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School Spotlight - McClure using rich academic language to propel student success

Yesenia Mendez works with her students on adding two two-digit numbers. When first grade teacher Yesenia Mendez asks her students a question, there is only answer she won’t accept - a one-word answer.

“We’ll do a quick check,” Mendez said. “I’ll stop them and ask them to use a complete sentence.”

Mendez’s push to make sure students are using proper language isn’t something that’s unique to her classroom. Throughout McClure Elementary School teachers are pushing their students to answer in complete sentences, use proper academic language and really think about the words they’re using.

“This is important because times are changing,” said McClure fifth grade teacher Francisco Ochoa. “In order for our kids to be successful they have to know the language.”

The school has been focusing on stressing the use of rich academic language for the past few years. It’s something that’s emphasized in classrooms from preschool through fifth grade. Principal Jose Rivera said the decision to focus on rich academic language came about thanks to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium or SBAC tests that are required of third, fourth and fifth grade students.

“We started talking about it during instructional team meetings,” Rivera said. “We started looking at what was getting in the way of our students’ success on assessments.

“If students are given a sentence filled with academic language – do they understand what it is they are being asked? Especially when it comes to content-specific vocabulary.”

So work began to ensure McClure’s students would know exactly what was being asked of them.

“We started going to the classrooms and focusing on language,” Rivera said. “We also started listening to teachers and their use of language.”

It was when they stopped and took a closer look at things that they realized, during the course of teaching a lesson, how easy it is to slip into the use of pronouns. When talking about a math problem, it’s easy to say “What is this?” or “Look at this one.” Now, when you walk into a classroom where math is being taught, you’re more likely to hear vocabulary words like equation, sum and factor being used.

Mendez’s first grade students were recently learning how to add two-digit numbers – how to find the sum. Before the students were given a problem to solve, they went over some sentence frames to help them properly talk about math and the strategies they were using to solve the problem.

Mendez had sentences prebuilt with blanks to such as – I used the _____ to find the sum. The students then filled in the blank with whichever method they used to solve the problem – the number bond way, the arrow method, using base-ten blocks. Sentence frames give the students a firm base to use to express themselves and better understand how to talk about the math they are doing.

“We need to be very precise about our academic language,” Rivera said.

And it starts with the teachers. Rivera said the teachers at his school work hard to push the use of rich academic language. They are encouraged to model the proper use of language in their classrooms. They are encouraged to push students to answer in complete sentences. And they are encouraged to help students build on their academic language.

“If teachers use the rich academic language and model it for students,” Rivera said. “Then our students are more likely to use it.

“It’s so easy to give one-word answers. We really want kids to answer in complete thoughts.”

Rivera said every teacher is working to build in supports – like the use of sentence frames – to help set students up for success. But ultimately, the thing that’s really going to make the use of rich academic language a success is putting it to use.

“If we keep saying it, it’s going to stick,” Rivera said.

School officials and staff members have been focusing on the use of rich academic language for the past three years – emphasizing it in all grades. And, Rivera said, they’re starting to see a difference.

Ochoa said now when students walk into his fifth grade class in the fall, they know what’s expected. There are still sentence frames in use and diagrams noting specific vocabulary words, but the students know that one-word answers aren’t the way to express themselves.

The focus on rich academic language also gives students a better chance at success when it comes to SBAC testing. Ochoa said now the language used in the tests isn’t a hindrance. Instead, knowing the correct academic language allows students to dig deeper into certain subjects.

Mendez said her students now know both the content and how to use rich academic language to describe what they’re learning and what they’re doing.

“They have the vocabulary,” Mendez said. “They are telling me how they solved the math problem, and they’re able to do that because of the language supports.”

Rivera said sometimes success can come from making small changes – like focusing on language use.

“These little things we don’t think about can make a difference,” Rivera said. “They can make a big difference.”