Hameray Classroom Literacy Blog

5 Steps to Easily Develop Academic Language [Pre-K–1]

By Margaret Hufstedler, Retired Kindergarten Teacher, Author, Guest Blogger

Helping kids learn to communicate using academic language is critical in the early years. It is the language they need in order to communicate and participate in activities that help them learn. Watching the adults in their life model academic language enables kids to state their observations more effectively. In today's blog post, you'll find easy steps to help kids use academic language at school and at home!

1. Model Academic Language Often

During the early years, students need many opportunities to hear academic language. Frequent exposure to the correct use of academic language helps students to develop word knowledge needed to express themselves. Modeling academic language using mostly nonfiction books for kids is a great way to start. Students are naturally drawn to information about animals or other creatures, so teachers have a wide array of topics to choose from.

2. Use Academic Language in All Places

So much of what kids learn is centered around everyday conversations with others. Adults involved in student learning should use academic vocabulary in context often. Words like classify, create, explain and similar words should be part of daily conversations.

You can prompt the use of academic language by saying, You have an interesting picture of a bug. Tell me about what makes your bug interesting. You can do the same when talking to kids about their school environment: Which way should we go to lunch? We can compare our hallways.

Keeping the hallway example in mind, have students observe the length of each route. Ask kids to use the appropriate words of comparison when they state their reasoning for choosing which hallway they'd use. Here's an example: When I compared the halls, I found out one hall is longer. I will take the shorter hall to lunch tomorrow. You can also use a leveled guided reading book about weather, like Four Seasons to prompt comparisons using academic language.

Having a list of academic words on a lanyard is a great way for teachers to grab a vocabulary word at the spur of the moment. Encouraging parents to show a list of academic words at home can help to improve students' use of academic language. Using flipped learning, students can investigate at home, then bring their findings to school to “teach” others. This builds an important bridge between the classroom and the homes of students.

3. Give Tools to Find Academic Language

When you read a high-interest informational or narrative text, that you are demonstrating the important role academic vocabulary plays in informational text or fictional stories. Increasing the frequency of reading these texts gives kids more to consider and helps them gain confidence in using big words when they speak.

During the early years, it’s all about the alphabet. Luckily, the alphabet can be integrated into most lessons by searching for the focus letter. When you can combine the alphabet with great content, it’s a win-win!

Brown Bear is a level D nonfiction animal book for kids that has a simple sentence structure. It's a great book to encourage kids to use academic language because the content encourages students to think about what bears need to adapt to the long winter. Great conversations are sparked from hearing or reading the simple text with meaningful photos or illustrations.

4. Provide Guided Practice Using Academic Language

After reading and discussing high-interest content, it is important to practice and reflect on it during the same lesson. Writing connects meaning to content. You can help make these connections with an anchor chart, a class writing lesson using the shared pen, or writing journal entries (my favorite) where students reflect and show what was most important to them using an academic word.

The most effective strategy for learning academic words is to focus on one word during each lesson. You should assist students by verbalizing a thought process while underwriting or writing what students could dictate about their illustrations. This helps them make a connection to the academic word they (you) write. This also serves the higher purpose of understanding how words are a group of letters arranged a particular way, and words make sentences that explain thinking. The connection of writing to learn is powerful!

5. Celebrate the Use of Academic Language

As soon as your students begin using academic language in their daily dialogue, make a video of them! There should always be a huge effort to showcase students' efforts. You can easily differentiate this by leaving it up to the student which piece of work they would like to use.

Some students may choose to take a picture of a drawing, then record their descriptions of their observations. Other students may want to do a full-blown speech about what they have learned. The most important thing you must do is help them see that others value their expertise on the topic they chose.

There are a variety of apps that allow recording and annotating these days. You may choose to record them, then link the recording with a QR code for a great wall display! Here is an example of how academic language may be used to showcase work:

Hello, my name is Julie. I investigated animals with fur and animals without fur. I made a chart for them. Here is how I classified them. The bear is a furry animal, so he goes on the Yes side of my chart. The whale is not a furry animal. I put it on the No side. My conclusion is there are many animals with fur, and there are many animals without fur.

The student has learned and used three academic words in their presentation, however, you would want to have students focus on one word each time at the beginning of the year.

In short:

  1. Model academic language.
  2. Use it everywhere and often!
  3. Teach each word using high-interest nonfiction books for kids.
  4. Provide guided practice using each word (don’t forget to encourage at-home use).
  5. Celebrate! Showcase student use of academic language!

If you make these steps a daily ritual, your students will learn academic language that will make them more effective communicators for the rest of their lives.

Margaret Hufstedler retired from the classroom after 32 years of teaching across all grade levels. She is a songwriter, pianist, and accompanist for her school’s award-winning choir, as well as an author for Hameray new STEM Explorations . She is also the owner of Maggie’s Kinder Corner, a website turned blog that celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, owner of Maggie’s Kinder on TpT , and moderator on Twitter of #tfedubasics. In addition to her professional interests, she is “Nanna” to six young grandsons and a long-time bulldog mom.