What is language awareness?
For many learners following Cambridge programmes, English is an additional language. For some, it might be their second or perhaps their third language. Depending on the school setting, students might be learning all of their subjects through English or just some of their subjects.
For all students, whether they are learning through their first language or an additional language, language is a vehicle for learning. It is through language that learners access the content of the lesson and communicate their ideas. So, as a teacher, it is your responsibility to make sure that language isn’t a barrier to learning.
One way to achieve this is for teachers to become more ‘language aware’. Being language aware means you understand the possible challenges that language presents to learning. These challenges might arise because a student is learning a subject through an additional language or it might be the first time a student has come across certain vocabulary or structures in their first language. A teacher who is ‘language aware’ understands why students face these difficulties and what they can do to support students.
In this resource, we will look at the basics of language awareness in more detail. We will explore theories that help us better understand the language needs of our students. We will look at some common misconceptions about students who are learning through an additional language and discuss the benefits of teaching and learning through an additional language. In the final section, we will look at some practical examples of how you can become more language aware in your everyday teaching. Along the way, we will hear from experienced practitioners who will be sharing their ideas about what they do that works.
Throughout the resource we will ask you questions that will help you to think about the specific needs of your learners and how you can take steps to become more language aware. At the end there is a glossary of key words and phrases.
Listen to these teachers discussing what language awareness means for them and why they think it is important. How do their definitions of language awareness compare with yours?
What are the benefits of teaching and learning through an additional language?
Teaching and learning through an additional language encourages understanding between cultures, improves students’ cognitive ability and prepares them for life beyond school.
If students’ language is sufficiently well developed and supported by the teacher, learning through an additional language can be cognitively stimulating. In contrast to many traditional language lessons, students are learning meaningful content through the language rather than simply learning the language itself. The language becomes a tool for critical thinking and communication and allows students access to authentic and relevant subject content and terminology.
Research suggests that the existence of more than one language in the brain leads to improved cognitive control. This has a positive effect on working memory, selective attention, processing information, and mental flexibility. Studies have demonstrated that bilingual children develop the ability to solve problems that contain conflicting or misleading clues at an earlier age than children who speak only one language.
The ability to use more than one language means we can communicate with people from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Knowledge of other languages encourages new ways of thinking and of perceiving the world. We live in an increasingly global world and language skills make travel easier, provide opportunities to study abroad, and improve career prospects.
What is the research behind language awareness?
Conversational and academic language
Language expert Jim Cummins distinguishes between two types of language: conversational language and academic language.
Conversational language requires skills to understand and take part in everyday conversations and activities. These basic language skills are used in informal communication, such as buying lunch at school, talking on the phone to friends, or playing sports. Conversational language is ‘learned’ fairly quickly. This is because, in day-to-day conversation, certain clues from other people and clues from the context help us to understand meaning. In a face-to-face conversation, gestures, intonation and facial expressions support meaning. Situations or points of reference offer hints to the meaning of a conversation. This might be items of food available in a canteen for example, or the score at a football match. These social interactions are not very cognitively demanding and rarely require specialised language. Learners often get a lot of exposure to this type of language and as a result their social language skills are often good compared with their academic language skills. Conversational language is sometimes referred to as BICS (basic interpersonal communication skills).
Academic language refers to more formal language which is essential for students to successfully demonstrate what they have learned and achieved. This includes listening, speaking, reading, and writing about content in a specific subject area, for example reading about a particular event in history or discussing a new mathematical concept. In activities related to academic work, clues that help decide meaning are often reduced or absent. For example, a passage in a textbook may not include any pictures to support what learners are expected to read. Language also becomes more complex, and new ideas, concepts and language are all presented to students at the same time. Academic language also requires deeper thinking skills, such as comparing, classifying, analysing, evaluating and inferring. As learners progress through school, they are increasingly expected to use language in situations where they cannot rely on context and which are cognitively demanding. Academic language is sometimes referred to as CALP (cognitive academic language proficiency).
Cummins’ work suggests that learners are most successful at understanding content and language not only when they are challenged cognitively but also when they are provided with the appropriate context and language supports (or ‘scaffolds’ – see below).
The theory of 'social constructivism' says that people learn mainly through social interaction with others, such as a teacher or other students. One social constructivist, Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934), developed the idea of the zone of proximal development. This zone lies between what a learner can achieve alone and what they can achieve with the expert guidance of a teacher or a more able student. Skilled teachers focus learning activities in this zone. They ‘scaffold’ learning by providing guidance and support that challenges students based on their current ability, helping them to gain confidence and independence in using new knowledge or skills. This helps students to develop their understanding in stages.
In order to scaffold learning, you need to be able to assess learners’ current knowledge, skills and understanding. Based on this, you can set appropriate targets and plan suitable activities and individual support along the way.
It is important that you consider the language demands of the activities and materials you have chosen for your lesson and provide appropriate support to help with these demands. The language skills that learners will be using (listening, reading, writing and speaking) will influence the type of support that you provide.
In this video language expert, Esther Gutierrez Eugenio, discusses why it is important to scaffold language.
The importance of first-language development
The image below illustrates Jim Cummins’ theory of how linguistic knowledge is stored in a bilingual brain. He suggests that languages are linked in the brain by a central operating system and are only separated at a surface level.
Each language contains distinct surface features such as pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. These allow people to speak, read, and write, but underlying these surface features is a shared skill that is common across languages.
He argues that it is the cognitively demanding higher-order thinking skills and conceptual understanding that characterise academic language (CALP) that is shared. For example, if a student has understood a mathematical concept in their first language, they will not need to relearn this concept but they will need the surface language in their additional language to be able to show that they understand.
Cummins suggests that learners need a minimum level of linguistic and conceptual knowledge in their first language to successfully develop a second language. Once this knowledge is firmly established in a first language, the students can draw on this learning when working in an additional language. As a result, continued support for conceptual and linguistic development in a student’s first language provides a solid basis for development in an additional language.
Common misconceptions about language awareness
'Fluency in conversational language means fluency in academic language.'
Many teachers are surprised when they receive a piece of written work that suggests a student who has no difficulties in everyday communication has problems understanding the main ideas of a lesson. Problems arise when teachers assume that students who have attained a high degree of fluency and accuracy in everyday social English (BICS) have a corresponding level of academic proficiency (CALP). Whether English is a student’s first language or an additional language, they need time and the appropriate support to become competent in academic language as it is that language they will mostly need in school.
'I’m a science teacher – supporting students’ language is not my responsibility.'
Many teachers of non-language subjects worry that there is no time to include language support in their teaching or that it is something they know little about. Some teachers may think that language support is not their role. However, many teachers would agree that it is their responsibility to create an inclusive classroom where all students can access the curriculum and where barriers to learning are reduced as much as possible. When you are aware of the language needs of your students, you can use this awareness to help reduce obstacles that learning through an additional language might present.
Science teachers do not need to know the names of grammatical structures or to be able to use the appropriate linguistic labels. However, they do need to have a sound understanding of the challenges their students face, and plan to help them overcome these challenges. As we will see, these language-support techniques do not need to take a lot of extra time and should eventually become an everyday part of planning, teaching, and reflecting.
'If parents speak a different language at home, this will confuse learners.'
Early research promoted the idea that languages were stored separately in the brain. It was thought that each language had a limited processing capacity. As a result, the worry was that learning another language would negatively affect or ‘push out’ the existing language. This reinforced the idea of bilingualism as problematic and a disadvantage to learning.
However, new research into how the brain works suggests that languages are linked in the brain by a central processing unit. This means that whether a learner is speaking, listening, reading or writing in their first or additional language, it helps the whole cognitive system to develop. As a result, it doesn’t matter in which language basic concepts are developed as this learning will eventually transfer across languages. Research shows that it is much better for parents to speak with their children in the language in which they are most confident. This is because this language will be richer and more complex. If parents speak to their children in a language in which they themselves are not confident, they are providing a model of language for their children that is not fully developed.
'Younger children are more effective at learning languages than older students.'
Some teachers working with older students worry that an additional language, such as English, is much harder to learn. Younger learners may succeed in speaking a new language with little or no accent, but there is evidence that older people are often more efficient learners and make faster progress at first. It is important to remember that language expectations for younger learners are generally lower and school language is more complex at higher grades, making learning a language challenging. While it is possible to learn both subject content and language at the same time, the language a learner uses in the classroom needs to be sufficiently well developed and supported for them to be able to process the cognitive challenges they face.
'A teacher with only first-language speakers in their class does not need to be aware of students’ language needs.'
Everyone has an individual experience of language. Students may not have previously seen or heard some language that is specific to a subject and may need to be introduced to this language in the same way that they would learn a second or foreign language. Most subjects have terms that need to be used appropriately. Some of these terms may have other meanings in other subject areas. First-language speakers may also be stronger in certain skills than others. You may find that certain students are better at writing than at speaking, or that their understanding of the vocabulary of a subject area is better than their active use of it. You need to be aware of the language level and capability of all of your students, not just those who are learning through an additional language.
Language awareness in practice
In this section, we will look at how language-aware teachers plan, teach, assess, reflect and collaborate.
A teacher who is language aware thinks about the school setting and circumstances, and the language profiles of their learners − that is, their different levels of competence. You need to have a good understanding of your learners’ language experiences both in and out of school. This helps you to plan the best way to support their continued learning and set realistic targets and challenges for them.
Once you have a clear understanding of your learners’ language profiles, this will help you to build language support into your lesson planning. For many teachers, this means designing the various steps of the lesson in a way that will achieve the lesson content aims and then reviewing the lesson plan, with a specific focus on academic language (CALP). Learning objectives for content and language should be clearly set out alongside each other.
As well as carefully considering the language demands of your lesson at the planning stage, you should take extra steps during the lesson to be sensitive to the potential language needs of your learners. These techniques might include thinking aloud and describing what you are doing, using body language and gestures, adding visuals or diagrams and repeating or saying something in a different way using specific examples. It is important to give learners time to process information and respond when you are asking them a question. Many teachers already use some of these techniques, but deliberately focusing on them can result in a more planned approach to language awareness.
Based on the learning objectives, it is important to plan assessment opportunities to provide useful feedback on the learning process. Assessment outcomes need to be clearly linked to learning objectives and students need to understand the assessment criteria and what success in a particular task or assignment looks like. Give students feedback on their language as well as their understanding of a subject. This sends a message to students about the value of language as a tool to communicate their ideas and also makes sure that language learning progresses.
Reflection requires you to critically analyse your teaching, with the aim of reaching a new perspective, modifying your attitude where necessary and trying new approaches. When you focus specifically on language as part of this analysis, you can evaluate how well the support strategies you are using are working and what you might do differently to improve the language support you give to your students.
The English department can support learning in other subjects taught through English by becoming better informed about the language demands students face in other lessons. Content teachers can help by advising English language teachers about the kinds of material and topics they are covering. It is not the role of the English language teacher to help students understand subject concepts from other disciplines. However, they can help prepare students for these by developing useful language structures, vocabulary or strategies for reading academic texts for example.
Watch the video of two teachers discussing how they support language through cross-curricular collaboration in their schools. Could you try any of these approaches in your school?
If you are new to language awareness, it will help to ask yourself the following questions about your teaching practice.
How can I better understand the language profile of my learners?
Teachers have a good understanding of learners’ language experience in school. This is based on how the curriculum is organised and through which languages teaching and learning take place. However, it is important to understand the linguistic background of your learners and their experience of language outside school. This will help you to offer individual teaching and make the most of your students’ existing knowledge.
How am I going to include language support in my lesson planning?
It is through language that learners access the content of the lesson and communicate their ideas. As a result, language is something that all teachers need to think about at the
lesson-planning and preparation stages. It is important to design a lesson that will achieve the content aims, and then to go back and review each stage of your lesson and the activities you have planned with a focus on language.
How will I scaffold language in my teaching?
It is important to scaffold learning by providing guidance and support that challenges students based on their current ability. This will help learners to gain confidence and independence in using new knowledge or skills and develop their understanding in stages.
How can I provide feedback on language as well as content?
It can be difficult to know when and how to correct your students’ language. It is important to strike a balance between helpful feedback that allows students to improve, and over-correction which can hinder the flow of a lesson and demotivate students.
How can I reflect on my teaching?
Teachers who continue to develop their teaching practice learn from reflecting on their experience. You are always learning simply by doing your job. However, this is greatly helped by reflection, which is a fundamental part of teacher development.
How can I learn from others?
Teachers who work together with colleagues in their department and other departments encourage a more integrated approach to supporting students.
Now you have begun to think about how you can support your learners with their language, here are some activities to help you get started.
Context: How can I better understand the language profile of my learners?
Think about whether you notice a difference in the language ability of your learners in their everyday conversation (BICS) and the academic work they produce in lessons (CALP). To better understand individual students’ language performance, find out the answers to the questions below.
• How many learners in your class are first-language users of English?
• How many learners in your class are not first-language users of English?
• When and where did these students begin to learn English? (For example, at home, at primary school, at secondary school.)
• Which other languages play a central role in the lives of your learners?
• Which languages do your learners use at home?
• Other than English, which languages do your learners read and write in?
What kind of exposure do they have to broadcast and other media? Do they have access to books, magazines, television or online resources in English or other languages? One way to find out the answers to these questions is to ask learners to fill out the questionnaire below. They can either do this individually or in groups. The answers will provide a helpful starting point for a discussion with your learners about the languages they use.
Planning: How can I build language support into my lesson planning?
Now you have a good understanding of your learners’ language profiles you can start to build language support into your lesson planning. Tim Chadwick (2012) provides a set of questions to help you determine what the language demands of your lesson are and how you will support your learners with these demands. He breaks this down into three areas: content vocabulary, functional language and language skills. Use the handout below to plan an activity for your next lesson.
Teaching: How can I scaffold language in my teaching?
As well as the support you have built in to your lesson plan, there are techniques that teachers systematically use to support language when they deliver their lessons. Listen to these teachers giving some practical examples of how they provide language support in their classes. Choose one new strategy to try out in your next lesson.
Watch the video of two teachers discussing how they use the strategies below to scaffold language in their lessons. Are there any new strategies that you can try in your next lesson?
• Record language prompts on the whiteboard
• Encourage learners to underline key terms
• Use images
• Provide writing frames
• Enable learners to write collaboratively
• Introduce learners to new language before setting a task
• Provide sentence stems and model language
• Activate prior knowledge of the subject
• Create a bank of useful expressions
• Repeat explanations and progressively increase the difficulty of explanations
• Provide feedback on language and content
• Highlight examples of good language use from students
Reflection: How can I reflect on my teaching?
After you have delivered your lesson, reflect on what happened, your thoughts and feelings and the reactions of your students. This will help you to consider what changes you might make to the language support you provide for future learning. You might find it helpful to ask yourself the following questions.
• What were my goals for the lesson?
• How did I intend to achieve those goals?
• What actually happened?
• How do I feel about this?
• What could I do differently next time?
Observation: What can I learn from others?
Observe a colleague who teaches a non-language subject. Make a note of three ways in which your colleague successfully supported learners in both their language and subject knowledge and understanding. Choose one of these techniques to try out in your next lesson.
Want to know more?
Here is a printable list of interesting books, articles and websites on the topics that we have looked at.
Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS)
BICS refers to everyday communication or conversational fluency in a language. This type of communication is often associated with routine social interactions. In school settings this is sometimes referred to as 'playground' English. This term originates from the early work of Jim Cummins (1984) in bilingualism and special education. Not all informal language use is BICS. For example, teachers often use every day common expressions to explain very complex concepts.
A student who uses their first language at home or in the community and is learning through a second language, for example English, at school.
Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP)
The level of language needed to understand academic situations with little context. In education this 'academic' English is usually contrasted with BICS or 'playground' English. This term originates from the early work of Jim Cummins (1984) in bilingualism and special education.
The cognitive demand of a task is how intellectually challenging the task is.
Common Underlying Proficiency
This refers to the interdependence of concepts, skills and linguistic knowledge found in a central processing system. Jim Cummins states that cognitive and literacy skills established in a first language will transfer across languages.
The main language that the learner or teacher uses, from childhood and at home.
The teacher provides appropriate guidance and support to help learners gradually build on their current level of understanding and gain confidence and independence in using new knowledge or skills.
Zone of proximal development (ZPD)
The difference between what a learner can achieve when they receive support and what they can achieve independently.