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European Centre for Modern Languages

Step 1: Planning

The materials in this section will help you to become more aware of the difference between everyday language and the language used in school as well as of the importance of language in subject learning. You will also find here a list of references if you want to read more.

2. Explore the issues

Language needed for academic success

Many students may find it challenging to cope with the language they meet in academic subjects since this language is different from the everyday language they use outside school, with friends and family.

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Characteristics of language of schooling

Especially for ‘vulnerable’ learners, the language used at school is in many ways a barrier to reach their potential (Cummins 1979). Describing, comparing, evaluating, analysing etc. are examples of discourse functions that students must master in subject classes. The importance and content of different functions may vary from subject to subject. For example, in history it may be important to describe events and to explain causes and effects. In mathematics on the other hand, it sometimes necessary to describe processes, for instance a step-by-step description of how to add fractions with different denominators, as well as to define abstract terms.

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Integrating content and language

Teachers know that until the age of 9 or 10, most students can follow what goes on in the classroom. As learners progress in school, the subjects and the language of the subjects become increasingly more abstract and academic because of subject-specific vocabulary, complex texts, and the need to express their knowledge and to show understanding in different subjects in a more academic manner. In sum, learning a subject implies more than learning facts. To build knowledge, it is therefore necessary to acquire control over the more academic functions of the language in which that subject is delivered. This is what makes learning possible.

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The language needed to meet academic challenges

In order to know what students know or have learnt about a subject/topic they must express their knowledge in some way, i.e. to speak or write about it. This means that there is a relationship between knowledge and language proficiency. Competent language users can express their knowledge more fluently and in more detail than weak language users. At the same time students with a high level of language proficiency will have a higher chance of learning in subject classes. Their language “mastery will have a positive effect on their knowledge gains and help them to develop the desired attitudes and approaches” (Beacco et al, 2015).

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In many countries, basic skills are in all subjects integrated in competence aims and curriculum goals. Competence aims in subjects like history, physics and other subjects indicate language goals as well as knowledge goals. For example, according to the Norwegian science curriculum for 10th graders the students should be able to

  • formulate testable hypotheses, plan and conduct investigations and discuss observations and results in a report.
  • explain how electrical energy can be produced from renewable and non-renewable energy sources and discuss the environmental impacts that accompany different ways of producing energy.

Each subject teacher is responsible for opening up his or her subject to students in a way that gives them an opportunity to build knowledge and make meaning of the different topics of the subject. This means focusing on knowledge and language. “The language dimension in teaching and learning subject-matter is of equal importance as in language as subject itself” (Beacco et al, 2015).