Common Core and ELLs: Planning Professional Development About Academic Language (Part 2)

In Part 1 of our series about planning professional development around the Common Core, we offered some introductory points to cover as you consider what your colleagues need to know about implementing the new standards with English Learners (ELs).

Once your colleagues have some background on what the Common Core will mean for ELs, you are ready to move onto the next topic: academic language.  As you may recall, the CCSS emphasize the use of academic language for all students, which is why CCSS professional development should include information on defining as well as learning to teach academic language, particularly with ELs.

Here are some questions to consider in your planning.

  • What do your colleagues already know or need to know about academic language?
  • What role does academic language play in the Common Core?
  • How can we provide ELs with opportunities to access and master the academic language they need to succeed with the Common Core?

What is Academic Language?

Simply put, academic language can be defined as the more formal written and spoken language necessary for all students (not only ELs) to succeed in classrooms and professional workplaces. Academic language stands in contrast to the social or everyday language that students are likely to master more quickly. It also plays a significant role in the kind of work students are expected to do within the Common Core framework, which Lesli Maxwell outlines in this recent Education Week article.

It may be helpful to start your conversation by first seeing what your colleagues already know about academic language and what kinds of examples they can think of from their own subject areas. If they need some guidance, you can use the examples and videos from Academic Language and ELLs: What Teachers Need to Know to help them get started.

Once your colleagues begin to come up with examples of their own, encourage them to expand their thinking about the purposes for which students may use academic language in different disciplines.  For example, in Chemistry class, students may need to write about the properties of certain elements; in Geometry class, students may be required to orally explain a proof; and in Social Studies class, students may be asked to compare two famous speeches.

Explain to your colleagues that ELs will need help mastering the language needed for such sophisticated assignments, moving beyond the word level in order to construct sentences, paragraphs, essays, speeches, and presentations – the kinds of products students are expected to produce through the Common Core.  They will most likely also need practice with academic language across the four different language domains (reading, writing, speaking, and listening), depending on the kind of assignment and their own strengths and areas in need of support.

Lesson Planning and Curriculum Mapping with Academic Language in Mind

As teachers think about the types assignments, activities and products that they expect all students to complete in their classes, ask them to consider the academic language across all four language domains required for students to complete those tasks.

This table provides a sample of the academic language that can be found in a 5th grade English Language Arts unit. Such a tool could be included to help teachers plan lessons and map curriculum. For example, let’s consider Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a text included in CCSS ELA Appendix B as appropriate for Grades 4-5. This table helps teachers identify the language domain(s), Common Core Standard, Classroom Task, and Academic Language using the text as a basis. It also provides sample support in the form of sentence frames to help ELs – as well as other students who may need support with academic language – participate in the classroom tasks that address the CCSS listed.

Academic Language Table

Language Domain(s)CCSS StandardClassroom TaskAcademic Language Needed
SpeakingCCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.5.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 5 topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.Answer text dependent questions and contribute to the group discussion about the protagonist (Alice).Cite evidence from Chapter 1 to support your answers. (For example, Do you think Alice is dreaming? Why or why not?)


  • I think Alice is dreaming because ____.
  • Based on the story, ____.
  • Juan said ____. I agree with what he said  because ____.
WritingCCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.5.2d Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic.Write a description of the protagonist (Alice).Use precise vocabulary included in the text to write your description of the protagonist.


  • Three words I would use to describe Alice are…curious, polite, adventurous, etc.
  • I chose these descriptions because _____.
ReadingCCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.1 Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.Listen to the teacher read chapter two while considering a guiding question. Then, read chapter two with a partner, noting key points from the text to support the answer of the guiding question.Answer a guiding question (for example: Why does Alice keep getting everything wrong?) Cite evidence (include quotes, paraphrased information, etc.) from the chapter to support your description.


  • Alice keeps making mistakes because _____.
  • The evidence from the text is ________.
ListeningCCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.5.3 Summarize the points a speaker makes and explain how each claim is supported by reasons and evidence.Listen to classmates share their answer to “Why does Alice keep getting everything wrong?” and their evidence from the text that supports this claim.Complete a graphic organizer and summarize their responses.


  • Duy said Alice keeps getting everything wrong because _____.
  • His evidence from the text is ______.

Related Resources

  • One helpful resources for curriculum mapping is from Iowa State University’s Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, which provides a visual of A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. This visual can help teachers recognize where classroom activities fall on the continuum of cognitive complexity of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Also, in the 2012 WIDA Amplified English Language Development Standards, the cognitive function, drawn from Bloom’s Taxonomy, has been added to the sample strands to further make those connections for ELs.
  • In addition, if you have time, you may wish to introduce your colleagues to the concept of language objectives which are used for ELs to support their access to content objectives.

Identifying Academic Language Demands of the Standards

Now it’s your colleagues’ turn!  Have them look at some specific standards to identify the academic language demands of each standard.  It’s helpful to have them focus on what the students will need to do with language in order to meet each standard. Then, guide them as they brainstorm some techniques to support ELs’ use of academic language needed to meet each standard. The table below provides some examples.

CCSS Standards, Academic Language Needed, and Instructional Supports for ELs

CCSS Standard (Reading: Informational Text)Academic Language NeededInstructional Supports for ELs
Grade 2 CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.2.9 Compare and contrast the most important points presented by two texts on the same topic.Students will need to compare and contrast. They will also need to be able to identify the most important points in two texts.
Grade 5 CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.8 Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text, identifying which reasons and evidence support which point(s).Students will need to explain and identify. They will also need to pull out points in a text and map the author’s reasons and evidence onto those points.
  • Sentence frames to explain and identify
  • Modeling to support reasons with text-based evidence
  • Graphic organizer to locate points and map them to author’s reasons and evidence
Grades 9-10 CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.8 Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.Students will need to delineate, evaluate, assess, and identify. They will also need to possess the language to discuss claims, reasoning, evidence, false statements, and fallacious reasoning.
  • Sentence frames to delineate, evaluate, assess, and identify
  • Modeling claims, reasoning, evidence, false statements, and fallacious reasoning using texts below grade level
  • Sentence frames to discuss claims, reasoning, evidence, false statements, and fallacious reasoning.

Give your colleagues some time to go in depth with this activity, ask questions, and collaborate.  Some areas to focus on include:

  • Challenges ELs might face in these meeting these standards
  • Ideas for helping ELs overcome those challenges
  • Questions about what they would like to know from you about how to help ELs meet those challenges

Collaboration and Academic Language

As you prepare to close your session, ask your colleagues to share their discussion from their analysis of the standards as well as any questions they might have.  Share some ways in which you (or other ESL teachers) can collaborate with them and support their academic language instruction embedded with the standards.

Remind your colleagues that you (and other ESL teachers) are a resource when it comes to working with ELs, and they don’t have to figure it all out on their own!  Find out if they have any ideas on how to collaborate or what kind of support they’d like, whether individually or in groups, as they think about their own students’ needs based on what they learned in the session.

Closing Thoughts

Once your colleagues develop a better understanding of academic language, they should begin to feel less anxious about that aspect of working with ELs and implementing the Common Core with ELs. They will also begin to understand that this will take a collective effort and that English language development does not cease once a session of language support has been completed with the ESL teacher.

Language development happens all throughout the day, and building a sense of collaboration and ownership for all students in mastering academic language is imperative in creating a path towards collaboration and towards meeting the Common Core. By working together and giving them the tools they need, you are well on your way to helping each other down that path together!

Discussion Questions:

  • What are some examples of academic language (vocabulary, phrases, and structures) in your subject across all four language domains that would be useful to know?
  • What are examples of the kinds of purposes for which students will use academic language in your subject area?
  • What are some examples of the kinds of academic language needed to meet the Common Core in your subject area?
  • What are some ideas for helping ELs master the kinds of academic language needed in your subject area?
  • What are some ways that you might collaborate with your ESL colleagues around the Common Core?


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