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About Academic Language: Discussion with Elsefie Wranz

Name of Professional:

Elsefie Wranz

Academic Background

BA (Linguistics + Afr Ndl (SU)); B Speech therapy and Audiology (SU); Dip Spec Ed (Learners with special Ed Needs (SU); M Phil (Health Sciences Education) Stellenbosch University
Trained in Neuro-Developmental Therapy (NDT – Bobath method)

Who am I?

I am a speech-language therapist and audiologist at a school for learners with special education needs for the past 25 years. I have worked with learners from pre-school to Grade 12. For the past twenty years I have dedicated most of my time to language intervention for the older learner with specific language challenges in both reception of language and written expression.  I have a passion to support the deaf learner with academic challenges, particularly language challenges.  I have been trained as a Hi Hopes Home interventionist; a home-based program which serves parents and families with deaf babies.  I was one of the first trained mentors as well as one of the first three Hi Hopes trainers in Africa.  I am a part-time clinical tutor and lecturer at the Dept of Speech-language and Hearing therapy since 1996.

I have been a member (2000) and board member of International Association for Cognitive Education in South Africa since (2001 – 2018).

What is the significance of Academic language versus Casual language for the school-going child and how can the enhancement of both above-mentioned language competencies improve better thinking and learning?

Noam Chomsky viewed the acquisition of language as a swift transition from the inception stages to the age of 3,6 years of age – which claimed that most children should have typically mastered the basic structure of their language in that period. Berman (2009), however, in his research declared that language development continues well into adolescence and beyond. This language growth may be a product of incidental learning through exposure to learning materials as well as direct instruction to target specific language skills (Dockrell & Messer, 2004; Cummins & Yee-Fun, 2007).

Westby (1985) described the language journey of the young child as “in the pre-school years children learn to talk and as they move into school they talk to learn”. The notion of different language abilities required by children to function within the school system became a popular theme; school requires of a child to master social-interactive or casual language as well as academic language.  Scheele, Leseman, Mayo and Elbers, (2012: p 419) stated that the ability to use and understand academic language (AL) is a prerequisite for school success.

Van Kleeck (2014) distinguishes between Casual Talk (ST) and Academic Talk (AT) as two registers of oral language where AT is emphasised a very important readiness and predictor skill for later academic success. Cummins (1984) described the two registers as a cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) and basic interpersonal communication skills (BICL) to explain the research results of bilingual children who were fluent in conversational skills but achieved poorly on verbal academic performance.  One can describe CT is the everyday social language used during everyday life among friends and to get things done. AT, on the other hand, constitutes the language use when one is teaching and learning, enabling teachers and other adults to convey, and children to develop and show, their ideas and knowledge. Academic language is also the language that is heard in lecture halls and found in text books.  Academic oral language should form the basis for academic written expression.

One of the major ways in which AT relates to later academic success is that it forms a critical and foundational skill to later reading comprehension, which on its own provides an essential part of school success.

The biggest challenges that parents, teachers and practitioners face are:

 … to improve the quality of Academic language skills are that the art of academic language is not directly taught to children at school level, yet it is required of learners to master both the casual language (social-interactive communication) as well as the more formalised and structurally more complex language of text books, lectures, essay writing, oral presentations, debate and public speaking. Not all children enter pre-school of school familiar with the requirements of academic language.  Van Kleeck (2014) viewed academic language as part of the hidden school curriculum – being a very important aspect of the curriculum but not taught directly or explicitly to learners.

For the learner with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) the challenges to mastering one language is already difficult, to acquire another register of academic language – not taught/instructed directly – would pose significant challenges. For the academically at risk child, it is simply unfair to wait until he is in the foundation phase to be concerned about academic language as he is already in danger to face academic challenges.

What are the best ways to overcome the challenges?

The role of the speech-language therapist, the teachers and the parents are of critical importance here.  The collaborative relationship in the pre-school class of the speech-language therapist and the teacher should be reinforced to develop and foster the use of AT in the classroom. As language practitioners speech-language therapists can make the knowledge of AT explicit to teachers at the inception of Grade R so that at-risk learners may be identified early (van Kleeck, 2014).  If teachers are made aware of the need to develop AT in young learners, the early and efficient nurturing of AT may benefit all children at risk for academic difficulties as well as those with language impairment (van Kleeck, 2014). Children who are afforded participation in classroom talk may develop a positive self-identity as a learner (Stables, 2003).

Schleppegrell (2001) stated that “many teachers are unprepared to make the linguistic expectations of school, explicit to learners”. The inclusion of instruction to foster academic language from pre-school age already should be included in teacher training. The training of teachers should include direct focus on the explicit training of academic language to children who are at risk for academic underachievement (Bunch, 2013; Cummins, 2014).

The empowering of teachers as well as parents in the instruction of academic language should be part of professional development programmes for teachers and parents at school.

The responsibility of fostering academic language so that learners may  successfully progress through school rests with:

The school system and authorities responsible for teacher training

  • Teacher training (for all phases) should include skills training to directly target tuition of academic language within the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS).
  • Teachers must make learners aware of the additional requirements of academic language
  • Teachers must teach the respective vocabulary, concepts and complex sentence structure of a specific subject explicitly

Speech-language therapists

  • Should start teaching and supporting learners with Academic language development as soon as possible in Grade R
  • Use the concepts, vocabulary and respective thinking that is required for each subject and teach explicitly
  • Teach phonological awareness (decoding for later reading) and print awareness explicitly
  • Teach higher order oral language skills to support the comprehension of more complicated reading and to enable learners to use language inferentially (van Kleeck, 2014).
  • Focus also on the process of thinking (how?, why?, what next? questions), and concentrate on metacognitive skills (teach about thinking using the appropriate terminology referring to thinking skills – ask learners to explain how they reached a conclusion, support the gradual process of reaching more complex thinking by acknowledging what is already said and prompt the learner to progress to a more complex level of thinking).
  • Focus on empowering parents with knowledge about academic language and how they can contribute to their child’s academic language competency.

Parents

  • Engage child in talk – concentrate on the explanation of how and what they are thinking about. Choose subjects that are known to the child, but also venture away to more unknown subjects to stimulate their thinking and interest.
  • Ask open-ended questions – spark creativity and higher level thinking and support the child’s thinking process by providing new and novel ideas.
  • Read to your child, have discussions about the topic, characters and the world issues in the book.

What are the most important signs that will indicate to parents, teachers and practitioners that Academic language is intact?

  • More talk
  • More complex use of oral language as well as written expression
  • Greater sentence and vocabulary complexity
  • Longer mean length of utterance
  • More elaborated language
  • More use of passives
  • More discussion and understanding of complex concepts
  • More decontextualized language
  • More meta-language use
  • Using content/subject specific vocabulary and showing understanding of concepts under discussion
  • Displaying their knowledge by explaining and using precise terms
  • Being able to describe a thinking process and use of thinking language
  • Being able to answer open-ended questions and avoiding closed set responses
  • More topic elaboration                (summarised from van Kleeck, 2014)

Visit our Tools and Research and Other Articles pages for Ms Wranz’s recommended and applicable literature sources on Academic Language.


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