Cash in on Learning: Academic Language Thinking Terms: At the Core of the Common Core State Standards

by Richard Cash, Ed.D., Free Spirit Publishing author of Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century

The education community is all abuzz with the new flavor of the day: The Common Core State Standards (CCSS)! While I applaud the depth and complexity of the newly aligned standards, I fear that teachers and school administrators will view the CCSS as another “initiative” that can be waited out until the next “initiative” comes down the pike. I truly believe that the CCSS are here to stay and will form a solid backbone to a much more consistent and rigorous curriculum across the United States.

“The standards (CCSS) are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.”
—from the Common Core State Standards website.

What makes the CCSS robust is the higher-level thinking and performance required of all students. The CCSS moves knowledge beyond the “what” to the “how” and “why.” The complex nature of 21st century issues and problems will require our future leaders to think more critically and creatively than ever before. This type of evolved thinking must be taught to our students for them to utilize tools automatically and effectively.

Common Core State Standards logoIn unpacking—or as I like to call it, “dissecting”—the CCSS, you will note that the language used to focus the advanced levels of thinking is called “Level 2 Language,” or in more common terms, “academic language.” Academic language (AL) is what is most commonly found in textbooks, spoken in classrooms and schools, employed throughout standards, and critical to assessment and examinations. The structure of AL is more sophisticated than conversational English, with more complex usage of words and sentence development. It is considered “sub-technical,” which means it is not directly linked to any one content area but usually carries the same meaning across disciplines. Examples of AL that students need to know include interpret, integrate, and evaluate.

It is not assumed that students will need to read and understand the standards as they are written, however, they will be expected to produce the outcomes cited in the standards’ high-frequency thinking skills. Keep in mind that students learn AL through their exposure to the language. I suggest that as teachers begin to implement the CCSS, they take time to introduce students to the AL terms. You can do this in three steps.

First, teachers should prepare a list of the most frequently used thinking skills terms at each grade level (between 10 and 20 per grade level). There is a natural scope and sequence of the AL terms that move from grade level to grade level (as shown below); therefore it is advantageous for schools to align their grade level lists to ensure coverage and consistency of the terms.

Example of Scope and Sequence of AL Terms
Kindergarten = Retell
2nd grade = Recount
3rd grade = Summarize

Second, provide students this list with an accompanying “kid friendly” definition (for example, analysis: separate into parts and find the connections or disconnections).

There are numerous ways you can differentiate the learning and understanding of these complex terms:

  • For tech-motivated learners: Use Quizlet, a free Web-based service for making electronic flash cards and learning language.
  • For visual learners: Create a Word Wall (using a prominent and easily viewed wall of the classroom to display the high-frequency AL terms). Students can interact with the words, posting definitions, drawing pictures of the meaning of the word, or linking text to the word.
  • For students who need more support: Use graphic organizers or personally created dictionaries to help them unpack the word’s meaning, provide a space to keep their ideas organized, and see how the word links to other thinking skills.
  • For students who need more time on learning: Give them the high-frequency word list to practice and review over the summer.

AL sample word cloudThird, hold students accountable for learning the terms and being able to define them in their own terms. Once students have made a connection between AL and common language, ask students to use the AL term. Be consistent with the use of AL terms and use them repeatedly throughout instruction. This consistent usage not only assists students in learning AL, it also sets the bar high for all students.

It is essential that all of our students know the high-frequency AL terms in order to prepare them for the rigors of the CCSS. In my next blog I will share ideas for how to infuse the advanced levels of thinking of the CCSS into your daily instruction. In the meantime, please leave a comment about your own experience with high-frequency AL terms in the classroom.

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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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