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Voices from the Middle--Moving from Print to Practice, May 2013 (20.4) - Previous Revision

This Issue’s Focus: Teaching the Language of School and Academics (20:4)

With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, building academic language in every content area for all students has never been more important. Articles and ideas in this issue will help language arts teachers reconsider academic language in their own classrooms and help colleagues in other disciplines support student vocabulary growth. The last three articles in this section focus on English language learners, but there is a wealth of ideas in this section for every student population.

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Code-Switching Pedagogies

“Three Mentor Texts That Support Code-Switching Pedagogies for Middle School Students” by Dara Hill

General Discussion Topic

In this article Hill focuses on code-switching between African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and Standard English (SE). Begin your thinking and discussing this article by analyzing the language of the students and families in your classroom and community. Is AAVE the dominant code used by your students and their families? Is there another variety of English spoken in your community? Do you and your colleagues recognize these varieties of English as alternate codes or as errors in usage? How do we as teachers talk about language use in a way that is open and inclusive of all of our students?

Key Points

  • It is necessary to provide a balance of informal writing contexts that value AAVE features, along with formal writing opportunities that call for scaffolding toward Standard English features in a manner that is nonthreatening.
  • Many speakers of AAVE do not employ its features all the time, nor do all African Americans speak AAVE.
  • Students will more likely pursue formal, academic English upon participating in nonthreatening contexts for examining variations of English.

Common Core Connections

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language 6-12

Conventions of Standard English

1. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

2. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.

Knowledge of Language

3. Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.

Grade 6

Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when
writing or speaking.

e. Recognize variations from standard English in their own and others’ writing and speaking, and identify and use strategies to improve expression in conventional language.

It is interesting to note that the concept or recognizing variations from standard English in their own or other’s writing is isolated only to grade 6.

Using This Article with Your Team

Hill approaches this topic from the standpoint that AAVE is a differentiated dialect with systematic grammatical features. She aligns with other researchers in steering away from a corrective approach and moving toward an approach that helps students understand appropriate contexts and to distinguish between Standard and nonstandard English.

Students should be speaking and writing formally and informally in all academic disciplines. Using this article as a starting point, how can you lead your colleagues in a conversation about accepting AAVE or other dialects in appropriate contexts in the classroom?

Try using one of the mentor texts Hill recommends and leading colleagues in an examination of grammatical features similar to Hill’s example to begin to help them recognize similarities and differences.

Why Not Try This?

Hill suggests using Jacqueline Woodson’s book Peace, Locomotion as one of the mentor texts. She suggests writing a poem with similar language features from Lonnie’s perspective or students’ own. Another variation would be to write a poem in two voices. Students could write one voice as Lonnie and one as his sister Lili, or they could write the same idea in AAVE and SE, then compare how the mood and tone of the speaker changes when the dialect of English changes.

She also suggests teacher modeling comparing grammatical features across registers to illustrate that no variety of English is superior. Try involving students in this dialogue. Have students role play conversations between the characters using different variations. Have students play one role using AAVE and another SE, switch speakers and roles, have students engage in mock conversations with peers and with adults in varying roles to illustrate situations when difference registers may be expected or appropriate.

Hill also suggests using The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis as another mentor text. Copper Sun by Sharon Draper is another example of historical fiction that mixes a variety of registers depending on the speaker. This provides another mentor text suitable for the expository text organizer Hill outlines in her article.

Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman is another mentor text suggested by Hill. Have students create a graphic organizer that compares and contrasts one or two features of each dialect:

  Vietnamese AAVE Korean Latino

Culturally specific


Hill references the work of John R. Rickford, Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University. Refer to the links below for more on Dr. Rickford’s work, including links to full texts of many of his articles.

NCTE provides a sample chapter from the Wheeler and Swords book Code-Switching, also referenced by Hill to assist in distinguishing features between Standard English and other registers.

Using Academic Vocabulary

“How Can Teachers Increase the Use of Academic Vocabulary in the Classroom?” by Lisa Larson, Temoca Dixon, and Dianna Townsend

General Discussion Topic

Content area literacy has always been important, but with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, teachers in all subject areas must begin to think about teaching vocabulary and reading comprehension in ways that they may not have considered before. As you choose reading material for your students, are you considering the requisite academic language required for them to understand what they are reading?

Key Points

  • Active vocabulary practice is invaluable to academic success.
  • In order to make sense of increasingly dense academic texts, middle level students must possess strategies to understand and use words.
  • Word learning is incremental in nature, and depth of word knowledge is built as students encounter words across various texts and contexts.

Common Core Connection

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use

4. Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.

6. Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.

Grade 7

4. Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grade 7 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.

a. Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence or paragraph; a word’s position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.

b. Use common, grade-appropriate Greek or Latin affixes and roots as clues to the meaning of a word (e.g., belligerent, bellicose, rebel).

c. Consult general and specialized reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning or its part of speech.

d. Verify the preliminary determination of the meaning of a word or phrase (e.g., by checking the inferred meaning in context or in a dictionary).

Using This Article with Your Team

The authors of this article have many suggestions for using their ideas in social studies. Every idea they present could be used in any content area. As you and your team approach interdisciplinary units, how can you take the variety of ideas in this article and apply them across the curriculum? Could you build a word wall in a central hallway that encompasses all subject areas? Can students have one vocabulary journal that they add to in every class? Can teachers agree on one cluster, base word, or tier of words to study in every content area over the course of a week? Can vocabulary instruction rotate from content area to content area throughout the week?

Why Not Try This?

The authors cite Averil Coxhead’s work in creating academic word families. To see her lists and more information, go to

Word walls are a key strategy in this article. The authors suggest grouping words on the wall in alphabetical order, by common themes, units of study, or by tiers. Also consider using similar root words, prefixes, or suffixes as grouping strategies. Try color coding words either by writing in one color or using colored index cards to delineate tiers, parts of speech, or other similar characteristics to further support visual learners.

In addition to the entrance and exit slip strategies in the article, try asking students to complete a graphic organizer such as a concept map or double bubble chart.
Students can begin class by predicting which words from the word wall might have a place in their graphic organizer and end class by making changes or corrections based on the day’s lesson.

Try expanding on the author’s morphology activity by having students take those word lists, common parts, and additional words and create posters for classroom reference. Students could use traditional paper and markers or use a Web tool such as Glogster to display their words.

Believe it or not, Pinterest has several postings for teachers using a variety of vocabulary journals—check out


Addressing the Academic Language Needs of English Language Learners

“Building on the Linguistic and Cultural Strengths of the EL Student: Making Connections Across Cultures, Time, and Subject Areas” by Kay Cowan and Sarah Sandefur

“Scaffolding Content and Language Demands for ‘Reclassified’ Students” by Eliane Rubenstein-Avila

“Not Just Good Science Teaching: Supporting Academic Language Development” by Cecelia Silva, Molly Weinburgh, and Kathy Horak Smith

General Discussion Topic

These three articles have multiple things in common. All three approach academic language in light of the needs of English language learners. They focus on language arts and science as the primary content areas for the classroom examples, but give strategies that are applicable in additional content areas. All three articles begin by meeting students where they are and scaffolding students to meet the academic language demands required of them to pass standardized tests and have the ability to succeed beyond middle and high school. As you consider these articles, reflect on your own school, community, and state standards and priorities. Do you have students for whom English is not their first language? What are the expectations for them in your school? What support structures are in place for them, their families, and you as their teacher? How can you use resources like this journal to help you support them?

Key Points

  • English language learners often understand concepts that they cannot express verbally.
  • Give students a form of communication independent of language, such as art forms or other visual representations.
  • Scaffolding the linguistic demands of content happens as one teaches the content—not as an add-on to the content.
  • We need to help ELLs recognize the differences between the language of schooling and the language used in everyday settings.
  • Students who do not develop “school” English by middle school are less likely to succeed and graduate from high school and even less likely to graduate from a community college or university.
  • Conceptual discussion is likely to require all the linguistic resources a student can muster. Communicating in Spanish, for example, does not mean that students are off task.
  • The challenges of learning the academic discourse of science go beyond linguistics and are best understood as middle school students engage in authentic communication related to the discipline.

Common Core Connection

The College and Career Readiness Standards for Reading extend into the disciplines of History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.

In grades 6–8 students in History/Social Studies should be able to

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies.

In Science and Technical subjects:

Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 6–8 texts and topics.

Using These Articles with Your Team

During the planning of an interdisciplinary unit, begin by identifying key tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary words. Then consider the divisions between academic and everyday language as described by Silva, Weinburgh, and Smith. Work as a team to sort words into academic and everyday language. Take note of words that have multiple meanings in each context. Multiple authors in this section point out to us that words like mean and product have different meanings in everyday English and in different content areas. Help each other to reinforce these different applications of multiple meaning words so that students learn to adapt language use to different settings and situations.

Every author in this section recognizes the importance of visual representations for ELLs when learning new words. Review the articles in this issue and brainstorm ways to use a variety of visual representations in different content areas. Use shared spaces such as hallways or interior walls of your pod to display and share those visual pieces.

Why Not Try This?

Cowan and Sandefur reference the Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence (CREDE) and their Five Standards for Effective Pedagogy and Learning. Find the standards for further reading at

All of the authors in this section suggest using visual representations to help ELLs learn academic vocabulary. Some of the ideas they suggest include the following:

Flap Books

  • Don’t know how to make a flap book? Check out

Step Books

  • (This one has a video link at the bottom and directions in Spanish as another option!)

Plot Cartoons

  • Folding a piece of paper into 6 or 8 squares is fun, but here is a Web-based tool to help
  • This tool can be used for one panel with a caption, similar to the idea from Ms. Aguilar’s classroom.
  • If students do use paper and pencil, consider using a document camera to project and share examples with the entire class.

Word Walls

  • Sort words by academic and everyday language
  • Put the same word up in difference places to represent multiple meanings. For example, the word mean can be grouped with other words that represent feelings or actions (i.e., she was being mean to me) and with mathematical terms, consider color coding different groups of words

Charts, Tables, Graphic Organizers

Digital Stories

  • Find help from Microsoft  at



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