Feature Article

Supporting Academic Literacy Acquisition

We have Observed a Few Things Recently...

  1. Students come to college underprepared for the academic rigor that we expect
  2. Students are not doing the assigned readings for class
  3. Students' writing skills have declined

The Essential Question...

Is there a way to teach our content in such a way that we also support the acquisition of these key academic skills? The answer is a resounding YES!!... In fact, not only can we teach our content and help students acquire stronger academic literacy skills, but in so doing, we also help them build their intellect and critical thinking skills. If this sounds like a win-win... then read on (and I promise to keep it short, sweet, and practical!)


What do we Know about the Connection between Literacy and Intellectual Development?

What are some of the Features and Functions of Academic Language?

Jeff Zwiers (2008) in his text Building Academic Language contributes significantly to our understanding of what we mean when we talk about academic language.

Functions of Academic Language (what it does)

Features of Academic Language (how it does it)

Features of Grammar common to Academic Language


To describe complexity


Using figurative expressions

Long sentences

To describe high-order thinking

Being explicit for "distant audiences" – internal structures that support meaning

Passive voice

To describe abstraction

Remaining detached from the message

Nominalization – turning verbs or nouns into noun phrases – purpose to condense lengthy explanations to fewer words – more challenging for students – denser text with more abstraction


Supporting points with evidence

Condensed complex messages


Conveying nuances of meaning with modals (could, should, shall, might, etc)

Clarity – balances out the complexity


Softening the message with qualifiers (hedges) (seemed, perhaps, more or less, etc.)



Using prosody for emphasis – in oral communication – lectures for example– changing pitch, pausing, stressing syllables etc.



Zwiers, J. (2008). Building academic language: Essential practices for content classrooms. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

What are some General Principles to Guide us?

  1. Teach to students strategies to access the more difficult aspects of academic texts. They need help to understand it, hold onto it, use it, and fix things when they aren't getting it – explain the strategy – the what when how, why… demonstrate it… get students to practice it with feedback… let students use it independently (In the next section, I'll describe a few strategies that you could use)
  2. Model what you do when you read difficult academic texts - Read aloud and articulate explicitly what is happening in your mind when you are reading... What are the questions you ask, the connections you make, the inferences that happen - Are you using text structure or context clues to help you understand - Are you rehearsing in your mind so you can remember things? When do you stop to write something down? How are you figuring out and breaking down long sentences? Are you connecting the text to what you already know?
  3. Give them opportunities to activate their metacognition – the goal is to become aware of what are they thinking when they read and how much they are comprehending, how it connects to what they already know – the questions they have, the inferences they are making, the images the text brings up, the places they get stuck
  4. Give students multiple ways to access the content - gather multiple resources about the topic from different media - I know- You say, "But they aren't going to read it anyway!"...Now we get to the good stuff...How do we make this happen in the classroom?
  5. Think about background knowledge - connect the new information you are going to present to what they know already – activate that background knowledge or help them get it if there isn't anything there to connect to…

What Does this Look Like in the Classroom?

This may sound too simple - we do this all the time - assign reading and writing activities - but either they don't do it, or they don't do it to our expectations... so now what?

Creating Effective Reading Assignments - Excerpted from Brozo (2007)

  1. Students don't know that they need to read differently for different goals - Tell them - should they skim it only, or do they need to read for detail... if so...
  2. What should they focus on? Definitions, theories,examples, trends, cause and effect, comparisons, events?...
  3. You know what the difficult sections are going to be - give them strategies to use at those sections - i.e. - "Class, note the chart on page 220 that organizes the info in a visual way, if you are struggling with topix X"... Will class notes help? Will the chapter summary or textbook multi-media help?
  4. How can they break up the reading into manageable chunks? Would you plow through it all at one sitting? What would you do?
  5. How much time should it take them?
  6. Tell them what they will have to do with the reading- exam questions - essay or MC, discussions, labs, writing, etc....
  7. Teach them a strategy to do what they need to do successfully
  8. Build in accountability - If they never need to show you what they can do, they won't! do it!

Brozo, W. G., & Simpson, M. L. (2007). Content literacy for Today's Adolescents: Honoring diversity and building competence. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.


Choosing a Strategy

When you think about choosing a strategy, think about what students are going to use it for...What content and literacy skills are you targeting?

Some possibilities include...

  1. to read the text or scholarly articles – that means they'll need to wade through new vocab and new concepts, determine main and supporting points, use text structure to understand the relationships between ideas
  2. to synthesize the information they hear, read, and see
  3. to persist when meeting challenging texts by monitoring their own understanding and attention – and using fix-up strategies when they go astray
  4. to use the information to demonstrate their learning – either in essays, papers, class discussions, lab experiments, or exam questions…

Don't teach too many strategies; find a few that are suited to your content area and stick with those - You want to build up students' repertoire so they can eventually choose what works for them and use them independently.


Some Strategies to Use

  1. Previewing a Chapter - students create an outline of the main topics and sub-topics of the chapter, bringing it to class BEFORE the lecture on that topic
  2. Summarizing a Chapter - students can take the outline and your lecture notes and then write a brief summary of the main points of the lecture - hand in before they LEAVE class
  3. Synthesis Journal - create a table with 5 columns (or a web with one central placeholder and 4 radiating ones) - The columns are: The text says, The instructor says, The class discussed, I say, and Synthesis - As you work through a topic, students fill in the table and eventually write a synthesis of all the contributions about the topic.
  4. Foldables - Students fold a piece of paper in half - on the left side, they write in the important concepts and vocab from the chapter - on the right side an explanation , examples, and definitions as needed - They can then use these to study for exams by folding it in half.
  5. Study Sheets - you create a matrix that organizes the content from an upcoming reading section - students fill it in as they read - eventually they create their own.
  6. Questioning and Challenging the Author - has 2 parts - Part 1) students answer questions relative to the text in the following categories: Authority (author's qualifications etc.), Intent, Accuracy, and objectivity. Part 2) Students then rate the author by giving a score (1=low up to 5=high) for each category and be ready to defend the score given with evidence


Brozo, W. G., & Simpson, M. L. (2007). Content literacy for Today's Adolescents: Honoring diversity and building competence. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.


I realize, I promised to keep this short - so I'll save more for the next issue... In the meantime, get more ideas at http://www.personal.psu.edu/scs15/Reading/embed.html

Remember, keep it simple. Embed your academic literacy activities within the things you already do - You ask them to read - now give them a purpose and goal for reading and a strategy to get the most from it... Make them accountable - and when they see that it helps them to be successful, maybe they'll do it on their own.

If we want students to develop intellectually, they need the language to support that development. Working with more skilled language users helps them to acquire the more sophisticated language structures of academic language. Reading and writing are the gateways to language development.

Content area teachers are the best models of language use within their areas of expertise. So you play a major role in a student's ability to acquire the academic language they need to learn your content successfully. Embedding literacy support strategies into your lessons and holding students accountable for their completion is a good first step and can be added with only minimal effort on your part. The rewards are well worth the time!!