How to Teach Academic Language to English Language Learners

Academic language and academic vocabulary are predictors of student success, including for English Language Learners in your classroom.


This is the second of two posts focusing on academic language and academic vocabulary for English Language Learners. In this post, we dig deeper into grammatical competency, discourse, and cognition to share tips for ESL teachers to help your ELLs!

Check out part 1 in this post focusing on phonological features and vocab and word formation for ideas and activities for ESL teachers.

A reminder that academic language includes concise word choice, information-bearing vocabulary and complex grammar, and sentence structure. Download this FREE reference graphic that explains in more detail the various parts of academic language. It’s a great tool to keep in your teacher toolbox for easy reference! 

Academic vocabulary and academic language tied to common core state standards and support of ELLs in your classroom or ESL classroom.
Click to download your free copy of this graphic for your teacher binder!

Although vocabulary is an important component, it is only one part of academic language. Read on for more about the components of academic language related to grammar, discourse, and cognition and how you can use this knowledge in your ESL classroom! 

Grammar and English Language Learners

Grammar is likely already part of your plans for the English Language Learners in your classroom. It’s an important part of any ESL program since grammar comprises the correct use, rules, and understanding of parts of speech, word classes, inflections, increasing word complexity, and understanding complex sentence structures and syntax. Key to these are lessons about phrasal verbs, modals, and past tense for different verbs.

Phrasal verbs are those verbs that indicate action and include other words to make that action clear such as ask for or back up. For an engaging and interactive way to teach the difference between formal and informal language to your ESL elementary students check out this activity for phrasal verbs and their academic counterparts. This resource will save you time and contains everything you need to teach your students, especially ELLs to differentiate between formal academic language and informal language

Modals, also known as helper verbs, include verbs that indicate ability, possibility, permission or obligation. Examples of modal verbs include can, could, may, might, shall, and more! 

Past tense with regular and irregular verbs can be confusing for ELL students. To make your life easier grab this engaging English Past Tense Verb Games bundle to reinforce the English past tense with a ton of English grammar games to keep things fresh in your ESL classroom.


Structured sentence stems and literary analysis in ESL. Using sentence stems and reply frames to help with communication for English language learners in your classroom.


Academic Language and Discourse

Discourse entails the ability to use words to organize knowledge and exchange ideas. In the lessons for the ELLs in your classroom you probably already include structured sentence stems, structured reply frames, and academic vocabulary word banks.

Structured sentence stems with a key element missing so students can fill in the blank. Such sentence stems are a great support for practice with academic vocabulary and academic language. 

Structured reply frames are similar to sentence stems but focus on the response a student might make. These are helpful in supporting an ongoing exchange of ideas between students. 

Academic vocabulary word banks complement all sorts of units and language learning. In my classroom, I use word walls all the time to support student learning.

Lesson guide for using word walls in your ESL classroom for English language learners and vocabulary and academic vocabulary.

Here’s how I use word banks and word walls in my ESL classroom for English Language Learners:

  1. I begin teaching Academic Vocabulary Expansion by teaching the four parts of speech. I want to make sure students understand what a verb, noun, adjective, and adverb are before we start! 

  2. I then model using a verb and talk it through, how that base can lead to creating nouns, adjectives, and adverbs.

  3. After modeling I have the students complete the student writing page by writing in the verb, noun and adjective bubbles and then writing a sentence for each of those parts of speech using the verb, noun, or adjective. This can be hard for students so I model with some of my own students after I have let them have a try on their own.

  4. Each day afterward for a week or so I put up a new word and repeat the same procedure. With this process, we start to look for patterns! We look at word endings in each category and make a list of SUFFIXES that coincide with each part of speech.

  5. When I am sure they are ready, I present a verb and let them work independently!

To make this happen in your ESL classroom, download this resource with 53 word wall cards with their nouns, adjectives, and adverbs along with a reproducible student writing page.

Academic Vocabulary and Cognition

Cognition encompasses the mental action of thinking, understanding, learning, and remembering. This involves the recognition of grammar to language function and involves students’ abilities to predict, classify, infer, and describe or synthesize their understanding of a text. 


Overview of why academic vocabulary and academic language is important for elementary students and particularly ESL and English language learners in your classroom.

Why is Academic Language Important?

The inclusion of these different components to support students’ development of academic language is tied directly to academic success for individual students. In fact, research points to the fact that students who can use academic language are more likely to be successful in school and beyond.

However, there are aspects that block the acquisition of academic language for English Language Learners such as

  • Insufficient exposure to books

  • Insufficient exposure to people who use academic language

  • Insufficient opportunities to use the language

  • Insufficient motivation to develop and use academic language

  • Insufficient instruction including sufficient and corrective feedback to acquire academic language  

The good thing here is that you as an ESL teacher are well-equipped to address each of these barriers in order to support your students. And if you’re looking for more support for your own learning, then this post and part 1 about phonological features, vocabulary, and word formation, as well as past posts such as this series about what every ESL teacher should know are helpful to you too!

And to add to this support, I designed this year-long ELL bundle for your ESL classroom. Each month is stuffed with games, vocabulary, and English Newcomer Lesson Plans, and it is perfect for all classrooms; ESL, ELL, EFL, and ELD – requiring minimal PREP on your end!

Happy Teaching!

Read this two part series of posts from Fun To Teach about How to Teach Academic Vocabulary to English Language Learners in your classroom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *