On “Academic English” in Schools

In two different classes within the last month I have discussed the concept of language in the classroom, and how some students who speak English as their first language are still discriminated against for how they speak. The line teachers must walk when communicating with students about their ways of speaking is truly a fine one and so, it’s incredibly important to be cognizant of the issue.

The problem is that the constant presence of “academic English,” a term I’ll use here to describe the standard sort of language expected of students on standardized tests and therefore in classrooms, is infringing on student individuality. Last week a classmate of mine articulated this concern much better than me: “We have to be able to teach ‘academic English’ without discouraging students’ normal speech.”

Today I told my classmates that teachers are going to have to continue teaching “academic English” to some extent, mainly because they need it for standardized tests, plain and simple. As unfortunate as we may deem this, it’s a fact at present and not likely to change anytime soon. If we want all students to have the same opportunities to succeed academically, then it’s necessary. However, there are ways teachers can encourage “academic English” without flat out telling students they’re wrong for speaking or writing differently, and I think subtlety and separation especially important for this to occur.

Subtlety

Of course, it’s never a good idea to correct students’ actions in front of their peers, but perhaps it’s even worse to do so when it comes to how they’re used to speaking. This is how subtlety can be useful. For example, if a student misuses a verb out loud, simply posing the sentence back to the student as a question and in the correct form can be effective in getting the point across without the fear of public embarrassment.

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Credit: Google Images

Separation

Separating “academic English” from social or more typically spoken forms of English is absolutely crucial to any classroom. This article outlines the difference between social and academic English, and while it refers to English language learners, I think it’s message is useful here. It discusses the importance of students’ abilities to learn English that will assist them with “standards-based curriculum.” It argues that proficiency in each type of English is necessary and gives teachers some useful tips in helping their students reach their potential in both. One thing I keep thinking about in terms of separation is how teachers should know when to encourage the use of “academic English” (in the classroom) and when to allow for more natural English to take shape as students interact freely with one another (on the playground, at lunch). This should allow for the teaching of “academic English” while still allowing students time to be themselves and, perhaps more importantly, feel secure in their dialogue.

What do you think? Perhaps your schooling experiences allowed you to speak more freely than most. While I don’t much remember my own experience with “academic English,” I do see it often in my role as a classroom volunteer. I’m very much looking forward to learning more about this issue. Let’s chat about it!

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