What is academic language?

Diane Leedham unpacks what we mean when we talk about academic language, and why it matters for our learners

Author details

Diane Leedham is an education consultant, trainer and writer. She has worked as a teacher, head of English, whole school literacy lead, local authority advisor for English, literacy and EAL and a specialism project lead.

Academic language is a topic that’s of much interest in schools, particularly in terms of its perceived value in closing elusive ‘gaps’ in attainment for disadvantaged learners. I’ve been exploring academic language and literacies in my work with schools, and would like to share some of the strategies and approaches we’ve found useful.

But before getting into the detail of subject specific word, sentence and text level analysis (which we’ll be doing in upcoming articles), I think it’s important to interrogate exactly what we mean when we talk about academic language. Last year I attended a Naldic seminar on What Counts As Academic Language, led by Professor Fred Genesee – an expert in language acquisition. He was cautious about offering a simple definition, and that certainly gave me pause for thought before writing.

So, please consider this article as an attempt to map the territory, before we set out on the journey.

Are academics all speaking the same language?

We can probably all agree that acquiring a ready proficiency in the language associated with academic study, in order to access the widest opportunities for learning, and public accreditation of that learning, is vital for our students. And we may also agree on some observations on the practice of academic language, at least when it’s in English.

  • Academic language is widely recognised as being expressed in standard English (or other language) rather than any non-standard language variant or dialect.
  • Academic language is also generally thought to reside at the formal end of any informal/formal language continuum.
  • Academic language is commonly a form of language which is closely associated with writing rather than talk (whether or not the actual output is written or spoken).

But even if these principles are agreed, there are potential uncertainties. Academic language is not always written down. If you are giving an academic presentation, for example, there are various linguistic practices considered appropriate in that context, ranging from reading a written paper aloud to more flexible oral improvisations and interactions, which sometimes may even include informality, and non-standard interjections.

The exhortation to ‘speak in full sentences’ in class is linguistically implausible

Though academic writing is generally subject to stringent style guide requirements, these are not fixed in perpetuity. Pat Thomson, Professor of Education at Nottingham University, writes a blog aimed at PhD candidates, which frequently explores issues around language - see learning new vocabulary for example. 

Simple rules and sweeping proscriptions to encourage the use of academic language in school may therefore be misleading and simultaneously run the risk of misguidedly demonising normal communicative practices, alienating those learners whose ‘everyday language’ is most non-standard and least like writing.

For example, the exhortation to ‘speak in full sentences’ in class is linguistically implausible, since nobody, not even the most fastidious scholar, actually does this in real life, unless they are reading aloud a pre-written script.

Useful concepts: nominalisation

Of course, teachers want to develop a learner’s oral language. This will enable articulation of complex knowledge, abstraction and concepts in ways that will enlarge their thinking – and be accredited by exam boards. Research rightly places oracy at the heart of the curriculum in a variety of ways, and the intrinsic connection between listening, reading, speaking and writing is something I'll return to in future articles. 

But learner confidence in a process such as nominalisation, or noun-making, in both oral and written language is likely to have more impact in reaching this goal than ‘speaking in a full sentence’.

Nominalisation is a daunting sounding word for something that most teachers do so automatically that they have largely stopped realising that they do it. So, let me give some examples to clarify.

Concepts are largely noun driven. Compare the examples below.

The man is poor. His children beg for food.

Poverty has increased the number of child beggars.

The first example relies on verbs and provides description. The second provides explanation, using nominalisation for at least one of those verbs: ‘poverty’ rather than ‘is poor’. So now we and the learners can start talking about poverty as a concept.

It’s the same linguistic principle which underpins the progress this teacher noticed in her GCSE students.

Vocabulary development

Talking about nominalisation segues naturally to the topic of vocabulary, and the importance of vocabulary acquisition for academic success.

There is no dispute that having more words at your disposal is a good thing and vocabulary development is generally at the heart of most teachers’ ambitions for their students’ academic language.

However, there is less agreement about which words are needed for academic language and how or when these might best be presented and retained. (For more on this debate, see Barbara Bleiman’s articles A dictionary is a hard thing to swallow and Bigger Than Words – It’s Meanings We Need to Focus On.)

So, yes, attention to vocabulary is vital for academic language. But it’s not sufficient for the development of proficient academic language without further reflection about what this might look like in practice.

Words have different currency according to context

It’s currently popular to adopt a tiering approach to language, with vocabulary allotted a place in categories along the lines of:

  • everyday words
  • specialist and general academic words
  • technicist or subject specific words.

With this system, everyday language is often eschewed by teachers in favour of what my  sceptical daughter likes to call the ‘fancypants’ words in the other two categories. The aim is to increase knowledge, raise aspiration and ambition and match the perceived requirements of  the academic genre in question. But there are drawbacks with such an approach if it’s applied too rigidly and without wider considerations.

Rejecting ‘everyday language’ as inherently lacking is misguided

One problem with categorising words in this way is that many words don’t just mean one thing. The technical term is polysemy – ‘the coexistence of many possible meanings for a word or phrase’.

A single word might fit in two or all three tiers, and may even have different connotations in different subject or academic areas. For example, consider the word ‘cell’. How many meanings or uses can you think of for it? There are multiple, context-driven options with ‘everyday’ meanings being as significant for purpose as those in the other tiers.

Rejecting ‘everyday language’ as inherently lacking is misguided, and runs the risk of encouraging florid or even obfuscatory expression (which contrary to some popular opinion, won’t necessarily win marks from examiners).

Seeking fluency

Ultimately, it is knowledge and understanding combined with fluency in the subject specialist conventions for expressing that knowledge and understanding which is at the heart of academic language or ‘disciplinarity’.

The proficient development of academic language is inevitably interdependent with teacher recognition and understanding of those conventions, and their subsequent confidence in using their knowledge to plan and teach the necessary vocabulary, language structures and text relationships, which are aligned with the concepts and content they embody.

Academic disciplinarity is underpinned by the particular demands of an intended form and audience and the writer’s purpose in addressing them. This applies across ages and stages - whether you're a KS2 learner or a PhD candidate

The successful acquisition of academic language is thus a gradual, deeply embedded, recursive process, underpinned by both knowledge and meaning; true ‘powerful knowledge’, not a performative gloss likely to be achievable with SPaG requirements, keywords and sentence starters alone.

Further reading

  • Beverley Derewianka – Exploring How Texts Work
  • Pauline Gibbons – Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning
  • Pauline Gibbons – English Learners, Academic Literacy, and Thinking
  • Stuart Webb and Paul Nation – How Vocabulary Is Learned
  • Karl Maton – Knowledge and Knowers: Towards a realist sociology of education
  • English for academic purposes
Last Updated: 
11 Mar 2019