kids? My guess is not lately, if ever. Last year I had the pleasure of hearing Kate Kinsella, one of the architects of the READ 180 program, speak twice. Both times she made the point that families don’t have academic discussions when they gather. This idea resonated with me because many of our students aren’t exposed to scholarly conversations often. 

We owe our students the opportunity to understand the difference in the casual and academic and formal registers. Not only do they need to know how to speak in a scholarly fashion, they also need to know when to switch registers.  Here are some ideas that might help if you are attempting to level up the sophistication of the spoken language of your students. 


Plan Early and Often

The teachers who get the best results from activities that highlight oral and written language are those who plan the best. Sure, I’ve pulled a random sentence starter out of thin air and thrown it down in the instructional playing field, but these “in the moment” sentence starters are never as good as the ones I plan to utilize in advance. 

The ReaL and REACH books offer you lots of assistance in the planning stage. You can decide which sentence starters to project, how many to incorporate, and the degree of challenge you think your students are ready for. You might consider including a basic sentence stem and then one that is at a higher level of difficulty. Label the more difficult one the challenge level and watch students go for it!


READ 180 has many resources that can support you in your quest to grow students academic abilities. One of my favorites is the Academic Interaction Card, which is listed as a collaboration resource. Simply click on the green resource tab on the main menu and search for Academic Interaction Card. There’s a basic version and more challenging version. We’ve had these run in color, back-to-back, on cardstock for all of our teachers. 

We utilize the Academic Interaction Card in whole and small group instruction. Teachers fold them to make table tents and display them in the center of student tables and the small group instruction area. You only need one or two per table. Some teachers choose to hang it and other instructional resources from table top sign holders. However, you display it, the goal is to have students refer to it when preparing answers for sharing with the group and when collaborating with others.

 A teacher might ask students to respond using the soliciting ideas section when students are generating ideas for responses in the ReaL book during small group. Another teacher might ask students to use the other side of the resource to listen actively while watching an anchor video. The options are endless for usage, but the end goal is to increase the frequency with which students respond using academic language.

Structuring sharing time is also quintessential to propelling practice with academic language forward. Having turn and talk partners and sharing groups predetermined makes listening and speaking time as efficient as possible. This can be as simple as labeling your desks.


 Leveling Up Responses

Teach students four surefire ways to level up their responses. First of all, teach them about FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.) An excellent way to add some substance to any sentence is to involve a coordinating conjunction. When students start extending their oral responses with conjunctions, you can dive into some comma usage rules. You’ll never get to those lofty grammar concepts if your students aren’t using conjunctions to make more sophisticated sentence constructions in their speaking first. Oral language typically develops prior to written language. 

Share the magic of text evidence with students. READ 180sets you up so nicely for this by offering multiple opportunities to reread, by having students underline and star things in the text, and by providing react and respond activities. Plan to regularly ask students to use that information in their answers. Give the students a Post-It note to extend the response space if the limited line space is an excuse for your students.  

Behold the splendor of an AAAWWWUBBIS (after, although, as, while, when, until, before, because, if, since) and turn any ordinary independent clause into a dependent one that needs another clause to follow it. While comma usage shouldn’t be a mystery to our students, it can be. Utilizing a few of these clever acronyms should be fun and encourage better answers. Plus, you might get to sneakily teach some comma usage rules.

While the goal of scaffolding students to give the most detailed responses they can is good, adding in a dash of grammar simultaneously is like getting a BOGO deal. Model writing a few responses of your own that are similar to what your students typically write. Then show students how to upgrade them with an AAAWWWUBBIS. Encourage them to find one of their previous responses and attempt to upgrade it. 

When students get to small group, get out your white board and show them how to punctuate it correctly. Also talk to them about why a dependent clause isn’t a sentence. I usually have them ask this question, “Would you walk up to someone and say (dependent clause)?” The students always have a good time with this and know that the dependent clause isn’t a sentence. Then I show them the secret of adding the comma. 



 Another possible way to level up the sophistication level of oral responses is to ask students to give their answers. Then provide a challenge level activity by asking them to restate their answer pretending to be you, the teacher. One of our teachers of English Learners shared this idea during training this summer. This bit of whimsy and challenge also offers you the opportunity to talk about audience and register. I speak differently to my superintendent than I do my teaching best buddies.

 When it comes to helping our students master the usage of academic language, we are the role models, the instructors, and the cheerleaders. Help your students attain higher levels of mastery by planning for opportunities to incorporate academic language, use the routines and resources in READ 180, help students extend their abilities by offering some level up strategies, and provide them lots of practice opportunities. Before you know it, you won’t know if it’s the teacher next door who moonlights as a college professor or one of your students having a conversation in the hall. 

What are your best tips for growing students’ academic language abilities? Your generosity in sharing will help all of us level up our skills.