Welcome to the new MinneTESOL Journal!

Since 1981, MinneTESOL has published a journal featuring the research and writing of local scholars and teachers.  Over those years, the journal has changed and grown to meet the needs of members and the changing landscape of our field.  We are proud to announce the newest chapter in the history of our MinneTESOL Journal, one that builds on the great work of the many others who came before.

For the new journal, we began by asking members about their interests and use of the journal.  Members asked for more frequent publications, and a place for local scholars to publish research that was peer-reviewed as well as a place for practitioner-focused, teacher-authored content.  Members wanted more interaction in the online environment, with practical articles and easy ways to share and use what they learn.   We’ve responded by making some important changes to the MinneTESOL Journal:

  • Creation of an Editorial Board for guidance on format and content of the Journal.
  • Online, interactive format that will allow for the use of more multimedia, discussion of topics, and easy sharing of articles.
  • New guidelines for shorter, more conversational-style articles.
  • Publications two times per year:
    1. A fall/winter issue on any topic of interest to members with manuscripts blind, peer reviewed as in the past.
    2. A spring/summer issue on a specific theme (identified by members), with manuscripts reviewed by members of the Journal Editorial Board.

Framing the Issue

The Spring/Summer 2014 issue of the new MinneTESOL Journal is a themed issue centered on the important topic of Academic Language and Skills. Academic Language and Skills are “words and phrases that describe content-area knowledge and procedures, express complex thinking processes and abstract concepts, and create cohesion and clarity in written and oral discourse” (Zwiers, 2005, p. 60).  This includes understanding of appropriate language functions, register, or other skills that English language learners need to thrive where language demands are complex, whether in schools, community, or workplace.  The issue of the journal features three categories of articles:

Invited submissions from three leaders in the field who share their expertise on the topic of Academic Language and Skills.  First, Kate Kinsella kindly allowed us to reprint an article from Language Magazine that stresses the importance of working together to demystify academic competencies and related language.  Susan Ranney, Elizabeth Dillard-Paltrineri, Caroline Maguire, and Miranda Schornack argue the importance of designing language objectives for content-based lessons in order to bring about a balance of language, literacy and content in instruction.  Finally, Bonnie Swierzbin shares her insights about the importance of understanding the complexity of noun phrases in reading text and why this is important for teaching academic language.

We also have articles submitted for review by the Editorial Board.  These excellent submissions focus on partnerships with teachers to help English learners thrive in the science classroom, the development of critical thinking and academic language for adults moving into post-secondary education, the value of a multiple literacy approach that support students’ use of literacy skills to complete realistic tasks in an authentic academic context, the importance of teaching common rhetorical patters for academic prose and an approach to teaching paraphrasing through poetry.

In each spring issue we will invite the MinneTESOL Harold B. Allen award winners to reflect on their experiences with ESL, the lessons they have learned, and the issues that still plague us.  The award, announced at the fall conference to recognize members for their service to MinneTESOL and the field, include the 2012 winner, Rosemary Sharkey, and the two 2013 winners, Patsy Vinogradov and Ann Mabbott.  All share their wisdom, ideas and experiences with readers.

It’s been a busy and exciting time remaking the journal.  There are certain to be bugs, and we appreciate your patience as we work through these.  Please share your ideas with us for fixes and improvements.  A heartfelt thank you to the MinneTESOL Journal Editorial Board members for their hard work, especially to Kate Clements as our Journal web editor.  We couldn’t have come this far without her!  Thanks to the MinneTESOL Board for their support of this journal remake.  Thank you, finally, to our authors for taking the time to write and share their ideas with others.  Please take the time to read, comment and share the articles in the Spring/Summer 2014 MinneTESOL Journal.   Enjoy!

Kim Johnson and Anne Dahlman
MinneTESOL Journal Senior Co-editors

Teaching common rhetorical patterns for academic prose can make a big difference for students, and this article shares a variety of practical strategies for practitioners.

Rhetorical patterns of academic prose

Teaching non-native English speakers to comprehend and compose expository prose can present many challenges. Students may lack familiarity with common rhetorical patterns of academic nonfiction (Leki, 1991).  Knowledge of text structure is important in reading comprehension (Grabe, 2004; Koda, 2005) and in writing for academic purposes (Carson, 2001; Panetta, 2001).  In my seven years teaching English to refugees and immigrants, a gradual approach has worked best. Patterns commonly referred to in instructional texts include listing, chronological order, cause and effect, classification, argumentation, comparison and contrast, problem and solution.

These patterns often use common signal words –cohesive devices that help structure academic prose (Halliday & Hasan, 1976; Hoey, 2001).  They may be conjunctions (Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad, & Finegan, 1999; Trebits, 2009), adverbs or adverbial expressions (Biber, et al., 1999; Liu, 2008; Peacock, 2010) that link clauses, adjacent sentences, and span ideas across larger segments of text. Some linking devices are more common in print than speech (Biber, et al., 1999; Liu, 2008), and may present difficulties to students (Chung, 2000), particularly to lower-proficiency speakers (Pretorius, 2006).  To recognize text structure and organize prose effectively, non-native speakers need relevant knowledge of grammar (Grabe, 2004; Koda, 1993; Olshtain & Celce-Murcia, 2001) and cohesive devices (Mahlberg, 2006).

While using exercises from a popular reading text several years ago, my students grappled to identify patterns of organization by locating related signal words.  The exercises, though useful, required command of considerable English.  The text did not include parts of speech or definitions of the signal words, or sentence-level exercises. Few students understood expressions such as however, on the other hand, as a result of, and others. I had more luck teaching the grammar of clauses and phrases with a composition text (Oshima & Hogue, 2006) that helped students recognize and write compound and complex sentences using coordinate and subordinate conjunctions, important not only to comprehend but to compose well-organized text (Bliss, 2001).  While exercises from the composition text helped, I still contemplated the most effective scope and sequence in teaching rhetorical patterns.  My curiosity led to research for my M.A. in ESL at Hamline University.

Research on linking devices for comparison and contrast

My research focused on linking devices that signal a pattern of comparison and contrast in nonfiction textbooks, but the results had broader implications.  I chose this pattern because students struggle more with adversative devices (those showing contrast) than other types (Ozono & Ito 2003; Pretorius, 2006).  There were inconsistencies in lists of linking devices emphasized by corpus research and those included in four instructional reading and composition texts (Smith, 2013).  Scholars have suggested that ESOL texts should more accurately reflect corpus research on use of these devices (Conrad, 2004; Liu, 2008).  I began to agree that teachers need some knowledge of corpus linguistics (Conrad, 1999, 2000).

Next, I did a qualitative text analysis that examined how two adversative devices more common in print than speech, however and although (Biber, et al., 1999), structured passages in college-level science and history text.  I explored trends.  Did they most often structure individual paragraphs, serve as transitions between paragraphs, or connect larger sections of text?  They served in all these roles, but to my surprise, most linked supporting details within paragraphs.  Some marked transitions between paragraphs, without necessarily structuring either paragraph in a comparison and contrast pattern.  Other instances helped organize paragraphs in a pattern of comparison and contrast, usually in combination with other words used to compare or contrast.  These results echoed findings of other qualitative text analyses (Fairclough, 2003; Hoey, 2001) and corpus studies (Peacock, 2010).  Many words such as different, more, argue, and others of a variety of lexical classes worked together to structure paragraphs.

If you are like me, you value research, but you also want practical teaching ideas.  In that vein, I’ll focus next on suggestions and resources I discovered.

Practical teaching ideas

Know corpus-based grammar

Teach grammar with an eye on corpus research, with adequate focus on sentence structure, clauses and cohesive devices.  Noun phrases, pronouns, and determiners this and these often link statements about the topic or main idea (Gray, 2010).  Adverbial expressions and conjunctions often, but not always, signal text structure (Smith, 2013).  Students need to understand these words in sentences before comprehending or composing paragraphs.  Devote attention to devices more common in print than in speech. Make it fun with varied approaches.  In my teaching I’ve tried to follow a sequence where students: a) identify the word in sentences; b) use the word in fill-in-the-blank sentences; c) join or match clauses containing the word; d) write sentences using the word. Here are some resources:

  • For instructors, you may already know of two encyclopedic corpus grammar texts: Cambridge Grammar of English (Carter & McCarthy, 2006), and the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Biber, et al., 1999)
  • For students, the Longman Grammar above also has a student version and workbook.  Another more recent student text may be useful: The Longman Grammar: A Corpus-Based Approach to English (Conrad, Biber, Daly & Packer, 2009).

Teach with technology, videos and apps

Use technology and make it fun.  I asked students to write sentences comparing Youtube videos of a dancing Brazilian baby, and a dancing cockatiel.  With student help, I wrote and recorded a video of rap music lyrics to compare and contrast our very international population using conjunctions such as although and while.  Explore apps students can use independently.  One English grammar app I found teaches conjunctions and adverbs is English Grammar in Use.  It costs about $2, but gives instant feedback, has voice recognition and plays answers.

Find frequencies and corpus data

Familiarize yourself with high-frequency vocabulary and grammar. It’s as easy as clicking on a few web sites. For my research, I discovered inconsistencies when comparing adversative linking devices listed in corpus studies, high-frequency word lists, a free corpus, and instructional texts.  The General Service List (GSL), contains more than 2,000 of the most frequent English words that appear in printed text, and the Academic Word List (AWL), consists of 570 head words found most frequently across a wide range of academic disciplines (Coxhead, 2000).  In my research, I found that the instructional texts did not necessarily include the most common devices such as despite, rather, and instead.  It was valuable for me to do this research to learn more about what students may struggle with.

Useful links

Here are some links where you can similarly explore:

  • In addition to the Longman grammar text, another corpus research study expanded the list of Linking Adverbials and compared spoken and written registers (Liu, 2008), available free online
  • The GSL Frequency Lists and AWL are published on several web sites, including these with extensive resources: http://www.lextutor.ca/freq/lists_download/  and http://www.uefap.com/vocab/select/awl.htm.
  • Do quick corpus research with the free Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which contains 450 million words from spoken and written texts, including newspapers, magazines, fiction and academic articles, with an interface designed by a professor (Davies, 2008).  You can get instant results for words or collocations for these registers, showing instances in sentences and surrounding text with list citations.

Know what students know

Pre-assess student knowledge of cohesive devices or signal words commonly used with various organizational patterns, particularly more cognitively sophisticated patterns such as cause and effect, or comparison and contrast. Use a range of exercises such as those used in the study by Pretorius (2006) to measure comprehension at local and global levels: writing conjunctions or adverbs in blanks, matching sentence fragments or pairs, reordering scrambled paragraphs, answering multiple choice and true or false questions.  Without practice, students risk misusing these devices in composition, and misunderstanding them in academic prose.

Plan curriculum collaboratively

Develop a scope and sequence that suits your educational setting and teach patterns and relevant grammar over time in more than one course. Work with other instructors to ensure that students gain proficiency at various levels.  At the school where I teach, beginning students first learn the more simple listing or chronological pattern, and the high-frequency adverbs that signal this pattern, i.e. first, next, then, later, finally.  We obtained a grant to use a school-wide approach and successfully taught beginning level students to use more complex phrases such as as a result in their writing.

Teach reading, writing and grammar together

Combine reading and writing instruction in recognition and use of patterns and relevant linking devices. A text with a complete list of patterns of organization and linking devices can help guide you and students. Of more than two dozen texts I reviewed, four had more complete coverage. Patterns for College Writing: A Rhetorical Reader and Guide (Kirszner & Mandell, 2010), has many published essays and writing exercises.  Used primarily for regular college composition classes, it has also been used in at least two college ESOL courses.  The Reading Power series (Mikulecky & Jeffries, 2009), emphasize recognition of signal words and patterns of organization in paragraphs.  It is the only text I have seen that lists a variety of lexical classes such as more, different, cause, result which can overlap to create structural patterns, but it has no sentence-level exercises. Two writing texts with sentence-level and longer exercises using cohesive devices include:  The Longman Academic Writing Series (Oshima & Hogue, 2006), and Developing Composition Skills: Academic Writing and Grammar, 3rd Ed. (Ruetten & Pavlik, 2012).

Use visual methods

Use free graphic organizers to help students map structure of paragraphs and excerpts from text, or develop outlines for their own essays. Visual aids such as graphic organizers, semantic maps, outlines, hierarchical summaries and tree diagrams have aided in comprehension (Grabe, 2004).  From a google search (try images) you can find sequence diagrams for listing or chronological order, cause and effect diagrams showing arrows pointing between boxes, and Venn diagrams to show comparison and contrast. For reading, students can outline the details, and list the linking devices.  Have them read paragraphs or essays to prepare for writing.  Students can write key words in the diagrams, then build sentences with the linking devices.

Recognize real patterns

For reading, give students plenty of practice identifying various patterns of organization in real texts – science, history, economics or psychology—and about culturally relevant topics.  Students eventually need to translate skills to comprehending career-related or college-required nonfiction.  Often various signal words and linking devices will appear in close proximity within one paragraph, and patterns may be mixed, or more prevalent in certain genres (Peacock, 2010).  A history text may use predominantly chronological order, a science text relays causes and effects (Smith, 2013).  Students can bring in required texts from other courses.  Or screen and select books from the Google Books Corpus of 155 million words (Davies, 2011).  The interface permits searching for books based on counts for particular words and topics.

Practice personal writing

For writing, give students plenty of practice writing sentences using unfamiliar linking devices in the context of personal, familiar topics.  Before writing paragraphs and essays, use graphic organizers to outline ideas. Help students recognize these patterns in model paragraphs and essays before replicating them independently.  You can write model essays that work like templates.  As a former journalist, I enjoyed writing several to help students compare and contrast themselves with a friend or family member.  I wrote one about a friend I worked with as a Peace Corps volunteer.  Writing about a personal topic may help learn a more complex organizational pattern.


Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S. & Finegan, E. (1999). Longman Grammar of spoken and written English. Harlow, UK: Longman.

Bliss, A. (2001). Rhetorical structures for multilingual and multicultural students. In C. G. Panetta, Contrastive rhetoric, revisited and redefined (pp. 15-29). Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Carson, J. (2001). Second language writing and second language acquisition. In T.J. Silva, & P.K. Matsuda, (Eds.), On second language writing (pp. 191-199), Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Carter, R., & McCarthy, M. (2006). Cambridge grammar of English: A comprehensive guide: spoken and written English grammar and usage. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Chung, J. S. L. (2000). Signals and reading comprehension—theory and practice. System, 28(2), 247-59.

Conrad, S. M. (1999). The importance of corpus-based research for language teachers. System, (27)1, 1-18.

Conrad, S. (2000). Will corpus linguistics revolutionize grammar teaching in the 21st Century? TESOL Quarterly, (34)3, 548-560.

Conrad, S. (2004). Corpus linguistics, language variation, and language teaching. In J. M. Sinclair (Ed.), How to use corpora in language teaching (pp. 67-88). Philadelphia, PA; John Benjamins Publishing.

Conrad, S., Biber, D., Daly, K., & Packer, S. (2009). Real grammar: A corpus-based approach to English. White Plains, NY: Pearson/Longman.

Coxhead, A. (2000). A New Academic Word List. TESOL Quarterly, (34)2, 213-238.

Davies, Mark. (2011-) Google Books (American English) Corpus (155 billion words, 1810-2009). Retrieved from http://googlebooks.byu.edu/.

Davies, M. (2008) The Corpus of Contemporary American English: 425 million words, 1990-present. Retrieved from http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/.

Fairclough, N. (2003). Analysing discourse: Textual analysis for social research. London: Routledge.

Grabe, W. (2004). Research on teaching reading. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24(1), 44-69.

Gray, B. (September 01, 2010). On the use of demonstrative pronouns and determiners as cohesive devices: A focus on sentence-initial this/these in academic prose. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 9, 3, 167-183.

Halliday, M. A. K., & Hasan, R. (1976). Cohesion in English. London, UK: Longman.

Hoey, M. (2001). Textual interaction: an introduction to written discourse analysis. New York, NY: Routledge.

Kirszner, L. G., & Mandell, S. R. (2010). Patterns for college writing: A rhetorical reader and guide. Boston, MA: Bedford/St.Martins.

Koda, K. (1993). Transferred L1 strategies and L2 syntactic structure in L2 sentence comprehension. The Modern Language Journal, 77(4), 490-500.


The secret to successful paraphrasing lies in how it is taught and the material used to help make the learning experience a positive and productive one. Poetry offers promise.

Retelling a story your grandmother told you decades ago seems relatively effortless because of its emotional content. Restating an intriguing anecdote a colleague told in a recent meeting adds spice to your life probably for the same reason. And yet, paraphrasing ideas in a linguistics journal for a paper you are working on may offer a few challenges. If paraphrasing written material is not an easy task in our first language, then just imagine how hard it is for our English language learners.

What does it really mean to paraphrase?

There is the whole conundrum of actually defining the skill of paraphrasing. Our dictionaries are not much help. Let’s take a look at three often used online dictionaries and their entries for paraphrasing:

Oxford dictionary paraphrase

  1. express the meaning of (the writer or speaker of something written or spoken) using different words, especially to achieve greater clarity

Merriam-Webster dictionary paraphrase

  1. a restatement of a text, passage, or work giving the meaning in another form
  2. to say (something that someone else has said or written) using different words

Dictionary.com paraphrase

  1. a restatement of a text or passage giving the meaning in another form, as for clearness; rewording

The essential problem with these definitions is that they seem to focus on words like “restatement,” “using different words,” and “another form.” The idea of making the text one’s own or digesting it without changing the essence of the original is omitted. This complicates matters for both learners and teachers. These definitions cause students to fixate on “word change” and not on “understanding” the text in question.

In addition to the above, we often ask our students to paraphrase concepts, social realities, or ideologies with which they have had very little, if any, contact. So now, not only are we asking them to participate in a rather complex and daunting skill, but we are asking them to perform it with topics of minimal background knowledge. We also need to take into account that some ELLs have never even been introduced to paraphrasing. I frequently give questionnaires to my students to fill out in the first week of the term. One of the questions is “How much paraphrasing have you done before?” If the students have been through the levels of my current program, they answer with having had sufficient practice. However, the new students coming directly to the program from their countries often answer as having no or very minimal exposure to paraphrasing.

Multiple steps in effective paraphrasing

How, then, can we address the above issues? First off, I find it best to discuss the whole procedure of paraphrasing with the students early on in the term. We examine the steps of reading the material and understanding it. To successfully understand the reading, we address the importance of thinking and talking about the material (Jensen, 2008; Medina, 2009; Willis, 2006). Thinking and talking about what one reads has three benefits:

  1. developing a sense of control over the material,
  2. assisting students to remember the information longer, and
  3. claiming a sense of ownership of the reading.

Next, we discuss the importance of “making the reading one’s own” by paraphrasing the content. Here, the ideas of personal interpretation are also addressed. That is, in paraphrasing, there is always a personal element from the reader that goes into the paraphrased piece. For example, a quantum physicist will have a slightly different paraphrase of a stanza in a Keats’ poem than a creative writing major. Likewise, a creative writing major will have her own interpretation of a passage from Anita Goel’s work in nanobiophysics compared to a student of nanotechnology or biomedicine.

After adopting the material and digesting it as thoroughly as possible, we move on to the notion of maintaining the essence of the original idea. This step is the most difficult for the students because they need to “own” the material in order to keep the core meaning of the idea or ideas intact.

Lastly, we go over the need to cite the passage in question. I usually use the APA style in class, but I explain to the students that depending on their field of concentration, they will need to learn the specific form of citation for their respective department.

The Paraphrasing Poetry Project

Very first steps  

Before introducing the students to paraphrasing poetry, I spend a week on paraphrasing famous one-sentence quotes on a selected topic (e.g. success, failure, happiness, etc.) and then move on to longer passages of two to three sentences. To immediately require your students to paraphrase full paragraphs is asking a great deal. I have found that following the Finnish education philosophy of “less is more” to be extremely effective in developing my students’ paraphrasing skills (Sahlberg, 2011).

Begin at the beginning: Talk about it

The first step of the Paraphrasing Poetry Project starts with a discussion of poetry: what it is, the different genres, the various perspectives poets take in writing poetry, the messages the poems offer the reader, and the whole idea of feeling the words, phrases, and stanzas of poetry.

Next, I have the students read a short poem in class and go over the following on their own:

  1. What is the main idea of the poem?
  2. What does each stanza address?
  3. What is the setting? What does it represent?
  4. Who are the characters? What do they represent?
  5. What is the tone?
  6. What is the theme?

After the students have thought these questions over, they turn to their neighbor and discuss each one. Lastly, we discuss these as a class. This gives us the opportunity to share ideas, think about various interpretations, and hone the art of critical thinking. The language benefits include listening and speaking practice on a controlled or focused topic and acquiring new vocabulary. But most important, this class discussion gives each student the opportunity to “make the poem come alive” by talking about it. Moreover, the process of reading, thinking, reflecting, and talking about a subject helps greatly in clarifying many of the ideas for the students.

Deepening understanding through multisensory questions

Next, we follow the same “self-partner-group” process in addressing the following multisensory questions:

  1. If you could associate or assign a color to this poem what would it be and why?
  2. What color is each stanza and why?
  3. What tastes, smells, sounds, or tactile feelings do you associate with the poem?
  4. How does each stanza make you feel? What emotions come to mind?
  5. Who does the poem remind you of and why? (Randolph, 2014)

After discussing this last set of multisensory questions as a class, I have the students pair up and verbally paraphrase each stanza of the poem.

This gives them the chance to discuss the details and exchange their ideas, insights, and feelings. Once they have verbally paraphrased the poem, I have them write down their “paraphrased version” of the poem.

Reviewing paraphrased poems

Next, the students write their partner-produced paraphrased poems on the board. This gives us the unique opportunity to read, review, critique, and analyze each one individually, emphasizing the ideas of “constructive” criticism, “energetic” support, and “compassionate” honesty as we review the students’ work.
In our review process, we address the following:

  1. Have the paraphrased poems maintained the essential ideas of the original?
  2. Are the poems a “unique variation” of the original?
  3. What new words, phrases, or ideas do the new poems include? Do they change or maintain the meaning of the original?

Below are two recent examples of paraphrased poems from an advanced writing class.

Figure 1. Paraphrased Poem.  This highlights the original poem and the paraphrased versions by two students.

Original poem
(Randolph, 2011, p. 80)
Paraphrased poem
(Byeongdeok Jeong)
Paraphrased Poem
(Jiabao Wen)
Lucky humans experience
Heaven before Earth;It’s Mother’s miracle
Womb before
A nice and amiable person
lives in paradise
Before they come to the
world;It’s the amazing
Mother’s belly
The first cry!
A fortunate person
Lives in paradise
Before touching the
sunshine.It’s that amazing
Harbor of refuge
The first cry!

The students, Byeongdeok Jeong and Jiabao Wen, worked on the initial paraphrase together in class, as is apparent from the similarity in the last two lines in the second stanza. It is obvious, however, that the two continued to revise their paraphrased poems individually as can be seen by the distinctions in the beginning stanzas.

During the class critique, this paraphrased poem generated positive responses; the students felt both Byeongdeok and Jiabao had done a nice job paraphrasing the poem in that they kept the original idea while simultaneously creating their own versions. The students liked the variation of the last line from “Birth!” to “The first cry!” They also liked Jiabao’s phrases of “Before touching the sunshine” and “Harbor of refuge.” The class pointed out, though, that while Byeongdeok kept the idea of “Mother” in his version, Jiabao left it out and would need to revise that for her final draft.
No one caught the use of the singular subjects in the students’ first stanzas (“A nice and amiable person” and “A fortunate person”) as opposed to the plural in the original. But those would be additional comments made on the students’ papers.

In general, I think we can see how effective this is in terms of reading, understanding, thinking about the topic, and making the material one’s own while maintaining the essential idea of the poem.

What do students think about paraphrasing practice with poetry?

To gauge the student reactions to this project, I asked my advanced writing class (n=14) to rate the following two statements: (1) I believe that paraphrasing poetry is helping me to understand the skills of paraphrasing and (2) I think other instructors should use this method. The students were asked to answer with

(a) strongly agree,

(b) agree,

(c) disagree, or

(d) strongly disagree

The results were inspiring. With respect to the first statement, six “strongly agreed,” eight “agreed,” and no one “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed.” Statement two yielded similar results: Five “strongly agreed,” seven “agreed,” and no one “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed.”

The final segment of the survey included a written statement from the students, detailing their perceived benefits of paraphrasing poetry. The students were told to be honest and open. If they felt that they were not necessarily benefiting from this method, they should express as much. However, there were no such comments. All the students from the advanced writing class felt that they were indeed improving in a number of areas by using the paraphrasing poetry method. Table 1 outlines student survey responses.

Table 1. Student Reported Benefits of Paraphrasing Poetry. N=14

Reported benefits of paraphrasing poetry Number of students
Paraphrasing Poetry helps me write clearer 3
Paraphrasing Poetry helps me acquire new vocabulary 12
Paraphrasing Poetry helps me write my own poems 6
Paraphrasing Poetry helps me become creative 6
Paraphrasing Poetry helps me understand the readings more 4
Paraphrasing Poetry helps me develop an interest in English 1
Paraphrasing Poetry helps me understand grammar better 3
Paraphrasing Poetry helps me improve my “feeling” for writing 3
Paraphrasing Poetry helps me acquire more synonyms 1
Paraphrasing Poetry helps me improve my paraphrasing skills 2
Paraphrasing Poetry helps me exercise my brain 2
Paraphrasing Poetry challenges me to think deeper 3

What does the research say about paraphrasing practice with poetry?

In the introduction, I claimed that one significant problem that is often perpetuated by English language teachers is the common practice of giving students topics to paraphrase of which they have very little background knowledge or interest. If the topics are abstract or unrelated to their current condition, the whole idea of paraphrasing may become even more arduous. Furthermore, we must always keep in mind that we are still at the stage in many of our classes whereby we are simply helping to develop these skills in our learners’ psyches. We are giving them maps and tools to work with, and if these maps and tools are cumbersome and unappealing, then the whole experience will be deemed unhelpful and pointless.

Poetry is often viewed as difficult and abstract, but we know that there are many poems out there that are personal, concrete, and easily speak to the reader. So, it is up to the instructor to use poems that are, on the one hand, challenging, but, on the other, personal and endearing.

Recent research in neuroscience (Damasio, 1994; Davidson & Begley, 2013; Jensen, 2008; LeDoux, 1996; Medina, 2009) supports the use of poetry in paraphrasing. I make this claim based on three significant factors that relate to learning: emotions, senses and personal involvement or ownership.

Although emotions are often excluded in the learning environment, the neuroscience community urges us to incorporate them in every lesson and in every activity. An example of this is Richard J. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After decades of research at the Waisman Center, he argues that “emotions… are central to the functions of the brain and to the life of the mind” (Davidson & Begley, 2013, p. xi). Long time brain-based learning advocate, Eric Jensen, finds emotions to be a crucial element in education. “Emotions are a critical source of information for learning, and they ought to be used to inform us rather than considered something to subdue and ignore” (2008, p. 90).

The senses are also a potent tool for learning. According to John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington, “Our senses evolved to work together—vision influencing hearing, for example—which means that we learn best if we stimulate several senses at once” (2009, p. 219). Any time we become personally involved in learning and take ownership in the process, we are usually much more engaged, and, at the same time, successful. Judy Willis, M.D., is a neurologist and educator. In her studies, she has found that one of the best ways to get students to connect with both the learning process and the material is to get the students to “personalize” it (2006).

Incorporating emotion, interest and the senses in paraphrasing

As we have seen above, the paraphrasing of poetry includes all three of these factors. The poems themselves elicit emotional appeal and interest, and the use of the senses is pivotal in the pre-analysis of paraphrasing. And the fact that the students are essentially creating their “own” poems drives home the whole idea of ownership and uniquely personalizing the material.  I cannot claim that paraphrasing poetry is the perfect panacea for our classrooms. I can claim, however, that it is effective, helpful, and that it engages the students at a refreshing level of interest and enthusiasm. Moreover, this method exemplifies the true process of taking a written collection of ideas, turning it around and making it one’s own while staying true to the essential meaning of the original.


Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Putnam and Sons.

Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2013). The emotional life of your brain. New York: Plume/ Penguin.

Jensen, E. (2008). Brain-based learning: The new paradigm of teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Medina, J. (2009). Brain rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Randolph, P.T. (2011). Father’s Philosophy. (2nd ed.). Delevan, WI: Popcorn Press.

Randolph, P.T. (2014). Tasting the colors of words: Opening minds to the world of synesthesia. The ITBE Link, 1 (4). Retrieved from http://www.itbe.org/v_newsletters/article_13504001.html

Sahlberg, P. (2011). Finnish lessons. New York: Teachers College Press.

Willis, J. (2006). Research-based strategies to ignite student learning: Insights from a neurologist and classroom teacher. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


For English learners to thrive in the science classroom, teachers should build on a foundation of effective instruction and then explore what a partnership between content and language teachers can offer.

Partnering to support academic achievement: The TESL professor and the science teacher

Academic language development for English learners (ELs) has become the new focus in many K-12 content-area classrooms. While many teachers have been exposed to current ideas in academic language development and want to include it in their classroom teaching, they are often not sure how to begin. This can be stressful for content teachers who have not been formally trained in teaching English as a second language, and challenging for ESL teachers put in the position of teaching content outside the realm of teaching language.

Effective instruction to promote academic achievement for ELs requires integration of content and language (Lee & Buxton, 2013). Due to the steady growth of ELs in U.S. schools, there is a continued need for language and content teachers to collaborate and support academic language development in content-area classrooms. In this article, we will share what we learned when a TESL professor (Sarah) and an in-service science teacher (Jessica), collaborated to find practical ideas to teach academic language in the science classroom.

It’s more than vocabulary

The academic language skills required for students to be successful in science are challenging for all students. Science is often taught—or perceived by students to be taught—as discreet chunks of decontextualized information to be memorized. Students are therefore able to recite isolated “chunks” of science content, but lack the academic language skills necessary to communicate deeper content understanding by applying learning to new situations, or providing strong evidence to support a claim. ELs, then, have the added challenge of developing these important skills while becoming proficient in a new language.

Science teachers often want to stress vocabulary more than any other language skill, because science vocabulary is difficult. This is a legitimate point, and emphasis on building vocabulary with ELs is critical. However, if students cannot use their acquired vocabulary, they will always struggle with the higher order thinking skills associated with scientific academic language (Nutta, Bautista, & Butler, 2011). We must help students move beyond an understanding of science as rote memorization of challenging words. If a student has to read, write, speak, listen, or think about something in science, then it involves academic language skills. For example, when students graph the results of an experiment, they are developing graphing skills and the important academic language skills of analysis and inference.

In the urban high school where Jessica teaches, there is a high percentage of ELs from East African countries, primarily Somalia and Ethiopia. The academic language needs in this classroom are likely no different from those found in other science classrooms with many ELs and include:

  • Using scientific language in writing and speaking
  • Utilizing higher order thinking skills to attain deeper content understanding
  • Providing evidence to support claims in thinking, writing, and speaking

Science and ESL teachers, wanting to improve the achievement outcomes of their EL students, can utilize language activities and strategies to promote these skills and practices in the meaningful context of science. The foundation of working together begins with finding common ground and focusing on the strengths of collaboration rather than feeling overwhelmed by lack of experience individually.

Foundations we share, or best practices in any teaching

Best practices in content-area classrooms can become essential practices when working with ELs. They provide a foundation of support for acquiring language. Many instructional strategies will support academic language development in both ESL and content classrooms:

  1. Build relationships with students. What prior experiences do they bring? How can you use this information to connect them to new concepts and vocabulary? What cultural values and ideas related to science are important to know? The more you know about each student, the better prepared you are to support their learning. It is essential to know where students are in their understanding of concepts in order best support linguistic and conceptual development.
  2. Review textbooks and materials to identify essential concepts, language patterns, and vocabulary necessary to access the content. Determine which of the concepts, language patterns, and vocabulary are required repeatedly in the content.
  3. Teach identified academic vocabulary through direct instruction, and meaningful visual and oral repetition. When choosing which academic language to develop, teachers can ask the following questions:
    • Is the word used repeatedly and is it essential in understanding the science content?
    • Will the word be used in other science units or classes?
    • Is the word used in other contexts and academic content-areas, such as functional words? Are the meanings similar or different?
  4. Begin lessons by activating prior knowledge through purposeful questions or scenarios.
  5. Model academic vocabulary and language functions through explicit teaching and use of content-area register.
  6. Engage students through the use of hands-on inquiry-based activities. During the inquiry process, provide students with significant language practice before, during and after inquiry through speaking, listening, writing, and reading.

A model for inquiry: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate

Science becomes more accessible to ELs when they can explore and discover patterns, characteristics, and rules during hands on experiences (Nutta, Bautista, & Butler, 2013). One of the most popular methods for teaching guided inquiry is the 5E’s, which stands for Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate (Bybee, 1997). During the engagement state, teachers will assess what students already know about a topic. In the exploration stage, students perform investigations related to the scientific phenomenon. At this point, it is helpful for teachers to provide guided questions to help ELs document their learning. For example, an exploration related to density might include the following guiding questions and sentence frames:

Challenge: Discover how weight and bottom area determine how high or low the vials float.

Guiding Questions:

i.      What did you find out?
I found out that ____________ sinks low when _______________
I found out that ____________ floats higher/lower than ____________

ii.      How is bottom area related to how high or low an object sinks?
If the bottom area is ______________ , then it will float / sink

iii.      How is weight related to how high or low an object sinks?
If the weight is ___________ , then it will float / sink

Guiding questions and sentence frames often include “tier two” vocabulary words that often occur across content areas, and sometimes have multiple meanings (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). Tier two words from the above example include “related” and “determine.” Other commonly used tier two words include: characteristic, describe, coincidence, and fortunate. Explicitly teaching ELs these words will help them succeed in science, as well as other content area classes.

During the explanation stage, students share their results and the teacher uses the students’ experiences to explain the new concept. During this phase, ELs need to practice producing the language from the guiding questions with each other and in writing. Practicing with sentence frames and with their peers will help prepare them to write a short explanatory paragraph or notes on their own. This should not be used as evaluation, but as an ongoing part of the inquiry and language development process. In the elaboration phase, students apply the new knowledge to a new situation. The final evaluation stage involves assessment of the student’s progress and reflection on what they have learned.

Scaffolding during inquiry with the Science Writing Heuristic

Students can document their learning in the explanation, elaboration, and evaluation phases using the Science Writing Heuristic (SWH) (Keys, Hand, Prain, & Collins, 1999), which is an effective method that scaffolds student learning during an inquiry investigation. SWH is a set of seven guiding questions that serves as an outline which replaces the standard lab report, and can be modified to suit the learner’s proficiency level:

  1. What are my questions?
  2. What do I do?
  3. What can I see?
  4. What can I claim?
  5. How do I know? Why am I making these claims? (This is considered evidence.)
  6. How do my ideas compare with other ideas?
  7. How have my ideas changed?
    (Burke, Hand, Poock, & Greenbowe, 2005. Cited in Nutta, J.W., Bautista, N.U., & Butler, M.B., 2011.)

Modifications of these questions could include adding pictures or diagrams, sentence frames, or a word bank to further support language development. Effective science teachers model and support of a variety of academic language functions in the context of science inquiry as students generate questions, formulate hypotheses, design investigations, collect and interpret data, draw conclusions, and communicate results (Lee & Buxton, p.38). These provide important content experiences for students while learning the language.

Activities to promote and support the development of academic language in the science classroom

Pre-writing and thinking activities

Quick Writes and Think-Pair-Shares are effective Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) activities that help students activate prior knowledge and think about what they already know (Short, Vogt, & Echevarria, 2011). Quick Writes are 2-5 minute writing exercises in which students write everything they know about a topic. Teachers can modify this activity to have students write about previous lessons, or write about questions they have related to a particular topic. Think-Pair-Shares is an effective means for students to practice speaking either before or after classroom discussions or writing prompts. Students first think quietly about the question or problem posed by the teacher, then they pair up with another student, and share their ideas prior to sharing out in a large group. This can be especially helpful for ELs in science, because students are often too intimidated by the material to volunteer an answer without confirming it with another student first.

Working with partners or small groups can help promote academic language use when students are given specific frameworks for developing those skills. For example, to develop the skills of paraphrasing and summarizing, students might take turns reading descriptive paragraphs from a text and verbally summarizing to a partner before collaboratively completing a graphic organizer such as a T-Chart or Venn Diagram. Teachers can provide posters for “Signal Words” (Short, Vogt, & Echevarria, 2011) that students should use when they are asked to compare/contrast, write a description, write a procedure, etc.

Writing and speaking activities

The following activities focus specifically on writing and speaking practice, and are particularly suited to science content. “Milling to Music” is a partner-based discussion activity. With music playing, students walk around the room; once the music is stopped, students pair up, and the teacher provides an open-ended prompt. Prompts should be open-ended and allow for discussion between students on a particular topic. After the allotted time, the music starts again, and the process is repeated for 5-15 minutes, depending on type and amount of questions. The activity can be modified to include sentence frames or signal words posted on the board. Milling to Music promotes academic language use through open-ended discussion with peers, assuming students have had previous exposure to the content. After the activity, students might respond to a writing prompt, or group reflection.

Another activity that is conducive to reviewing material while using academic language in writing is a “simultaneous round table.” In this SIOP activity students respond to an open-ended prompt on a piece of paper. Working in groups of 3-5, students then pass their papers to the next person in the circle. Students read what was written by their peers, and then either build on what was previously written, or add a new idea. This gives students the opportunity to see the thought process of other students, as well as focus on developing ideas in a group. At the end, students have lots of starters for a group or classroom discussion.

Helping students write scientific explanations with CER

Claim Evidence Reasoning (CER) is a framework designed to help students write scientific explanations that are supported with evidence and logically reasoned (McNeil, K. 2011). A scientific explanation is composed of three parts: a claim that answers the question, evidence from data (at least three pieces), and reasoning that links the evidence with the claim, often using a scientific principle, and provides a justification for why the data counts as evidence. The format is simple and can be used two powerful ways:

  1. Once students are comfortable with CER, have them use it to evaluate arguments (Think: Internet searches!)
  2. Provide students with a data set (or have them collect their own), have them graph it, and then complete a CER to practice evaluating data and create strong written arguments.
    CER is easily adapted for ELs. Most importantly, teach the framework carefully before expecting them to do it independently. Allow them extensive time to practice using videos (commercials work well), simple data sets that they are already comfortable with (e.g. correlation between height and gender), and/or other non-science material. Provide sentence frames for each part of the framework that are specific to the question, for example:

Evaluating a data set relating gender and height

Claim: Girls tend to be ___________ than boys.
Evidence: The graph shows that ___________________.
Evidence: On average, girls are _________ inches ___________ than boys.
Evidence: The tallest girl is ___________, and the tallest boy is __________.
Reasoning: Because the graph shows that _____________________________, I can be confident that ____________ tend be to _______________ than boys.
When students become comfortable with CER, it can be a powerful tool for developing their academic language skills not only in science, but also in other content areas. It supports critical thinking by giving students an authentic opportunity to practice using academic language.

In order to be successful in school, students need to be proficient in academic literacy (Nutta, Bautista, & Butler, 2011). With the increase in linguistic diversity throughout K-12 school classrooms, it is ever more important for language and science teachers to collaborate to best support our students.

Additional Authors

Jessica Merchant, M.A.


Sarah Tahtinen-Pacheco, PhD. has 27 years of experience in the field. She currently serves as TESL/TEFL Program Director for Bethel University. Her research interests center on mentoring beginning teachers and supporting English newcomers in literacy development.

Jessica Merchant, M.A. has two years of teaching experience. She currently teaches Physical Science and Biology at Ubah Medical Academy High School, where she was inspired to complete her thesis work on promoting literacy skills for English learners in science classes.


Beck, I. L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford.

Burke, K. A., Hand, B. M., Poock, J. R., & Greenbowe, T. J. (2005). Using the science writing heuristic: Training chemistry teaching assistants. Journal of College Science Teaching, 35, 36-41.

Bybee, R. (1997). Achieving scientific literacy: From purposes to practices. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.

Keys, C., Hand, B., Prain, V., & Collins, S. (1999). Using the Science Writing Heuristic as a tool for learning from laboratory investigations in secondary science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36(10), 1065-1084.

Lee, O. & Buxton, C.A. (2013). Integrating science and English proficiency for English language learners. Theory Into Practice, 52, 36-42.

McNeil, K. (2011). Supporting Grade 5-8 Students in Constructing Explanations in Science: The Claim, Evidence, and Reasoning Framework for Talk and Writing. Pearson.

Nutta, J W., Bautista, N.U., & Butler, M.B., (2011). Teaching science to English language learners. Routledge, New York, NY.

Short, D. J., Vogt, M., Echevarria, J. (2011). The SIOP model for teaching science to English learners. Pearson.


In the new environment of academic learning, we need to address both content standards and English Language Development standards, and design language objectives for content-based lessons in order to bring about a balance of language, literacy and content in instruction.

Increased Demands for Integrating Language Development and Academic Content

How can ESL teachers support academic language development while giving English learners (ELs) access to mainstream content curricula? Content-based language instruction integrates language development and the learning of academic content (Snow, Met, and Genesee, 1989; Grabe & Stoller, 1997; Song, 2006), but this can only be effective if teachers deliberately address the academic language demands of the content lessons. As teacher educators working with both ESL and content teacher candidates, we have observed that analyzing the academic language demands of content lessons is a very challenging task for all teachers. Another challenge is to design lessons that meaningfully integrate language development with academic content (Bigelow & Ranney 2004). Yet these skills are more important than ever, as we recognize that academic language proficiency is key to academic success (Francis et. al. 2006), and that collaboration between ESL and content teachers is vital to meeting the needs of ELs (Honigsfeld & Dove, 2010). Even the Standards movement acknowledges these directions, as the widely used English Language Development Standards from WIDA (2012) guide us to the content area standards to determine goals and objectives for ESL lessons. From the other direction, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) emphasize academic language demands across the curriculum, so that content teachers need to consider the language demands of their lessons. In examining the changes required by the CCSS, Zwiers, O’Hara & Pritchard (2013) identify placing equal emphasis on language, literacy, and content within content classes as one of eight major shifts that we need in instructional practice. The widely used teacher performance assessment for pre-service teacher candidates, edTPA (https://www.edtpa.com/), requires teacher candidates across the content areas to analyze the academic language demands of their lessons and build in supports for academic language development. In this new environment, the ESL teacher clearly needs to provide leadership and linguistic expertise in analyzing academic language demands and designing relevant instruction. We need to address both content standards and English Language Development standards, and design language objectives for content-based lessons in order to bring about a balance of language, literacy and content in instruction. For many ESL teachers, this represents a paradigm shift and requires some retooling to align with current approaches to defining and teaching academic language (Ranney, 2012).

Visual Tool for Planning for Academic Language and Content Integration

One tool we would like to share here is a framework for analyzing academic language demands in content lessons that identifies and integrates the many variables into a graphic organizer. The framework was developed by O’Hara, Pritchard, and Zwiers (2012) in order to prepare all teachers to respond to the need for academic language instruction for ELs. They note that others have attended to developing language objectives based on content standards, but they believe it is necessary to go further and analyze academic texts, tasks, and assessments at each of the linguistic levels of discourse, syntax, and vocabulary in order to arrive at language objectives and supports for academic language development. Their framework provides a useful tool for bringing together these complex and overlapping elements of academic language analysis. The graphic organizer that they developed is available in their article linked here Figure 1 from O’Hara, Pritchard & Zwiers (2012). Figure 1. From O’Hara, S., Pritchard, R., & Zwiers, Z. (2012). Identifying academic language demands in support of the Common Core Standards. ASCD Express, 7(17). Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol7/717-ohara.aspx

We have found this framework to be helpful in guiding pre-service teachers to analyze academic language demands since it breaks down the various levels of language (discourse, syntax, and vocabulary) as well as two major sources of the demands: the written and oral texts students read or listen to, and the tasks and assessments that students need to perform. However, as we considered language demands, we felt that the framework was missing one element: the academic language functions implied by both the texts and the tasks, such as explain, inform, seek information, justify, infer, compare, and others. Below is an example of what components might be included in the various sections of the template. Figure 2. Example Components for Planning for Language and Content Integration


The integration of functions with forms in language objectives has been emphasized by Kinsella & Singer (2011), Fortune (n.d.) and Bigelow, Ranney, & Dahlman (2006). For example, Kinsella & Singer (2011) state that an effective language objective “uses active verbs to name functions/purposes for using language in a specific student task” along with other criteria (See their work here: http://www.scoe.org/files/kinsella-handouts.pdf). Therefore, in our use of the organizer, we have added a box to the right that includes language functions needed for the texts and tasks, as a reminder that language functions should be part of language objectives. (See our amended organizer in Figure 2.) The amended framework for analyzing the academic language demands of a lesson can provide a way to develop effective language objectives that address a variety of needs and levels of language.

Using the Framework: A Sample Text and Lesson Activities

To illustrate how this amended framework could be a useful tool, we will examine each of the levels of language (discourse, syntax, and vocabulary) within the context of a sample academic text and suggested lesson tasks. We provide some guidelines to use in identifying academic language features at each level and then apply them to the sample text and tasks to demonstrate how to use the framework in analyzing academic language demands and developing language objectives for content-based lessons. For the sample text and lesson, we turn to lesson guidelines available online through Scholastic http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/lesson-plan/i-am-martin-luther-king-jr-storia-teaching-guide for language arts lessons at the upper elementary level on a biography entitled “I am Martin Luther King Jr” (Norwich, 2012). This book is written for ages 7 to 10 and our suggestions are aimed at meeting standards for grade 4 English Language Arts, yet we imagine that this text and lesson suggestions could be used for English Learners with intermediate levels of proficiency at older ages, given the general interest of the topic and relevance of the tasks to other ages and levels. For our analysis, we draw on the parts of the text that are available in the free preview of the book (See http://www.amazon.com/Am-Martin-Luther-King-Jr/dp/0545447801#reader_0545447801.) In working with the framework, we developed potential language objectives based on some of the suggested tasks from the Scholastic guide. Starting with standards as a guide to developing goals, we consider WIDA Standard 2 (English language learners communicate information, ideas and concepts necessary for academic success in the content area of Language Arts), which leads us to examine the English Language Arts standards in the Common Core State Standards for Language Arts, adopted in Minnesota and many other states (http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy). Comparing the standards at the upper elementary grades to the Scholastic suggested tasks of reading the biography of Martin Luther King Jr, discussing the book, and writing an essay, we identified a number of relevant standards, including the following:


  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.4 Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words or phrases in a text relevant to a grade 4 topic or subject area.
  • RI.4.5Describe the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or information in a text or part of a text.


  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4.2c Link ideas within categories of information using words and phrases (e.g., another, for example, also, because).
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4.2d Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic.

Speaking and Listening

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.4.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 4 topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.


In addition, it is useful to consider standards from other grade levels, as we note that the use of subordinating conjunctions and complex sentences are expected in grade 3, and using verb tense appropriate to the context is cited in the language standards at grade 5.

The ELA standards, then, give us some general goals as well as specific language targets. They cover the four modalities of listening, speaking, reading, and writing, as well as language structures viewed alone, and they can be applied to the levels of discourse (as in describing the structure of a text or engaging in discussions), syntax (as in using pronouns, prepositional phrases, complex sentences, accurate verb tense) and vocabulary (as in determining the meaning of general academic and domain specific words or choosing words and phrases to convey ideas precisely).

Planning for Effective Vocabulary Instruction

Vocabulary is the most obvious academic language target for integrated language instruction, but it is important to note that we must go beyond teaching the already bolded and glossed vocabulary in texts. Though this technical language is important, it is the general academic words – the language of complexity and nuance – which students must master to gain full access to content learning. Dutro and Moran’s (2003) well known metaphor of “bricks” and “mortar” is helpful here. “Bricks” are the technical, content-specific words. In the language of social studies, for example, “brick” words might be: democracy, constitution, and representative. “Mortar” words, in Dutro and Moran’s description, are “the basic and general utility vocabulary required for constructing sentences. They are the words that determine the relationships between and among words. They are the words that hold our language together and are essential to comprehension” (15). As general academic words, they are also high value, in that they are useful across school subjects.

Identifying Word/Phrase Level items in the Sample Lesson

We look to the standards for age-appropriate orienting. Common core ELA standards W.4.2d (writing), RI.4.4 (reading an informational text), and L.4.4c (language) all speak to student use of both general academic words and domain-specific vocabulary. The lesson plan guidelines from Scholastic suggest that the following vocabulary be pre-taught: racism, prejudice, segregated, discrimination , nonviolence , boycott, justice, and integration . These are all brick (or domain specific) words, and are certainly key concepts related to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s story. Looking at the text, it is clear that teachers will need to focus on both “brick” and “mortar” words if English learners are to pull a fuller meaning from the text. Take the following passage on page 18 as an example:

During Martin’s time, many places in the South enforced segregation with the Jim Crow laws. The laws were named for a white performer who was one of the first to use burnt cork to make his face look black, which was called blackface makeup. In the early 1800s, he made fun of black people by doing a silly song and dance as the character Jim Crow. The act was a big success and took him all over the country and even abroad. The name came to symbolize anything racist, including the laws that separated whites from blacks in schools, restaurants, movie theaters, and hotels” (18).(bold in original, underlining added)

While the text marks the domain specific word segregation as a word to define, the general academic verbs enforce, symbolize, and separate are integral to understanding the connection between Jim Crow laws and segregation. The word act is more commonly used as a verb but in this use it could be considered a nominalization (as a verb turned into a noun, in this case without changes in form) and could potentially cause confusion, depending on students’ prior knowledge. Thus, the academic language demands of this paragraph at the level of vocabulary could include the brick words segregation and racist, the mortar words (general academic vocabulary) enforce, symbolize, and separate, and the nominalization act. Since vocabulary knowledge is essential for reading comprehension, language instruction should include attention to helping students build their receptive vocabulary so that they can interpret the text. Language functions used in reading include interpreting the meaning of words. Some language objectives derived from the text analysis at the level of vocabulary then, could include:

  • Students will interpret the meaning of the content-specific words segregation and racist as they read the text.
  • Students will interpret the meaning of the general academic words enforce, symbolize and separate as they read the text.
  • Students will interpret the use of the word act as a noun.

In examining the lesson tasks, one that is concerned particularly with vocabulary is the concept wheel, which involves asking students to provide examples for the targeted content vocabulary such as terms like justice. In addition, appropriate content and general academic vocabulary will be required in all of the discussion and writing tasks, most obviously in the essay on the suggested topic “How does Martin Luther King Jr. change America?” The essay requires students to draw on the book for evidence, so the vocabulary chosen to highlight in the text would be relevant to this task. Teachers could select several general academic words for extra attention and encourage students to use them in writing the essay. One language function required in the essay would be to describe change. Combining the function and vocabulary demands, a sample language objective derived from lesson tasks could be:

  • Students will describe the change in civil rights laws using the words segregation, separate, and enforce.

Planning for Sentence-Level Grammar (Syntax)

Our second level of language is the syntax, or sentence, level. In the second language pedagogy literature, these language features are often referred to as language forms. This level includes language items that many teachers commonly think of as grammar, such as verb tense and sentence structure. But it also includes language such as matching appropriate sentence features to the kind of text and the level of sentence complexity used in the text. The WIDA Standards (2012) define sentence level features of academic discourse as language forms and conventions, including types and variety of grammatical structures, conventions, mechanics, and fluency, and the match of language forms to purpose or perspective. Dutro and Moran (2003) remind us that language forms are tools that are vital for discourse, reading and writing, complex language, and cognitive processes. They include the following as possible language forms to focus on in instruction: parts of speech, verb tenses, subject/verb agreement, use of pronouns, conjunctions, and sentence structure (i.e. complex and compound sentences, embedded/tag questions, and word order). Some specific syntactic features of academic language identified by Schleppegrell (2001) include the use of expanded noun phrases with modifiers and relative clauses, complex sentences using various clause combining strategies, and adverbial expressions to show logical links. It is important to remember that language objectives at this level should go beyond conventions such as capitalization and punctuation featured in many content area language arts materials. There has been disagreement in the field about whether or not many aspects of language form, like verb tense, should be explicitly taught, or if learners will simply acquire these forms with enough exposure. A great deal of research (e.g. Lightbown & Spada 1990; Norris & Ortega, 2000; Ellis, 2002), however, now indicates that explicit instruction about language forms, when done in a meaning-rich context, can help learners develop command of the forms. It is important, then, to pay attention to a variety of syntactic features as we analyze texts and lesson tasks.

Syntax Features in the Sample Lesson

Looking toward the standards for broad guidance, we can identify some of the ELA standards in the language section as being especially relevant, such as those requiring students to use complex sentence structures, relative clauses, prepositional phrases, and verb tenses appropriate to the context. With this guidance from our ELA standards in mind, we read the text and analyzed the tasks, thinking about specific syntactic demands. As we analyzed the text, we looked for sentence-level features that were especially important to the comprehension of the text and for those that appeared with great frequency to target in language objectives. A sample paragraph from Chapter 1 provides an example for analysis:

“If that seems harsh, perhaps it’s because Martin, Sr., came from harsh circumstances. Born into a family of sharecroppers (farmers who worked on other people’s land and were paid in just enough crops to survive), he grew up very poor. With his mother’s support, he left home to go to Atlanta in search of a better life when he was only fifteen. Martin Sr. worked extremely hard, earning his high school degree and then attending Morehouse, a prestigious all-black college.”(p. 14)

Text Analysis: Complex Sentences

A number of forms caught our attention. First, as the book is a biography, we noted that the majority of the text was written in the past tense, although there is a notable exception in the first sentence of the paragraph above, where the author comments on the actions using the present tense (If that seems harsh, perhaps it’s because….). Second, we noted that there were numerous complex sentences in the text, often beginning with a prepositional phrase (as in “with his mother’s support”) or with a participial phrase (“born into a family of sharecroppers”). In this type of sentence, the reader needs to understand that the subject of the sentence is located after the introductory phrase, and that in the case of a participial phrase, the subject of the sentence also is understood to be the subject of the phrase (i.e. he, Martin Sr., was born into a family of sharecroppers). Other adverbial clauses and participial phrases occur at the ends of sentences (“when he was only fifteen”, “earning his high school degree and then attending Morehouse…”). The reader needs to interpret the meaning of these phrases by linking them to other parts of the sentence, connecting the events in time in the case of clauses starting with when, and interpreting the participial forms earning and attending as actions undertaken by the main subject of the sentence at the same time as the action in the main verb. English Learners may need some explicit instruction to guide them to these understandings of the structures. Throughout the book, the text contains many complex sentences, as in the following sentences with several embedded phrases and clauses, where the connectors even and even though are used to mark contrast: “His mother and father also explained that as Christians, it was important to forgive and not lash out at anyone, even racist whites who didn’t think he was good enough to play with” (p 21). “Even though they were asking him to forgive white people, he didn’t need to believe what they thought about him” (p. 21).

Planning for Language Supports

In choosing a language focus for reading the text, these complex sentence types are important because they are common in academic language and students need to understand the links between the different clauses and phrases in order to make sense of the chronology as well as other relationships among the ideas. These sentences contain adverbial clauses (even though they were asking him to forgive white people) and expanded noun phrases with embedded relative clauses (racist whites who didn’t think he was good enough to play with). One language function in reading is to interpret the structures in the text or identify meanings signaled through grammatical structures. Our language objectives for the text, then, might include the following objectives:

  • Students will interpret prepositional phrases such as “with his mother’s support” and participial phrases such as “born into a family of sharecroppers” that introduce sentences in order to make connections between ideas.
  • Students will identify the contrast between ideas and events in different parts of sentences that are linked with the connecting words even and even though.

Moving on to the analysis of the tasks of participating in discussions and writing an essay about King’s impact, we realized that students would need to use past tense and complex sentences with prepositional phrases denoting time. We also realized that they would likely be forming a number of sentences which combined the past tense and the present tense, for example when they sought to explain their current thoughts or feelings about something that occurred in the past, as in the very basic examples: ‘I think Martin Luther King changed America.’ or ‘All citizens have more civil rights today because MLK changed America.’ We then returned to the text and noticed that, while this combination does not appear very often, it does appear on occasion, as in the example from the paragraph discussed earlier: “If that seems harsh, perhaps it’s because Martin, Sr., came from harsh circumstances” (p.14 ). A language target for students then, may be not simply to practice the past tense of verbs in a biography, but to appropriately switch between past and present tenses to show generic comments on a topic using the present tense while consistently using past tense to describe past actions. Also, we may want to encourage students to begin to use complex sentences in their writing through linking ideas with conjunctions such as even though and when. Thinking of language functions, students would need to express comments and describe past events, and to describe changes. Linking the functions and relevant structures, we arrived at the following syntax level language objectives for the writing task:

  • Students will correctly use present tense to express commentary and past tense to describe past events.
  • Students will use complex sentences using appropriate connecting words to describe changes brought about by MLK Jr.

Planning for Text Structure (Discourse)

What is Discourse?

Another feature of academic language is text organization or overall text structure, which can be referred to as discourse, and this is our third level of academic language. WIDA (2012) defines the discourse performance criteria as linguistic complexity or the quantity and variety of oral and written text and identifies the following features of discourse or linguistic complexity: amount of speech/written text, structure of speech/written text, density of speech/written text, organization and cohesion of ideas, and variety of sentence types. Cohesion refers to various ways in which the parts of a text are related to each other through linguistic structures (Halliday & Hasan, 1976, Also see modules explaining aspects of cohesion here: http://www.uow.edu.au/student/services/ld/students/resources/index.html) Linguistic resources used for cohesion include pronouns and other structures used to refer to objects or ideas in a text, as well as the use of conjunctions and the repetition of words or the use of synonyms in referring to a common noun throughout a text. Discourse also includes the ways that different genres such as books, poems, news articles, reports, speeches, and others organize information. Discourse is evident in some of the CCSS ELA standards such as RI.4.5 ‘Describe the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or information in a text or part of a text’ and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4.2c ‘Link ideas within categories of information using words and phrases (e.g., another, for example, also, because).’

Text Analysis: Strategies for Creating Textual Cohesion

Again, starting our analysis with the text, we will consider the structure of a biography. This includes how the broader text is organized at the book-level, how each chapter might be organized, and individual organizational features within a particular chapter. We also consider features that contribute to cohesion. There are a number of discourse-level features of this biographic text that could be taught explicitly. The broader organizational structure of the biography is chronological, laying out the story of the life of Martin Luther King Jr., However, the book contains inserted informational pages that provide background information on topics such as segregation, Morehouse College, and Mahatma Gandhi and that are separated in format and organized in informational structures that are not dominated by the time sequence. It also contains features such as a timeline written in the historical present tense, brief descriptions of key historical figures in the book, and a glossary of key terms. Each of these parts follows organizational patterns that are common in non-fiction writing and that would be important for students to recognize. One aspect of cohesion in the text is evident in that each chapter not only includes new content specific to that sub-topic but also an introduction that connects to the previous sub-topic and an ending that transitions into the next one. For example, chapter two begins with a reference to the qualities of a work ethic and confidence that MLK learned from his parents, as described in chapter one. Another feature of cohesion is found in the use of reference, including pronouns, repetitions of nouns, and synonyms. Students need to interpret and follow these forms of reference in order to accurately interpret the meaning of the text. For example, they need to note the use of Martin Sr as opposed to Martin Jr as referring to the father and the son. In the paragraph about Jim Crow mentioned earlier, they need to interpret “Martin” as referring to Martin Luther King Jr and to interpret the pronouns he and his as referring to Jim Crow in these sentences:

During Martin’s time, many places in the South enforced segregation with the Jim Crow laws. The laws were named for a white performer who was one of the first to use burnt cork to make his face look black, which was called blackface makeup. In the early 1800s, he made fun of black people by doing a silly song and dance as the character Jim Crow.” (emphasis added)

Language functions in reading the text could include identifying discourse features in order to interpret the meaning and make connections between ideas in the text. In view of these functions and features, some language objectives based on the discourse level of the text could include the following:

  • Students will follow the patterns of reference to Martin Luther King Jr. and note how the author distinguishes him from his father.
  • Students will identify the referents of pronouns by noticing the closest noun and the one that makes sense within the sentence.
  • Students will identify differences in the text organization and verb tense use in the timeline and the narrative text.
  • Students will make connections between chapters by noticing that each chapter starts with information discussed in the previous chapter.

Planning for Language Supports

Moving to the lesson tasks of discussion and essay writing, there are many potential language targets at the discourse level. Depending on the learners’ needs and the choice of focus in the writing, the teacher could choose to guide students to pay attention to their use of pronoun reference and cohesion in their essays, their use of chronological order as an organizational pattern, their use of other types of text structures to supplement their essays, as in creating a timeline, using images or tables, or their use of transition words and the device of building on previous text in order to make explicit the links between different parts of their essays. Many language functions could take place in writing, such as describing events, clarifying ideas, and presenting information in ways that are appropriate to various text structures. From these possibilities, we suggest a few potential discourse level objectives based on the tasks:

  • Students will order events into a chronological sequence as they describe events in MLK’s life.
  • Students will be able to use connecting ideas and transition words to clarify the links between their ideas in their essays.
  • Students will create a timeline using appropriate text structures such as a horizontal line with places marked in chronological order from left to right and write brief statements using the historical present tense.

Final Points about integrating language and content in lesson planning

What are the benefits and drawbacks of this approach to designing language objectives and planning for instruction? We recognize that any given lesson could not address all the language objectives that we lay out here, but expect that these would be selected according to the needs of the students and could be spread out over a number of lessons in a larger unit. In addition, the process of analyzing both texts and tasks at the three different levels may seem time-consuming and overwhelming, given all the demands teachers face. One answer is to use this type of analysis at the unit level so that this analysis is done for many lessons rather than for each day, thus making the work more manageable. It is also possible to focus on one or two parts of the framework at a time, as in choosing to analyze the discourse demands of the text one day and the syntax demands of a task on another day rather than trying to fill out the whole graphic organizer at once. The graphic organizer could be used as a tool to record the types of features that have been addressed, making sure that the whole range is analyzed at one time or another. The benefit of this type of analysis with a framework drawing on different levels and sources of language demands is that it helps us think about the potential for academic language development in a broader way than usual. In thinking about language objectives, the obvious targets are the domain specific vocabulary and some common verb forms, as well as language arts topics such as reading strategies. However, if we stop there, we may neglect important academic language features such as general academic vocabulary, complex sentence structures, other verb forms, cohesion, text structures, and others. Within speaking and writing, we need to make sure that we are helping students build important academic language skills in addition to the more obvious vocabulary and grammar forms. In addition, we need to attend to comprehension of academic language in our language objectives as well as the more common emphasis on student output in order to support students in interpreting features of academic language as they read or listen to texts. Overall, we believe that this framework can provide a very useful way to deepen our awareness of academic language demands within content lessons and can open up possibilities for more effective instruction of academic language in content-based instruction.

Additional Authors

Miranda Schornack, Cari Maguire, Beth Dillard-Paltrineri


Susan Ranney is a Senior Lecturer in Second Languages and Cultures Education at the University of Minnesota, where she teaches courses on English grammar, academic language, and pedagogy for ESL and World Language teachers. She also provides workshops on academic language for mainstream teacher candidates.

Miranda Schornack is a doctoral student in Second Languages and Cultures in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota. She has been a teacher and teacher-educator for over ten years, focusing on improving the experiences and achievement of English learners.

Cari Maguire is an assistant professor of education at Augsburg College and a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota. She was an ESL and world language teacher for ten years and has taught ESL at both the elementary and adult levels.

Beth Dillard-Paltrineri is a doctoral student in Second Languages and Cultures at the University of Minnesota where she works with teacher candidates in their clinical placements. She taught Social Studies courses for English learners at a high school in Portland, Oregon for four years.


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To best help students, we must strive as interdisciplinary colleagues to collectively demystify academic competencies and related language.

Reprinted from Language Magazine with permission from the author.

Kate Kinsella and Teachers
Kate Kinsella and Teachers

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS, 2010) for reading focus heavily on students gathering evidence, knowledge, and insights from what they read. In fact, 80-90% of the reading standards in every grade require text-dependent analysis — being able to answer questions only by referring back to the assigned text, not by drawing upon and referencing prior knowledge and experiences. Equal emphasis is placed on the sophistication of what students read and the skill with which they read. With an aim of equipping students with 21st-century literacy and learning skills for college and the global workplace, the standards demand an increased percentage of informational text exposure and rigor as students advance in their coursework. As early as the primary grades, emergent readers are grappling in English language arts with informational texts along with the traditional literature mainstays. By secondary  school, the curricular balance is clearly skewed toward more concept- and data-driven reading and response.

Common Preparations for CCSS Informational Text Reading Emphasis

Given the decisive shift toward informational text reading and evidence-based response, school districts from California to New York are working earnestly to integrate more complex informational text assignments into English language arts curricula and other core subject areas. Similarly, disciplinary and grade-level teams are collaborating on writing text-dependent questions that will ensure students do more than a cursory reading. Close analytic reading of an informational text involves returning to the text to conscientiously identify significant  arguments and evidence before scrutinizing the author’s support and language use. Assessments requiring objective, text-dependent responses are additionally prompting teachers to refrain from instructional practices that actually discourage students from delving into complex nonfiction selections, such as assigning personal response journals or providing detailed Cornell notes for students to copy and study.

Vocabulary Warrants Instructional Primacy

While these curricular involvements are well warranted, less-proficient readers and English learners will need far more than an increase in text and task complexity to engage in competent text investigation and response. Integrating targeted and systematic vocabulary instruction to support reading comprehension is an instructional imperative. Leaving vulnerable students with acute vocabulary voids to their own devices to navigate lexical landmines in core curricula will not build young reader competence or resiliency. Numerous studies in K-12 contexts have clearly documented the strong and reciprocal relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension for native English speakers (Graves, 2000; Stahl, 1999). Extensive research focused on school-age English learners similarly correlates vocabulary knowledge with second-language reading comprehension and other measures of academic achievement, including test scores and writing (August & Shanahan, 2006; Carlo et al, 2005). By selectively and effectively addressing high-yield words within complex texts, teachers across subject areas can manageably and productively enhance reading comprehension while assisting their students in building a practical vocabulary toolkit they can apply to related response tasks. When serving mixed-ability classes including English learners and striving readers, explicit, interactive instruction will reap the greatest text comprehension gains when words are related to focal lesson concepts or when words have general utility in academic contexts. Kinsella (2013) provides a detailed scheme for analyzing informational and narrative text and prioritizing vocabulary for more robust instruction to maximize comprehension and bolster communicative competence.

Elementary Scholar Labeling Informational Text Features
Image 1: Elementary Scholar Labeling Informational Text Features

A Neglected Component of Informational Text Study: Language Development

One vital component of mature reading development that has been woefully neglected in national discussions of the Common Core Reading standards is targeted instruction in the actual language of informational text study. While sample complex text passages and related depth-of-knowledge questions are now widely available on the Internet, little to no concrete guidance is provided regarding the process of teaching students the language skills they will need to engage in competent academic interaction about text. Teachers serving young, under-prepared readers, whether English learners or native English speakers, must factor in lessons that introduce students to the advanced language of informational text analysis. Students whose formal literacy instruction has been primarily based on literature do not have a portable toolkit of relevant terminology. Informational and narrative text features, organization, genres, comprehension questions, and constructed response tasks differ strikingly, as do the lexicons of these discrete fields of study. Neophyte readers of informational text benefit from a series of lessons aimed at familiarizing them with the terms they are apt to encounter in lesson material and assessments.

Table 1: Vocabulary: Informational Text Features
author source author bio title subtitle section heading subheading info-graphic image chart t-chart table graph map caption references citations

Before embarking upon a foray into an informational article, students must be introduced to the terms used to discuss informational text features. Years of experience working with recent immigrants and first-generation high school graduates in a university partnership have taught me the wisdom of launching an informational text unit with a meticulous walk-through of an article and chapter text features. Early in the school year, most of these aspiring scholars have limited experience independently and successfully completing an informational text and refer to any assigned selection as a “story.” I have therefore found it productive to provide my linguistically diverse high school freshmen with a photocopy of an article from a teen news magazine and a social studies chapter. I visibly display each page of the target text, highlight each distinguishing feature, and guide the students in labeling each feature (see Table 1). Terms such as source, section, subheading, table, caption and references aren’t routinely used in short stories or novels. Students need to observe and articulate the cohesive features of various informational texts, ranging from journal articles to textbook chapters, along with the unique features of specific text types. As an illustration, an article in a science research journal will contain a crucial summary and implications section, while a feature article in a weekly news magazine will not.

Table 2: Language to Discuss Predictions about Text Content

  • Based on the text features, I predict this article will largely focus on ___.
  • Based on the text features, I expect the author to primarily address ___.
  • Based on the text features, it appears that the author will mainly discuss ___.
  • Based on the title, I presume that the author plans to discuss ___.
  • Based on the subheading, it appears that the author will mainly discuss ___ in this section.
  • After previewing the text, it appears that the author will address the topic of ___ by providing ___.
  • After previewing the text, it appears that the author will explore the topic of ___, in particular ___.

We can’t ask students to make predictions about text content using text features or prompt them to justify where they identified essential details if they have little formal understanding of the text structure and labels for each part. My own son, an English learner, is elated that his elementary English language arts coursework now includes a weekly news periodical, providing opportunities for him to learn about current events. For a recent homework assignment, however, he was flummoxed by the questions that required specifying the location of the evidence he obtained from the selection to support a claim. I grabbed a packet of sticky notes and helped him navigate the article, labeling each part, asking him to repeat the terms, and showing him the consistent features in subsequent articles within the periodical (see Image 1).

Providing a Reality Check about the Informational Text Reading Process

After equipping my nascent high school students with a working knowledge of an informational text’s structure and terms, I have a serious tête a tête with them about the level of complexity they will be encountering in independent course assignments, requiring multiple reads. For students who have come to rely on an enabling teacher to complete the assigned text, summarize the key ideas, and present notes that serve as the primary test content, this is a sobering prospect.

Table 3: Language to Establish a Text Reading and Study Plan

  • After previewing the text, I predict the content will be ___ (fairly complex, quite challenging, somewhat difficult, relatively easy) to analyze and recall.
  • After previewing the text, I think I should divide it into ___ (two, three, four) manageable sections to read, analyze, and take study notes.
  • After previewing the text, I can anticipate spending approximately ___ (20, 30, etc.) minutes reading and taking study notes on each section.

Preparing students for the reading demands of high school and college curricula involves a reality check about the time and process involved in maturely engaging with a text as an accomplished scholar would in any discipline. Modeling the process of previewing an entire text to gauge text complexity then breaking it down into manageable segments for detailed reading and study is essential support for developing readers. Under-prepared students have rarely learned the cognitive secrets of siblings or high-achieving students who have successfully managed tomes of content-area reading. They rely on their teachers to demystify the process of reading to learn and guide them in developing a consistent, productive process for tackling challenging assignments. Without explicit, interactive in-class guidance, ill-equipped readers plow into a research article as if they were approaching a short story, starting on page one, with no sense of the text length, focus, structure, or more essential sections, and rarely make it beyond the introductory matter.

Modeling the Process and Language of Informational Text Previewing

Having clarified that my course reading and writing tasks will focus on informational text selections, I model the process of text previewing with a goal of establishing the topic, focus, overarching structure, level of complexity, and time commitment for conscientious reading and study. Unless I provide my students with language forms to scaffold this interactive process and discussion, I can predict inappropriate casual responses like the following: “It’s gonna be about…,” “It looks hard,” or “Do we really have to read this?” The first phrase I introduce for our post-preview discussion of text content and structure is “Based on…,” an essential language tool for analysis of text features, claims, and supporting evidence. Table 2 includes an array of sentence frames that enable students to adeptly communicate their predictions and impressions of text content and complexity gleaned from the preview process. The ultimate goal of this process is ensuring that students are more familiar with the text architecture and content and are heading home with a viable reading and study plan. The frames in Table 3 serve as productive discussion starters for lesson partners and enlightening “exit slips” for teachers committed to serving as disciplinary literacy and language mentors.

Explicitly Teaching Language to Discuss Key Ideas in Informational Text

After modeling proactive text previewing with a goal of establishing a viable study plan, disciplinary reading mentors must turn their attention to explicitly teaching essential vocabulary to discuss the informational text content. To engage in academic interactions during lessons, students need a practical toolkit of terms to discuss informational text types, key ideas, and types of support that are rarely if ever used in narrative text analysis and response. Familiar literary terms such as character, theme, plot, and conflict have no bearing on informational text study. In this digital information age, developing readers need to master labels for an eclectic array of text types, ranging from data-driven, objective texts such as scientific reports to highly subjective sources such as op-ed pieces and blogs. Curricular mainstays of upper-elementary and secondary coursework include chapters, articles, reports, and expository essays. In tandem with being able to articulate the type of text they are assigned and understanding its distinguishing features, students need an arsenal of vocabulary to discuss the most essential content. Table 4 offers a number of terms students benefit from learning and practicing to be able to correctly interpret questions and prompts used in informational text analysis and response tasks. For example, the terms claim, argument, position and perspective are often used synonymously. If we limit our discussion to a consistent term such as claim over a course of study, students are baffled when a test question instead utilizes the term position on an issue.

Table 4: Vocabulary to Discuss Key Ideas and Details in Informational Text
nonfiction text informational text chapter report article essay source selection topic issue main idea key idea claim argument position perspective support detail evidence fact data reason example citation
Table 5: Questions and Answers to Discuss Informational Text Topic and Focus

Q: What is the topic of this (article/paragraph/section)?
A: The topic of this ____ is _____.
Q: What is this (article/paragraph/section) mainly about?
A: This _____ is mainly about _____.
Q: What is this (article/paragraph/section) primarily about?
A: This _____ is primarily about _____.
Q: What does the author focus on in this (article/paragraph/section)?
A: In this _____, the author focuses on _____.

Table 6: Questions and Answers to Discuss Author’s Claim and Key Ideas

Q: What is the author’s key idea/main point?
A: The author’s key idea is that _____.
A: The author’s main point is that _____.
Q: What is the author’s claim/position regarding ____?
A: The author’s claim regarding ____ is that ____.
A: The author’s position on ____ is that ____.

CCSS Listening and Speaking Emphasis on Competent Academic Interaction

One of the most pronounced CCSS shifts is the emphasis in the listening and speaking standards on collaborative interactions. On a daily basis, students are expected to engage in thoughtful and accountable interactions using appropriate language with partners, small groups, classmates and teachers during unified class discussions. During lessons with a text-based learning focus, neophyte collaborators are not likely to engage in articulate discussion without some targeted language preparation. Merely providing a litany of comprehension questions will not lead to stimulating discussion. To make second-language acquisition gains, English learners must have daily opportunities to communicate using more sophisticated social and academic English. However, assigned interactive activities without a carefully modeled process and established language goals, English learners focus more on “friendly discourse” than on producing and eliciting conceptually competent responses with linguistic accuracy (Foster & Ohta, 2005). Orchestrating peer interactions with clear roles, language targets, accountability for implementation, and meticulous monitoring ensures gains in oral language proficiency (Saunders & Goldenberg, 2010). To prepare my classes for the linguistic demands of lesson interactions about text, I have found it extremely useful to prepare and distribute a “text discussion card” to prompt and facilitate appropriate questions and responses. I utilize heavy, brightly colored five-by-eight inch card stock and print questions and response frames like those included in Tables 5 and 6. Initially, I introduce and practice this language with the unified class, using a series of more manageable and accessible texts. After ample practice over the course of two to three weeks, I can confidently establish small groups and assign text facilitation and discussion tasks. With the text discussion card as a reference tool, students can easily avail themselves of practical, relevant questions and response frames rather than having to turn their attention to displayed posters or draw exclusively from short-term memory. Students launch their collaborative analysis identifying the text focus and the author’s claim, before segueing to the key ideas and details in particular text sections.

Table 7: Language to Discuss Types of Support for Claims

  • reasons for __
  • examples of __
  • data regarding __
  • evidence supporting __
  • statistics on __
  • consequences of __
  • problems resulting from __
  • issues related to __
  • factors influencing __

Clarifying the Diverse Types of Support for Key Ideas

Prior to the launch of the CCSS reading standards, discussions of informational text in English language arts lessons across the grade spectrum have typically been few and far between and limited to the phrases main idea and important detail. In college coursework and professional discussions, scholars utilize a much more detailed and precise lexical bank to reference not only specific types of support for key ideas but also the degree of importance of particular details. An epiphany every young, capable content-area reader must have is that everything is not equally important in a concept- and data-driven informational text. That awakening must be complemented by the realization that the primary reading goal in disciplines such as science and social studies must be identifying what the author deemed most significant, not what the student found personally relevant. After previewing a lengthy text and breaking it down into manageable reading and study segments, a focused reader must embark upon a section in search of the author’s key idea and most significant support. Instead of asking young readers what is interesting and memorable in an evidence-based text, we must steer them in the direction of identifying what is most essential. There are arguably two vital aspects of vocabulary development that can help focus student analysis and discussion of essential support for key ideas.

Table 7 provides a list of types of informational text support that are relevant to reading comprehension instruction as well as expository and argumentative writing. Authors justify arguments with a wide array of support, ranging from illustrative examples to convincing reasons. These commonly used secondary and post-secondary terms are included in Coxhead’s (2000) list of high-utility academic word families. Instead of having students simply name important details in a text section, we can prompt more adept and precise analysis by asking them to specify the kind of support provided. The question “How does the author support her claim regarding the hazards of texting while driving?” invites more mature analysis and articulate response, such as the following: “The author supports her claim with extensive evidence regarding increased fatal accidents.” This is more representative of college- and career-ready communicative competence than “She talks about more fatal accidents.

Table 8: Language to Discuss Types of Support for Claims

Q: What is/are the most important detail(s) in this paragraph/section?
A: One important detail in this paragraph/section is __________.
A: A critical detail in this paragraph/section is __________.
A: Another significant detail in this paragraph/section is __________.
A: The most essential detail in this paragraph/section is __________.

Once students have successfully identified the type(s) of support an author provides for a position or key idea, their next task it to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff. Inexperienced content-area readers view all support as equally important and therefore benefit immensely from in-class coaching early in the school term on extracting the most essential text content from the less essential. Using accessible text exemplars to help students grasp the concept of more and less significant support, teachers can mediate this process using question and response frames like those included in Table 8. Academic adjectives such as critical and essential are not used frequently in literature study, but these high-utility academic terms (Coxhead, 2000) are lexical mainstays in verbal and written reports in the sciences and social sciences.

Concluding Remarks

The national focus in K-12 education on 21st-century literacy skills and career and college readiness holds great promise for students from every state. However, without a laser-like focus on explicitly teaching the competencies and requisite language for advanced reading, writing, and presentation, English learners and underresourced classmates will be at a decided disadvantage as they approach rigorous performance-based assessments. If we are committed to providing an equitable arena for educational advancement and social mobility, we must strive as interdisciplinary colleagues across the grade levels to collectively demystify academic competencies and related language.


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Graves, M.F. (2000). “A vocabulary program to complement and bolster a middle grade comprehension program”. In B.M. Taylor, M.F. Graves, and P. van den Broek (Eds.), Reading for meaning: Fostering comprehension in the middle grades (pp. 116-135), Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

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Saunders, B., & Goldenberg, C. (2010). “Research to guide English language instruction.” In Improving education for English learners: Research-based approaches. California Department of Education.

Stahl, S.A. (1999). Vocabulary Development. Cambridge: Brookline.


For a successful transition into college, ABE learners will benefit from academic language and critical thinking practice that is informed by constructive-developmental theory.

Challenges of successfully transitioning into college

Adult Basic Education (ABE) programs are increasingly being charged with teaching academic reading and writing, including embedded critical thinking skills. The 2014 GED test emphasizes evidence-based reading and writing, requiring the critical thinking skills of identifying a claim and the information used to support it (Paul & Elder, 2008). The new ABE College and Career Preparation standards released by the Office of Vocational and Adult Education likewise include evidence-based reading and writing standards informed by the K-12 Common Core (Pimentel, 2013). For ABE learners who aim to attend post-secondary institutions, the ability to read and write academically and think critically is especially crucial. Both summarizing and critical thinking have been identified as essential skills for college success, and often lacking among college students (Conley, 2005) and within ABE instruction (Johnson and Parrish, 2010). While academic writing and critical thinking are important, many ABE learners struggle with these skills. My own ABE learners transitioning into college struggle significantly with skills essential for passing college classes, including stating a text’s purpose, main idea, and important information, and these learners are testing into the highest levels of ABE. Perhaps not surprisingly, many ABE learners who say they want to attend post-secondary never go on to earn a credential. Of GED graduates who do begin post-secondary, 95% drop out within a year (American Council on Education, Center for Adult Learning, 2000). Most ABE learners who do enroll in post-secondary test into developmental or remedial classes (Pimentel, 2013). Here, they face another challenge with academic reading and writing, as fewer than 25% of students who enroll in developmental classes ever go on to pass mainstream college courses, much less graduate (Bailey & Cho, 2010).

The case for considering adult development in learning

Supporting ABE learners to read, write and think critically at the level required in post-secondary is a significant challenge. A relevant, but rarely considered perspective on this challenge is that of adult development. Perhaps because the fields of adult development and adult learning have only recently intersected (Taylor, 2006), the conversation about how adult development impacts learning is new. However, developmental theory suggests that some adult learners will struggle with academic reading, writing and critical thinking (Taylor, 2006; Kegan, 1982, 1994). That is, some adult learners are still developing the very epistemological structures that make complex and abstract thinking possible (Drago-Severson, 2004; Kegan, 1982, 1994). This paper briefly describes constructive developmental theories of adulthood, implications for academic language and critical thinking, and outlines developmentally scaffolded learning activities. The family of constructive developmental theories of adult development originate with and extend from Piaget’s work on child development (Inhelder, & Piaget, 2000) and include Kohlberg’s (1981) and Gilligan’s (1982) models of moral development; Loevinger’s (1976) theory of ego development; and Perry’s (1970) stages of ethical and intellectual development in the college years. They are based on the constructivist tenet that people actively construct rather than passively observe reality (Drago-Severson, 2004). Critically, they’re also founded on the empirically supported (Kegan, 1982; Loevinger, 1976; Perry, 1970) theory of developmentalism, which maintains that the logics through which people construct reality develop over time and follow predictable patterns. While children’s stages of development as identified by Jean Piaget can be roughly correlated with age, an adult’s developmental stage is determined solely by the challenges, supports and continuity thereof in his or her life (Kegan, 1982).

Varying needs of support for developmentally diverse students

Among ABE and English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL) learners, the challenges and supports in learners’ backgrounds vary widely. This translates into a likely range of developmental diversity. Therefore ABE/ESOL learners construct meaning according to different logics, and “…the very same curriculum, classroom activities, or teaching behaviors can leave some learners feeling satisfied and well-attended while others feel frustrated or lost” (Drago-Severson, 2004, p.15). Robert Kegan (1982, 1994) explains that a concrete, or instrumental thinker constructs reality with the same black-and-white logic that characterizes Piaget’s concrete operational stage. At this stage, a person cannot yet make abstractions or inferences. Adult developmental research suggests that up to 36 percent of adults have not yet fully emerged from this stage. Another 46 percent make meaning primarily from the socializing stage, where making abstractions, inferences, and generalizing becomes possible. Finally, 18 to 34 percent of adults make meaning from the self-authoring stage, where a person can take responsibility for his or her own thoughts, patterns, and learning (Kegan, 1982, 1994). Learners who likely to struggle with academic reading, writing and critical thinking are those who construct meaning from, or partially from, an instrumental way of knowing. At this stage, the underlying epistemological structure is categorical (Kegan, 1994). That is, instrumental learners think through one category at a time, and thus can’t relate and synthesize different categories of information. This makes it impossible for a fully instrumental knower to make inferences, abstractions, or generalizations (Drago-Severson, 2004), which is germane to academic reading, writing and critical thinking. Taylor (2006) describes the writing that instrumental learners are likely to produce as “a brain dump,” of disconnected and unedited thoughts (p.207). A case study that I recently conducted reflected this theory, suggesting that learners with a dominantly instrumental way of knowing were more likely to perform lower on reading and analyzing an article, with a greater tendency make sweeping generalizations or to mistake details for big ideas (Ouellette-Schramm, 2013).

Classroom activities informed by constructive-developmental theory

The following activities come from a critical thinking and academic literacy class that I teach informed by constructive-developmental theory. Each activity marks a step in the reading and writing process with a single article or text and can be used with a variety of texts. Each aims to scaffold both the complexity of thinking that evidence based reading and writing requires, and the academic language to express that complex and abstract thinking.

Helping instrumental learners to identify big ideas

Many learners struggle to distinguish “big ideas” and supporting information, or details in a text. For an abstract thinker, it is logical to begin a text discussion with stating the author’s purpose or a main idea. For instrumental learners, however, beginning with the abstract main idea can draw blanks or wild guesses. One of my students taught me that she found it easier to start with the details, and move toward a main idea by asking, “What do these details have in common?” Instead of beginning with the main idea, I now ask learners to start out with simply highlighting sentences that they think are important – what Zwiers (2011) calls “deep quotes” – and to explain the significance of the quotes they chose. As learners share sentences with the whole class, I write and project a few that clearly relate to the author’s purpose or main idea or that express supporting information. Bringing those sentences together narrows the scope of information learners need
to process, and helps them distinguish main ideas from supporting information. Where learners get stuck, I’ve provided metaphors, such as a table, and asked, “Which sentences are like the top of the table, with the big ideas? Which sentences are like the legs of the table, holding those ideas up?” Providing concrete metaphors for abstract concepts can be particularly helpful to concrete thinkers. Another activity that supports distinguishing “big ideas” and support details, or claims and evidence, is to type about ten sentences from a text and create sentence strips, which learners categorize into two piles, e.g, “claim” and “evidence”. This can be done in pairs, then debriefed as a whole class. This allows instrumental learners in particular the opportunity to consider one idea at a time and make the significant distinctions between abstract and concrete statements.

Structured academic conversation as a scaffold for abstract thinking

Academic conversations support learners with spoken academic language functions including elaborating and clarifying, supporting ideas with examples, building on or challenging a partner’s idea, paraphrasing, and synthesizing conversation points (Zwiers & Crawford, 2011). From a developmental perspective, they can also scaffold the process of thinking abstractly and critically by giving “sentence starters” that linguistically and conceptually frame complex ideas. I’ve found that structured academic conversations work best after an activity where learners have already clarified some big ideas and supporting information in the text. I have learners move through a sequence of conversation tasks, including a warm-up with general questions about the text, identifying a main idea or two in the text, identifying supporting information for each main idea, and clarifying the main idea by connecting it to life (Paul and Elder, 2012). I incorporate Zwier and Crawford’s (2011) academic conversation sentence starters such as, “Did you find any interesting or puzzling parts?”; “I think the purpose/main idea of this section could be that…”; “Can you give me an example from the text?”; and When have you seen something like this?” Rather than expecting learners to work through a full academic conversation from the beginning, I’ve found it more successful to scaffold by introducing one new academic conversation task (with corresponding language) at a time. Initial conversations focus on the tasks of paraphrasing what another learner has said, e.g., “So, you are saying that…” and prompting clarification or elaboration, e.g. “”Can you unpack that for me?” Once students have learned the academic language and concepts to hold a full structured academic conversation, many struggle to put it all together. This is consistent with the struggle of coordinating multiple categories of information that instrumental learners struggle with. To scaffold the process metacognition, or being aware of the task that corresponds to the academic language being used, I’ve implemented academic conversation “dance floors”. In this activity, learners stand up during their conversation and physically step on the “dance step” corresponding to what they’re saying. For example, a learner might step on a piece of paper that says “support ideas with examples” while saying, “Can you show me where it says that?” Online conversations can complement to live academic conversations. In individual discussion threads, learners can ask and respond to general warm-up questions about an article, state main ideas, identify supporting information, or relate the main idea to life. Each learner can create a post within a thread, and other learners can respond, using language to build off of or challenge their peer, e.g., “Then again, I think that…” (Zwiers, 2011). In each case, they reinforce spoken academic conversation language by typing, or writing it.

Focused peer-review to support critical thinking outcomes

After learners have collaboratively constructed main ideas and important supporting information in a text, I move them toward writing summaries and basic analyses of what they read. Just as in academic conversations, I scaffold the complexity of meaning construction with sentence frames. This helps learners acquire the academic language for summary/analysis writing (Zwiers, 2008), It can also scaffold complex thinking itself, which Drago-Severon (2004) and Hoare (2006) recommend for instrumental learners. Sentence starters I use include “In the article _____, _____ describes/illustrates/argues that _________. For example, ______.” As in many writing processes, this process includes drafting, peer review, editing and revising. To scaffold peer review, I have learners post their summary/analysis draft on a wiki, which allows learners to electronically create, edit, and comment on documents. One learner posts her draft, and her partnering reviewer then posts her feedback. I make feedback questions specific, incorporating critical thinking standards (Paul & Elder, 2012) such as clarity, relevance, and precision. To scaffold, I ask reviewers to think and respond to one question at a time, looking at no more than two sentences (or, in developmental terms, categories of information) at one time. Review questions include, “Is the first supporting idea directly relevant to the main idea? Explain why or why not” and “Is the information sufficient to support the main idea? That is, does the writer state anything in the main idea that she doesn’t back up with supporting information from the text?” After drafting a summary/analysis and receiving peer responses, I ask learners to revise and edit their drafts to submit to me using the same paragraph frame and sentences starters and paragraph frames that they used in their wiki drafts. By the time I read and assess their summary/analysis of an article, they have individually and collaboratively distinguished big ideas from supporting details; held live and/or online academic conversations to collaboratively clarify the purpose, main ideas, and important supporting information in the text, related the main idea to real life; drafted a summary/analysis, received peer review, reviewed their peer’s draft, and, using sentence frames, revised a final summary/analysis of an article.


Constructive-developmental theories of growth and development in adulthood predict, and initial research suggests, that ABE and developmental college learners constructing meaning from a wholly or partially instrumental perspective will struggle with academic language and critical thinking. Concrete, or instrumental knowers, are asked to think and write at a level of complexity of meaning-making that they are still in the process of developing. Teaching academic language and critical thinking to concrete learners requires scaffolding abstract and complex thinking. Moving through the steps of reading, discussing, and drafting summary/analysis of texts, the activities above aim to scaffold the complex thinking that academic language and critical thinking demand. In turn, these activities strive to support instrumental learners not only in acquiring the skills needed to succeed in reading and writing classes, but to contribute to developing the complex thinking skills required to succeed in their post-secondary goals.


American Council on Education, Center for Adult Learning (2000). Who Took the GED? 1999 Statistical Report. Washington, DC: Author.

Bailey, T. and Sung-Woo Cho, CCRC. (2010). Issue Brief: Developmental education in community colleges. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/PDFDocs/college-completion/07-developmental-education-in-community-colleges.pdf

Conley, D.T. (2000, April 24-28). Who is proficient: The relationship between proficiency scores and grades. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Resea
rch Association, New Orleans.

Crawford, M. & Zwiers, J. (2011). Academic conversations: Classroom talk that fosters critical thinking and content understandings. Portland, ME: Stonehouse Publishers.

Drago-Severson, E. (2004). Becoming adult learners: Principles and practices for effective development. NY: Teachers College Press.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Hoare, C. (2006). “Growing a Discipline at the Borders of Thought.” Handbook of Adult Development and Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Inhelder, B. & Piaget, J. (2000). The psychology of the child. NY: Basic Books, Inc.

Johnson, K. & Parrish, B. (2010). Aligning Instructional Practices to Meet the Academic Needs of Adult ESL Students. TESOL Quarterly, 44(3), 618-628.

Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kegan, R., Broderick, M., Drago-Severson, E., Helsing, D., Popp, N. & Portnow, K. (Eds.). (2001, August). Toward a “new pluralism” in the ABE/ESOL classroom: Teaching to multiple “cultures of mind” (Research Monograph of the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy, No.19). Boston, MA: World Education.

Kohlberg, L. (1981). The meaning and measurement of moral development. Worcester, Mass: Clark University Press.

Loevinger, J. (1976). Stages of ego development. In J. Loevinger, Ego development: Conceptions and theories (pp. 13-67). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ouellette-Schramm, J. (2013). A Constructive-Developmental Perspective on Academic Literacy and Critical Thinking. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2008). How to read a paragraph: The art of close reading. Dillon Beach, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.

Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2012). The thinker’s guide to analytic thinking. Dillon Beach, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.

Perry, W. (1970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years. NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Taylor, K. (2006). Autonomy in self-directed learning: A developmental journey. In C. Hoare (Ed.), Handbook of Adult Development and Learning (196-218). New York: Oxford University Press.

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


A multiple literacy approach to ESL helps students attain a level of academic language skills whereby the student is able to use his/her literacy skills to complete realistic tasks in an authentic academic context.

From literacy to multiple literacies

The term literacy needs to be broadened and modernized in order to describe the language learning demands at a level of literacy whereby the student is able to use these skills together to complete realistic tasks in an authentic academic context. Literacy in any specific subject is the ability to not only read and understand, but also to use the information that is given. The concept of literacy as “multiple” is reflective of the impact of multiculturalism and multimedia in the use of modern Englishes.  As a result of this impact, “a literate person needs to know how to cross linguistic boundaries and how to respect language and cultural diversity” (Melzer & Coxwell-Teague, 2011, p. 2).

This also implies that one can be literate in one subject and not in another and that the level of literacy can be measured on a continuum.  Some instructors may find it helpful to apply Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Bloom, 1956) to these multiple literacy themes to help evaluate how literate a student is in a given subject.  For example, a student may have literacy abilities that range from basic factual knowledge all the way to the more advanced abilities of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation within a specific literacy skill.

Collaborating across classrooms for authenticity and meaningful context

While the following literacy themes were designed for a college IEP curriculum, they may be adapted to other settings.  This concept of building a curriculum on the foundation of multiple literacy themes is compatible with instructors aiming to provide more authentic materials in their instruction, so even if a particular literacy theme is new for the student, this will present a good challenge for them.  Some things do need to be taught at a level of comprehensible input; however, “given a meaningful context—learners can comprehend the general meaning of oral or written texts that contain vocabulary and structures they have not ‘mastered’ ” (Lightbown & Spada, 2006, p. 191).  Additionally, students can comprehend input in multiple literacy contexts.

The classroom that will be most successful in implementing curriculum and instruction focusing on multiple literacies is one where the instructor is placed in a collaborative environment where classrooms of varying levels and skills are encouraged to work together.  Collaboration from other school departments and community organizations will feed the success of this classroom as well.  These and many other literacy themes and ideas can be found and adapted from a textbook designed for college composition called “Everything’s a Text” (Melzer & Coxwell-Teague, 2011).  Some of these concepts inspired the following curricular literacy themes or units, which include:  Academic, Digital, Visual, Historical, Civic, and Nutritional Literacies.

In the following, I will describe the curriculum and tasks designed for a college IEP classroom that utilize multiple literacies as its foundation.  The following types of literacies are included in the description of tasks and activities:  academic, digital, visual, historical, civic, and nutritional.

Academic Literacy

Academic Literacy is a logical place to begin since the tasks used in this theme will likely be used in every other literacy task to follow.  With this as with other literacy themes, it may be a good idea to pre-teach some of the vocabulary that will be used to instruct and complete academic tasks as appropriate for the classroom level.  Depending upon the level of collaboration in the ESL program, the tasks learned in this theme may be replicated in other skilled classrooms or during future academic classrooms.  Given these variables, these example tasks may require anywhere from a couple of class periods to a couple of weeks to complete.

Reading and using graphic organizers 

This task requires students to use their reading, writing, and speaking skills.  Graphic organizers can be found in academic contexts relevant to the students’ various disciplines, but digital resources such as the Pew Research Center website (http://www.pewresearch.org/) can help put the contextually relevant data into the students’ hands.  If the ESL reading level is lower, the instructor may need to collect various samples of these graphic organizers for the students to read.  Students can be assigned to look for several specific examples of graphic organizers such as line graphs, bar graphs, Venn diagrams, pie charts, tables and so on.  To take this task one step further, students can then conduct a classroom or campus survey and put the data into a graphic organizer.  After completing all of those tasks, the students can teach each other what they have learned in either an informal group discussion or a formal presentation.

Accessing library materials

This task is fairly self-explanatory, but will require a lot of step-by-step guidance from the instructor as it requires the use of Digital Literacy and reading skills.  If the school’s library or even the local public library has an online catalog as well as eJournals and resources, this will require two parts:  accessing digital and print materials.  The instructor can create a table for the student to fill in which requires citation data including the database or catalog used, search words, titles, dates, authors, and possibly the location of the materials (Table 1).  It is useful to begin with common titles, for example ESL resources, to give the students remedial practice before they begin searching for materials that are relevant to their own interests and majors.
Table 1: Digital Database Search

Database Search words Article Title Journal Volume Author(s) PDF file? Yes/No
Ex: Sample Database ESL Writing Guide Sample Title Sample Journal Apr2 010, Vol. 41 Issue 1 Sample Author. No
Student’s Choice ESL Writing Skills
Student’s Choice Major Interest          



After completing the task of accessing library materials, the next logical task would be to require students to integrate a piece of their research into either a short writing task or a presentation.  This will also require a lot of step-by-step guidance and will likely be replicated in other classrooms.  For the sake of positive reinforcement, it may be useful to find out what types of research the students are going to be expected to do in their other classrooms so that they might begin doing this research immediately.  The teacher will need to provide examples of proper citations in the target context.


Microteaching is simply the concept of having students prepare a focused lesson plan, which includes an overview of the subject and a peer activity.  Microteaching works well in pairs as many students (like their teachers) may benefit from having a co-teacher to work with.  This can be done with different skill subjects, such as: grammatical rules, word families, or writing styles.  These subjects can be summarized by the student(s) and a guided activity created by the student(s) should follow.  After the students have seen a variety of games, quizzes, and worksheets in their ESL classrooms, they will be able to generate their own with some help from the instructor.  To ensure a smooth microteaching, subjects should be elected early on in the semester.  Also, the presentation and activity materials should be checked by the instructor prior to the microteaching date.  In a more advanced class, this style can be adapted to any presentation subject by requiring students to follow up their formal presentation of data with a peer quiz, game, or other activity.

Digital Literacy

If needed, digital literacy can be taught in a focused way; however, this is definitely the most adaptable of the literacy themes.  When teaching academic literacy or civic literacy for example, students will use their digital literacy skills to create diagrams, access library materials, create digital presentation materials, and so on.  The instructor may need to demonstrate these tasks throughout the entire course; however, if there are specific tools that will be used in the classroom, it can be useful to take a few class periods to practice using these.  Most modern students are familiar with using Word processors, presentation tools, and blogs, but if there is a specific way that they will be using these tools, the tools need to be demonstrated.  Also, consider teaching the vocabulary of digital literacy.  A lot of students know how to use these tools, but are not literate when it comes to having a dialogue or following instructions for digital tasks.

Visual Literacy

Visual literacy lends itself to the largest range of skill levels since this is a skill that has been cultivated since infancy.  This also leads many to think of it as an elementary skill, but on the contrary, the ability to read the scenes, pictures, advertisements, signs, colors, logos, facial expressions, artwork, and all other visuals that fill our cultural, academic, and personal lives is an evolving skill.  At any given point in the process of learning a language, one might read these visuals in a different way.  Using language to describe that reading is a valuable skill to cultivate.

Reading Signs

Directional signs and prohibitive signs share many similarities across cultures.  For this reason it can be interesting to ask students to read American signs as well as to share examples of signs from their own cultures.  Typing the purpose of a sign into a search engine may quickly provide you with visual examples of signs, which can be expanded to an exercise comparing the subtle differences between different signs with the same purposes.  Are the signs different for cultural reasons?  Is one sign more acceptable in a formal/informal setting?  How could these signs be misinterpreted?  This type of discussion could be conducted in a large or small group and is often most successful when the students are allowed to search for some of their own cultural examples.  Also, grammar and writing skills may be exercised by requiring students to write about what the sign is trying to say using the imperative or any other grammatical form.

Reading Color and Symbols

Since most visuals can be interpreted differently through different cultural lenses, a discussion of the meaning of color or symbols can be quite engaging.  For example, each culture has certain expectations for the color of dress and decoration during special events or for different governmental offices.  In one context, red may mean luck, while in another it represents blood.  Flags, logos, emblems, or even heraldry can lend themselves to such a discussion as well.  Not only do the colors carry significance, but the images of certain animals, foods, astronomical elements, or products are significant as well.  Students can be asked to write about or discuss the significance of certain colors or symbols through a personal, American, or regional lens and by sharing these ideas with their classmates, they can expand their ability to analyze other visuals as critical readers.

Reading Advertisements 

Just as with other culturally significant visuals, advertisements – whether still images or video clips – can be read differently by different viewers.  Ambiguous or ironic advertisements are particularly valuable in the ESL classroom.  Also, if advertisements include text or dialogue, that can be disguised until the students have had a chance to discuss the meaning on their own.  If the students have access to smart phones or other video recording devices, they can be charged with the task of creating their own video advertisements.

Reading Artworks 

It is no secret that artworks can be used to prompt discussion or writing tasks that are comparative or descriptive in style.  They can also be viewed through the lens of a specific subject of interest to the student, such as politics, sociology, history, or cultural pluralism.  The first time a piece of art is introduced into an ESL classroom however, it is best to be very specific about what questions or subjects you want the students to explore.  Asking students to create a brochure or newsletter featuring examples and descriptions of artworks of a specific mode or style is one way to put their analysis into a digitized visual project of their own creation.  Mixing literacies is an inevitable and practical outcome when the focus is on CBI.

Historical Literacy

Without a context or an element of self-identity, history can occasionally be a bore to some and it will not spark engaged English practice.  However, when broken down into personal, familial, regional, and national segments, history can provide a rich context for students in an ESL classroom.  Students already know their own history and so that is a logical place to start.

Personal History Timeline

After seeing an example timeline pulled from another source or representative of the instructors personal history highlights, students can create their own personal history timeline.  This can be focused on just one aspect of the student’s personal history – particularly if the student has a distraught personal history – or it can encompass any and all aspects of the student’s significant life events such as learning to ride a bike or entering into different academic stages.  After focusing on the self, students can follow-up this task with the creation of a family tree using printouts or websites with genealogical templates.  The personal history timeline can be expanded to include familial and regional histories as well.  Most students will find this to be the most enjoyable presentation that they are ever required to do in an ESL classroom.  Regional history research can be conducted and included if the classroom comprises of students from different countries or even different hometowns.

Local American History

Rather than taking on such large topics as American or World history in your ESL classroom, it can be beneficial to focus on the local regional history of your school or community.  If the city where your school is situated has a local historical society or if the school has an alumni association, these are perfect resources for field trips or classroom visits.  Keep in mind though that other faculty or community members may have very relevant knowledge of the local history and their own collection of stories and photographs to share.  Timelines, comparative history notes, or focused reports about significant historical events are all historical tasks that require students to analyze facts and events across cultures.

Civic Literacy

Civic literacy includes the ability to understand and contribute to group endeavors such as volunteerism, citizenship, mindful economies, politics, and collaboration.  Field trips and guest speakers are just two ways of increasing the Civic IQ of an ESL classroom.  As with many other types of literacies, a meaningful way to teach civic literacy is through raising awareness about services, groups, and practices that might be similar to those that the students are already familiar with in their home countries.  Students may create a comparative analysis of the rules, benefits, and requirements of organizations in the U.S. with similar organizations from back home.

Volunteer organization comparisons

While volunteerism is just one aspect of civic literacy, it is a very accessible one for a comparative analysis.  Depending upon the level of the student, a classroom discussion around one type of volunteer organization can ensue or students can conduct an in-depth comparison of two similar organizations.  Rather than simply reporting on the differences, students can create a newsletter that compares the highlights of these organizations.  For example, a student may choose to focus on environmentalism, elderly care, healthcare, education, or another specific type of organization.  Students can feature in their newsletters: the mission statements, locations, steps to becoming a volunteer, benefits for the volunteer, and histories of the two organizations.

Nutritional Literacy

Nutrition is another one of those topics that varies from culture to culture, but is likely already well-known to the students.  When learning new vocabulary and tasks to share their cultural perspectives on food, very few will shy away from this discussion.  You must pre-teach vocabulary for food groups, recipe requirements, nutritional values, and nutrients.  The best part about this theme is that the students and instructor already have several content-rich materials for the classroom:  food labels.

Food labels

Food labels are a good place to start and from there, students can compare the nutrients and ingredients in certain foods with those in their favorite recipes.  Students can also discuss prices of goods, search for nutritional values of their favorite recipes online, or even discuss what constitutes a balanced diet in their culture.

Grocery shopping

If resources and time are available, you can arrange a field trip to a local grocery store, community garden, farmer’s market, or coop to raise awareness of the variety of prices and the quality of goods that are available to the American shopper.  Students may also be interested in creating a how-to demonstration of their favorite recipe, arranging a cultural potluck, or creating a classroom cookbook.


Teacher and program elasticity is essential for the ESL classroom using multiple literacy themes; however, if it is not possible to create the curriculum around this concept, it is possible to integrate multiple literacy tasks into a skill-focused classroom.  A writing assignment can incorporate academic and visual literacies or an academic speech can include graphic organizers, historical data, and a peer directed activity.  If the goal of the ESL program is to teach English skills that are useful in academic, career, and daily settings, the content of the lessons must lend itself to the student’s ability to use multiple literacy skills to complete tasks in English.


Bloom, B.  (1956).  Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain.  New York: David McKay.

Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (2006).  How Languages Are Learned (3rd ed.).  Oxford University Press.

Melzer, D., & Coxwell-Teague, D. (2011).  Everything’s a Text. New York: Longman.

Pew Research Center.  (n.d.).  Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/


Understanding the complexity of noun phrases in reading text – at any level – is vitally important for teaching academic language. But why? And how?

As teachers, we typically have experience-based intuitions about whether the reading difficulty of a text is appropriate for our students. It can, however, be challenging to pinpoint sources of difficulty. In this article, I describe a process for identifying one common challenge in reading and offer suggestions for teachers to deal with it. We begin, in the next paragraph, with a ‘thought experiment.’

Try this thought experiment…

Each of the sentences below on the topic of muscles was written for one of these levels: elementary, middle school, high school, adult/GED, and college. Take a minute to think about which sentence belongs to which level.

  1. Tough strips of tissue called tendons attach muscles to bones.
  2. Each of the more than 430 voluntary muscles in the body contains various wrappings of fibrous connective tissue.
  3. Muscles are attached to bones by flexible cords of connective tissue called tendons.
  4. When the biceps contracts, it pulls the boy’s lower arm toward his shoulder.
  5. Muscles are connected to bones by tendons—strong, fibrous connective tissue.

The technical vocabulary in (2) very likely helped you to correctly identify it as the college-level sentence, and the specific reference to the boy in (4) might have told you that is the elementary-level sentence. The middle school (1), high school (3), and GED-level (5) sentences all have similar vocabulary (muscles, bones, tendons, tissue), and these nouns are definitely important words, but even more important is how they are used in phrases which create deeper meanings than the words alone. For example, in (3) the noun tissue is part of the noun phrase flexible cords of connective tissue called tendons, which contains multiple modifiers to explain one of the tissue’s properties (flexible), its shape (cord), its purpose (connective), and its name (tendons). A lot of information has been packed into those seven words. (See the original texts here.)

Noun phrase complexity
Densely packed information in noun phrases is considered a hallmark of written academic language (Schleppegrell, 2004; Zwiers, 2008). However, sample sentences (1-5) clearly indicate that the density of noun phrases is not the same across all academic levels. Sentence (4), at the elementary level has two simple noun phrases (the biceps, his shoulder) and one more complex one (the boy’s lower arm), which is still quite a bit simpler than the aforementioned seven-word noun phrase in the high-school level sentence (3). This information density is related to the number and type of modifiers that precede and follow the main noun in a noun phrase, which I will refer to as the noun phrase complexity.

Noun phrase complexity is an important part of overall text complexity. The ability of English learners (EL) to understand and use complex texts is an increasing concern with the adoption of the Common Core Standards, which require that all students “be able to comprehend texts of steadily increasing complexity as they progress through school” (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Appendix A, 2010, p.1). Teachers of ELs need a means of understanding how complexity is created in a text and how complexity increases with grade levels. To address these issues, in this article I will use a set of excerpts from science textbooks on the topic of muscles to explore the following question: How does noun phrase complexity vary across academic levels?

By providing clear definitions and a detailed process for answering this question, I also hope to provide teachers with a means of analyzing the noun phrases their ESL students encounter so they can spot potential difficulties. Looking more deeply into how noun phrases are used will illuminate the differences among levels and illustrate an important way in which academic language builds complexity with increasing grade levels.

Identifying, classifying and analyzing noun phrases

Defining simple and complex noun phrases
This section defines terms used in the paper and describes the process used to identify, classify, and analyze noun phrases. Let’s start with definitions. A noun phrase is a group of words that includes an obligatory head noun and all the words that modify it (Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad, & Finegan, 1999; Crystal, 2004). The head noun is the core of the noun phrase, and it may stand alone or have determiners or modifiers before it (premodifiers), or after it (postmodifiers) as shown in Figure 1. (Note: Some textbooks and teachers use the more student-friendly term “adjectives” to refer to both determiners and premodifiers. The distinction between determiners and premodifiers is important for this analysis, but I don’t mean to imply they should be taught this way.)


your four muscles

your four shoulder muscles

your four strong shoulder muscles

the biggest of your four strong shoulder muscles

the biggest of your four strong shoulder muscles on each side

the biggest of your four strong shoulder muscles connected by tendons on each side

Figure 1. A head noun and its modifiers.

The boldfaced word represents the head noun in each noun phrase.

A head noun is typically a content noun (muscles) but it could also be a pronoun, as in the one in your arm, or an adjective being used as a noun, as in the biggest weighs one pound. Determiners are optional, but if there is one, it must come first, before any premodifiers. Determiners are function words that answer questions such as Whose? (your), How many? (four), and Which one? (the). Specifically, determiners include possessives (e.g., your, the boy’s), quantifiers and numbers (e.g., a lot of, four), articles (a, the), and demonstratives (this, that, these, those).
Premodifiers are normally adjectives such as strong and flexible, but they may also be nouns that describe the head noun, such as shoulder in the noun phrase shoulder muscles. Postmodifiers follow the noun they modify, and they are more complicated than premodifiers because they can be clauses as well as phrases or simply adjectives. Clausal postmodifiers can be further subdivided into finite clauses, which means that they include a subject and a verb with tense, and non-finite clauses, which means that they do not include a subject or a verb with tense. These types of postmodifiers are shown in Figure 2.

Finite clauses

  • tissue that can contract (Mitchell, 2003)
  • the fact that muscles can only pull
Non-finite clauses

  • a muscle attached to a bone (BSCS, 2006)
  • an example of muscles working in pairs (LaRue, 2004)
  • the power to move a muscle
Phrases and adjectives

  • Prepositional phrases
    e.g., the muscle in your upper arm (Scott Foresman, 2000)
  • Adjectives
    e.g., something unusual

Figure 2. Major structures of postmodification of the noun phrase.

All head nouns are in bold. All postmodification structures are in italics. Examples with a source listed were drawn from the texts for this study; other examples were constructed for illustration.
Noun phrases can be classified as simple or complex; while there are many ways to make this classification, in this paper I will follow Crystal (2004) and Hillier (2004) in saying that a simple noun phrase is a head noun alone or with one determiner. All other noun phrases will be classified as complex.

A useful process for analyzing noun phrases

The steps in the process of analyzing noun phrases are

  1. identify noun phrases
  2. classify the parts of a noun phrase (determiner, premodifier, head noun, postmodifier)
  3. classify each postmodifier as a phrase or a clause; if it is a clause, classify it as finite or nonfinite
  4. categorize each noun phrase as simple or complex

Step one: Identifying noun phrases

Identifying a noun phrase entails finding the head noun and the words before the noun that describe it, which is a relatively straightforward process, plus one tricky bit: Where does the noun phrase end? After finding a noun, we determine the beginning of its noun phrase by looking backwards (left) in the sentence to include determiners and premodifiers, if any. Basically, for each possible modifier, we ask if it describes or specifies the noun; this is the same question which helps identify the postmodifiers. In (6a), the final ends of the noun phrases are clearly marked because of the verbs following muscles and muscle cells, the connector following bones, and the period following their shape. In contrast, both (6b) and (6c) have the noun muscles followed by a prepositional phrase, which can modify a noun, verb or adjective.


a. Muscles can move bones because muscle cells can change their shape. (Scott Foresman, 2000).

b. The muscular system consists of the more than 600 muscles in your body. (LaRue, 2004).

c. Tough strips of tissue called tendons attach muscles to bones. (LaRue, 2004)

The prepositional phrase in your body (6b) describes the location of muscles and modifies that noun. On the other hand, the prepositional phrase to bones (6c) describes the location where tendons attach, so it modifies the verb attach and is not part of the noun phrase muscles.

Step two: Classifying the parts of a noun phrase

The parts of a noun phrase are determiners, premodifiers, head noun, and postmodifiers, in that order. Highlighting each classification (7) with a different color or shape makes the noun phrase parts clearly visible and aids the analysis.

(7) the cardiac muscles in the heart

As defined above, possessives, quantifiers, numbers, articles, and demonstratives were classified as determiners. Adjectives and nouns preceding the head noun were classified as premodifiers. Phrases and clauses following the head noun and modifying it were classified as postmodifiers.

Step three: Classifying postmodifiers

Postmodifiers were broken down into two classes: phrases and clauses. Color coding is helpful here too (8). Phrases include prepositional phrases and adjectives that follow the head noun. Clauses include both finite clauses, which have a subject and a tensed verb, and nonfinite clauses, which have a verb form that does not have tense and has no subject.

(8) flexible cords of connective tissue called tendons (BSCS, 2006)

Step four: Is the noun phrase simple or complex?

Each noun phrase was categorized as simple or complex based on the number and type of modifiers. Simple noun phrases consist of a head noun alone or with only one determiner. Complex noun phrases are all other noun phrases.

After determining the type of each noun phrase, I calculated the percentages of simple and complex noun phrases at each level. The color coding also helped me see that number of postmodifiers varied by level. These results are shown in the next section.

Increasing complexity in multiple ways

For these texts on the topic of muscles, noun phrase complexity increases with academic level. I will discuss the increasing complexity in terms of percentages of simple and complex noun phrases, types of modifiers (pre or post, phrases or clauses), and the length of complex noun phrases.

Simple and complex noun phrases
As shown in Figure 3, the percentage of complex noun phrases rises steadily from 27% at the elementary level to 81% at the college level. At the elementary level, most of the noun phrases (73%) are simple, consisting of one determiner and a noun (9a). Complex noun phrases at this level typically have one premodifier (9b) or one postmodifier which is a prepositional phrase of location (9c).


a. one muscle
b. the muscle cells
c. the muscle in your upper arm (Scott Foresman, 2000)

At the middle school level, slightly more of the noun phrases are simple (53%) than complex (47%). The complex noun phrases typically still have only one premodifier; however, in two cases the premodifier is an adjective derived from a verb (10a), which may cause confusion for readers. In addition to prepositional phrases of location as postmodifiers, there are two middle school level noun phrases which include both prepositional phrases with of and nonfinite clauses (10b).

a. the attached bone
b. tough strips of tissue called tendons (LaRue, 2004)

The preposition of is the most widely used preposition after a noun (Biber et al., 1999), but the meaning it creates is harder to understand than prepositions of location such as in or on. Thus, it is not surprising to find that the more concrete prepositions of location in the elementary text give way to the more abstract of in higher academic levels, creating greater noun phrase complexity with these modifiers.
Figure 3. Percentage of simple and complex noun phrases by academic level.
Figure 3. Percentage of simple and complex noun phrases by academic level.

At the high school level, all the prepositional phrases after the head nouns use of, thus increasing the difficulty over the middle school text. The high school noun phrases are evenly split between simple and complex (50% each).

The GED level is the first level at which there are more complex (63%) than simple (37%) noun phrases. Most of the complex noun phrases still only have one premodifier. The prepositional phrases used as postmodifiers all describe location (11), but two of them use of for location (11b).

a. the cardiac muscles in the heart
b. skeletal muscles of the arm and shoulder (Mitchell, 2004)

Complex noun phrases (81%) dominate the college level text. While most of the noun phrases still have only one premodifier, two of them have three premodifiers (12 a, b). Noun phrases at this level are heavily postmodified. Only one of the postmodifying prepositional phrases describes location; all the rest use of to describe various relationships (12b).

a. these long, slender multinucleated fibers whose number is probably fixed by the end of the second trimester of fetal development
b. the dense strong connective tissue of the tendons (McArdle, Katch & Katch, 1981)

Types of modifiers
In this section, we look more closely at just the complex noun phrases, discussing what creates the complexity: premodifers, postmodifiers or both. As shown in Table 1, the elementary, middle school and GED levels have more premodifiers than postmodifiers. At these three levels, premodifiers are repeated; for example, lower is used twice in both the elementary and middle-school texts, and involuntary is used three times in the GED text.
In contrast, noun phrases at the high school and college level have a lower percentage of premodifiers than postmodifiers, and each premodifier at these levels is only used once.

Table 1. Number and Frequency of Modifiers

Number of Complex NPs

Complex NPs with premodifiers

Complex NPs with postmodifiers

Complex NPs with both pre- and post modifiers









Middle School








High School
























At first glance, the figures in Table 1 seem to indicate that the high school text has a low level of complexity, with the lowest percentage (37%) of premodifiers and a percentage of postmodifiers (44%) that is the same as the elementary level. However, looking at the actual noun phrases in more depth shows the true complexity. Of the seven noun phrases with postmodifiers, five of them (13) have either more than one modifier (13a, b), nonfinite clauses (13c, d) or a long prepositional phrase with an adjective (opposing) that could be mistaken for a verb (13e).

a. flexible cords of connective tissue called tendons
b. these two sets of muscles, called flexors and extensors, respectively
c. a muscle attached to a bone
d. a rope attached to a wagon
e. contraction and relaxation of opposing sets of muscles (BSCS, 2006)

The college text has the highest percentage of postmodifiers (73%), and similar to the high school text, the modifiers often occur in pairs (14) with a nonfinite clause providing a technical term for the combination of head noun plus prepositional phrase.
(14) a. a bundle of up to 150 fibers called a fasciculus
b. a fascia of fibrous connective tissue known as the epimysium (McArdle, Katch, & Katch, 1981)

In addition, the college text has the highest percentage (32%) of noun phrases with both pre- and postmodifiers. This leads to some very long noun phrases, which will be discussed in the next section.

Although the GED text has nearly as high a percentage (29%) of noun phrases with both pre- and postmodifiers as the college text, it does not have any phrases with more than one postmodifier, and none of the noun phrases have embedded definitions like (14).

Length of noun phrases

Complex noun phrases in the muscles texts ranged from the minimal two words to the extremely long 17-word phrase shown in (15).
(15) these long, slender multinucleated fibers whose number is probably fixed by the second trimester of fetal development (McArdle, Katch, & Katch, 1981)

As Figure 4 indicates, the number of words in complex noun phrases at the elementary level was between two and six. At the middle school level, the range was three to ten, with the majority of phrases having three words. In the high school text, the numbers ranged from two to ten, again with the majority being three words. The GED text again has a similar range (two to nine words), but the most common length is only two words. The college text’s word lengths are scattered between two and 17 words, with the majority having six or fewer words.
Figure 4. Number of words in complex noun phrases by academic level
Figure 4. Number of words in complex noun phrases by academic level
In most cases longer length signals greater complexity, it does not always do so, which is illustrated in the examples in (16).
a. the smooth muscles of the lungs, intestines, and bladder (Mitchell, 2004)
b. a fascia of fibrous connective tissue known as the epimysium (McArdle, Katch, & Katch, 1981)

The length of noun phrase (16a), from the GED text, comes mostly from the six-word prepositional phrase that lists body parts to tell the location of certain muscles. GED students may not be familiar with some of these terms, but if they know one of them, it would be fairly easy to infer from the context that they are all body parts. Noun phrase (16b), drawn from the college text, has a similar length, but the length comes from two postmodifiers: a prepositional phrase with two adjectives, and a nonfinite clause that provides the technical term for the structure. The multiple modifiers allow a heavy information load in the noun phrase. Compared to the GED phrase, it would be relatively difficult for readers to discern the meaning of this phrase.

In summary, the percentage of complex noun phrases compared to simple noun phrases increases with academic level in these texts. It was also found in this case that the complex noun phrases at the elementary, middle school and GED levels have more premodifiers than postmodifiers, the number of pre- and postmodifiers are fairly even at the high school level while the college noun phrases are heavily postmodified. The fact that postmodifiers are typically phrases and clauses leads to longer complex noun phrases at the higher academic levels. The next section discusses how this type of analysis and results like these can be applied to teaching ELs in many content areas.

Noun phrase complexities in every academic area

Complex noun phrases occur in many different academic areas in addition to science. For instance, a second grade math textbook is the source of (17), which contains a 17-word noun phrase with two long postmodifiers.

(17) Name a group of nickels, dimes and quarters that has the same value as the 1 half dollar (Harcourt Math, Grade Two, p. 207, as cited in de Oliveira & Cheng, 2011).

Social studies texts include complex noun phrases built up with prepositional phrases to specify a location (18a) or that contain complex and abstract causes of events (18b).

a. an island in a lake in the Valley of Mexico
b. famine, disease, warfare or some combination of factors (Helgren, Sager, & Brooks, 2003)

Literary texts frequently use complex noun phrases to add rich details which create visual imagery (19); both these examples are drawn from When the Emperor was Divine, a novel about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II (Otsuka, 2002) frequently assigned in high school and college English courses (Freedman, 2005).

(19) a. She made them paper kites with tails woven out of potato sack strings
b. a city of tar-paper barracks behind a barbed-wire fence on a dusty alkaline plain

In all of these areas, there are strategies that teachers can use to identify complex noun phrases and help students comprehend them.

Strategies to help your learners

Teachers can use strategies both to find complex noun phrases prior to students’ work with a particular text and with students as they are learning academic content in the text. A valuable strategy for teachers is learning how to identify complex noun phrases, using the process described above. After a little practice using the color coding technique, teachers will be able to spot the long modifiers that mark difficult phrases without that scaffolding. In addition, simplified variants of the color coding technique can be taught to students so they can learn to unpack the meaning in complex noun phrases with less assistance from their teachers.
The strategies listed below for teachers to use with students center around areas that ELs find difficult: identifying the head noun in a complex noun phrase, constructing and deconstructing noun phrases, and using academic noun phrases to replace or condense the verb phrases that are typical of oral social language.

Strategy #1: Identifying the head noun

  1. Help students identify the head noun in a noun phrase by asking the probe question Who or what are we talking about?
  2. Point out grammatical clues that indicate what the head noun is. For example, with the sentence The muscles of any healthy organism are always in a state of partial contraction, students may think that the head noun of the muscles of any healthy organism is organism because it is directly before the verb are; however, the head noun must be muscles because, unlike organism, it agrees with are.

Strategy #2: Constructing and deconstructing complex noun phrases

  1. Help students see how particular words in a noun phrase such as those four strong shoulder muscles on each side of your body answer certain questions:
  • Which muscles? those muscles
  • How many muscles? four muscles
  • What are they like? strong muscles
  • What type? shoulder muscles
  • Where? muscles on each side of your body
  1. Explore the potential of noun phrases to provide detailed meaning by starting with a noun (perhaps from a story the class is reading) and adding as many modifiers as students can. For example, as students read The Rainbow Fish (Pfister, 1992), they might describe the main character as proud, shiny, beautiful, and he doesn’t have any friends. The teacher can model adding one modifier at a time to the noun fish to end up with one noun phrase: a proud, shiny, beautiful fish who doesn’t have any friends.
  2. Use a simple graphic organizer (Figures 5 and 6) to illustrate the parts of a noun phrase. In Figure 5, optional parts of a noun phrase are in parentheses, and more student-friendly terms are listed in italics below each part. Community college students who have been taught to break down complex noun phrases with this organizer report that simply identifying the parts makes the meaning clearer (L. K. O’Malley, personal communication, September 27, 2013). Figure 6 is similar, and it can be expanded to accommodate and compare multiple noun phrases.
Head Noun
Who, what

Figure 5. Graphic organizer for complex noun phrases



Head Noun


Figure 6. Another graphic organizer for complex noun phrases (O’Malley, 2013)

Strategy #3: Using noun phrases to replace or condense verb phrases

  1. The teacher can explicitly use both more informal verb phrases like add the two numbers and the more academic noun phrases like the sum of the two numbers. Another example is replacing When we subtract, we get…, with the more academic Subtraction results in…
  2. Teachers can pause occasionally during their oral explanations to contrast their words with those in the textbook, showing, for instance, how people from the north invaded central Mexico around A. D. 1200 would be stated in writing: People from the north launched invasions of central Mexico around A. D. 1200. In addition, students’ attention should be drawn to how the verb and object invaded central Mexico becomes a complex noun phrase with a preposition, invasions of central Mexico.
  3. For a persuasive essay that begins, for example, I think students should wear school uniforms, the teacher can model how to turn the verb and object into a phrase to continue the argument: Wearing school uniforms is good because…, providing an increased level of abstraction.

Why worry about understanding and teaching noun phrases?

A significant purpose of academic language is to clearly describe complex ideas (Schleppegrell, 2004). Complex thought requires complex language. In particular, as we saw in the academic science texts in this study, as academic levels rise, noun phrase complexity increases to express increasingly complicated and difficult concepts.

To express these ideas, nouns are important because they are technical terms that are specific to an academic area–what are often called bricks (Dutro & Moran, 2003, Zwiers, 2008). The importance of ELs’ knowing nouns is apparent, but noun phrases are even more important because the context for the noun creates a more specific meaning than the noun itself. For example, in (20), drawn from the elementary text, the noun phrase the top muscle in each upper arm requires the modifiers top and in each upper arm to define exactly which muscle the biceps is. The noun muscle is the head of the phrase but by itself tells us little in this context.

(20) The top muscle in each upper arm is called the biceps.

Similarly, knowing the word categories such as verb, noun, adjective, and so on is important, but knowing how words are put together to make meaning is even more so (Derewianka, 2011). As she says, “It is important to see how individual words function within a group so that students can see how the words relate to each other” (p. 11). Complex noun phrases are a crucial academic language feature to teach explicitly.

A list of additional resources can be found here.


Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. (1999). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Harlow, England: Pearson Education.

Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. (2006). BSCS Biology: An Ecological Approach (10th ed.). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing.

Crystal, D. (2004). Rediscover grammar (3rd ed.). Harlow, UK: Pearson Education.

De Oliveira, L., & Cheng, D. (2011). Language and the multisemiotic nature of mathematics. The Reading Matrix: An International Online Journal, 11(3), 255-268.

Derewianka, B. (2011). A new grammar companion for teachers (2nd ed.). Marrickville Metro, NSW, Australia: Primary English Teaching Association Australia.

Dutro, S. & Moran, C. (2003). Rethinking English language instruction: An architectural approach. In G. Garcia (Ed.) English learners: Reaching the highest level of English literacy (pp. 227-258). Newark, NJ: International Reading Association.

Freedman, S. (2005, August 17). One Family’s Story of Persecution Resonates in the Post-9/11 World. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com

Hillier, H. (2004). Analysing real texts: Research studies in modern English language. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Palgrave MacMillan.

Helgren, D., Sager, R., & Brooks, A. (2003). People, places, and change: An introduction to world studies. Austin, TX: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

LaRue, C. (2004). AGS Biology. Boston, MA: Pearson Prentice Hall.

McArdle, W., Katch, F., & Katch, V. (1981). Exercise physiology: Energy, nutrition, and human performance. Philadelphia, PA: Lea & Febiger.

Mitchell, R. (2003). McGraw Hill’s GED Science. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers (2010). Common Core State Standards. Retrieved from National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers website: www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_A.pdf‎

O’Malley, L. (2013). Grammatical complexity of noun phrases found in GED and college-level social studies texts (Unpublished master’s thesis). Hamline University, St. Paul MN

Pfister, M. (1992). The rainbow fish. New York, NY: North-South Books, Inc.

Schleppegrell, M. (2004). The language of schooling: A functional linguistics approach. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Scott Foresman. (2000). Scott Foresman Science. Glenview, IL: Prentice Hall.

Zwiers, J. (2008) Building academic language: Essential practices for content classrooms, grades 5-12. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Appendix: Analyzed Texts


Muscles can move bones because muscle cells can change their shape. Make a fist and lift it toward your shoulder. Notice how the muscle in your upper arm feels thick and hard. That is because the muscle cells contracted, or got shorter, to make the movement.
Muscles cannot push bones. Muscles can only pull. That is why muscles work in pairs. One muscle pulls a bone one way. Another muscle pulls the bone the opposite way.

Look at the muscles in the picture. The top muscle in each upper arm is called the biceps. The muscle opposite the biceps is the triceps. When the biceps contracts, it pulls the boy’s lower arm toward his shoulder. His arm bends. When the triceps contracts, it pulls the boy’s lower arm away from his shoulder. His arm then straightens out. (137 words, Scott Foresman, 2000)

Middle School

The muscular system consists of the more than 600 muscles in your body. The skeletal and muscular systems work together to produce movement. Tough strips of tissue called tendons attach muscles to bones.

Most muscles work in pairs. When a muscle contracts, or shortens, it pulls on the tendon. The tendon pulls on the attached bone, and the bone moves. A muscle cannot push. Therefore, a different muscle on the opposite side of the bone contracts to return the bone to its starting position.

The diagram below shows an example of muscles working in pairs. When you bend your arm, the biceps muscle contracts. You can feel how the muscle shortens and hardens as it contracts. The biceps pulls on the tendon, which pulls your lower arm toward you. The triceps muscle on the underside of your arm is relaxed. (140 words, LaRue, 2004)

High School

Muscles are attached to bones by flexible cords of connective tissue called tendons. Tendons span joints so that when a muscle contracts, the force is applied at the joint and movement occurs. A muscle attached to a bone is like a rope attached to a wagon. You can pull a wagon with a rope, but you cannot push it. To move the wagon back to its original position, you must attach a rope to the other end and pull it. Muscles act in the same way: in opposing pairs. To touch your hand to your shoulder, you contract one set of muscles, producing the flexed position. When you return your hand and arm to the extended position, you contract another set of muscles and relax the first set. These two sets of muscles, called flexors and extensors respectively, work in opposition to each other. All your skeletal movements are performed by contraction and relaxation of opposing sets of muscles. (159 words, Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, 2006)


Movement in the human body is made possible by muscles. A muscle is tissue that can contract (shorten or pull together). Muscles are connected to bones by tendons—strong, fibrous connective tissue. Because a muscle can only contract, every joint is controlled by opposing muscles. This enables back-and-forth movement to occur. As shown below, you contract your biceps muscle to bend your arm. You contract your triceps muscle to straighten it.

Muscles may be voluntary or involuntary.

  • Voluntary muscles are those that you can consciously control. Skeletal muscles, used to control bone movement, are all voluntary muscles. To raise your hand, you consciously use skeletal muscles of the arm and shoulder.
  • Involuntary muscles are those over which you normally have limited control. The smooth muscles of the lungs, intestines, and bladder are involuntary muscles. The cardiac muscles in the heart are involuntary muscles that cause heartbeat. (146 words, Mitchell, 2003)


Each of the more than 430 voluntary muscles in the body contains various wrappings of fibrous connective tissue. Figure 18-1 shows the cross section of a muscle consisting of thousands of cylindric muscle cells called fibers. These long, slender multinucleated fibers whose number is probably fixed by the second trimester of fetal development lie parallel to one another and the force of contraction is along the long axis of the fiber. Each fiber is wrapped and separated from its neighboring fibers by a fine layer of connective tissue, the endomysium. Another layer of connective tissue, the perimysium, surrounds a bundle of up to150 fibers called a fasciculus.

A fascia of fibrous connective tissue known as the epimysium is surrounding the entire muscle. This protective sheath is tapered at its distal ends as it blends into and joins the intramuscular tissue sheaths to form the dense strong connective tissue of the tendons. The tendons connect both ends of the muscle to the outermost covering of the skeleton, the periostium.

Thus the force of muscular contraction is transmitted directly from the muscle’s connective harness to the tendons, which in turn pull on the bones at their points of attachment. (197 words, McArdle, Katch, & Katch, 1981)


Harold B. Allen Award Recipient: Staying retired from Adult Basic Education becomes a challenge when the people and the work are so meaningful.

Six years ago, after more than 20 years in the field of Adult Basic Education primarily teaching ESL, I retired from my full time job as an ESL Lead Teacher. The truth is, however, that I have never really retired. I merely changed locations, changed some responsibilities, and changed the amount of time I report to work. Recently, someone asked me why I stay involved with the field and why I keep coming back for more.

Three reasons I keep coming back

1.      The gift of meaningful and challenging work
In my current part-time job I wear several hats: I teach in a multi-level class, I am a support person doing intake and assessments for an evening English language program, I’m the volunteer coordinator, and I do teacher training and other duties as assigned. Each of these responsibilities has significance, purpose, and meaning for me. Our students generally seek out our ABE program; they are motivated to learn, to improve their skills, and to visualize a better future for themselves and their children.  As teacher, support person, volunteer coordinator, or teacher trainer I know that I can help make some of that happen for our students. Therefore, in my mind, my job makes a difference; it goes beyond me. It is a gift I cherish.

Over the years I’ve worked in many different instructional settings. None has been as challenging AND satisfying as teaching in an adult English language classroom. Here there is diversity in abundance, there is sporadic attendance, there is the stress of having learners make gains on mandated assessments. How do I handle that? I get creative for the sake of the learners. Whining about the frustrations doesn’t help a bit. Creativity turns challenges into positives and everyone benefits

2.      The chance to engage with amazing students and colleagues
The students in our program, both past and present, are very dear to me. They are part of my professional network and keep me connected to learning. Where else can one be exposed to so many different cultures, a variety of languages, and a plethora of life’s experiences? It’s like attending a university course every time I come to work.

In our program and in professional organizations such as MinneTESOL I connect with colleagues striving to improve their teaching, training, and leadership skills. In essence it is being connected with like-minded individuals who demonstrate pride in the profession they have chosen.

Throughout my professional career I’ve had the good fortune to work on several state committees and new state initiatives. This involvement continues now that I’ve “retired.”  I love interacting with much younger professionals, who are dedicated, knowledgeable, and have so much to offer the field of adult education.  It is very energizing and empowering. Each and every one has confidence in their abilities and has helped develop confidence in me.

3.      The push out of the comfort zone and new opportunities to learn
My father, who died at age 88, believed one is never too old to work and learn. Right up to the end he continued to sharpen saws for the local carpenters and to investigate new ways to make that saw blade as sharp as possible. I got that same gene. I’m not sharpening saws, but I’m learning how to use technology, albeit in very small baby steps. Long gone is the overhead projector and transparencies. Now my laptop and an LCD projector are part of my presentations. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. I’m stretching myself and ABE has provided the setting.

Technology is only one area that has been a learning experience. Another is being more effective in the classroom and then sharing that expertise. Currently, I’m involved with the ACES (Academic, Career, and Employability Skills) project and have learned how to use skills identified in the Transition Integration Framework (TIF) in my classroom; that is, I am learning how to intentionally integrate critical transition strategies to set our students up for success in postsecondary education, the workplace, or in their communities. This reminds me of one of my daughters who is very involved in the sport of curling. Curling is all about strategies: knowing which to use, when to use it, and aiming for the target. I’ve learned that TIF-ing a classroom is very much like that: choosing a strategy, using it, and bringing our learners to their goal.

So, why do I stay in ABE?
I can’t seem to stay “retired.”  I stay in the field of ABE because my work matters, I am part of a wide circle of amazing ABE colleagues, and I have more to learn. It doesn’t get much better than that.