Activity: Using English for School Work

The Language of the Street (also known as “Social Language”)

Students whose second language is English often can function very well socially. They can speak English the way other students do, and they can pick up on the jokes and subtleties of ordinary chit-chat. When people reach this point in acquiring a second language, it’s cause for celebration. This level of knowledge is useful in everyday interactions for getting things done in real life. ELLs get good at social language first—they need it to get around their schools and communities. So would you if you moved to another country.

The Language of the Classroom (also known as “Academic Language”)

But “social language” does not go very far in the classroom. A student who is fluent in ordinary conversation can be much more clumsy with the language of instruction. Why?

It’s because instruction (for instance, in math, literature, science, and history) uses language in ways that are different from how people talk with one another in everyday life in their communities. On the street, we use slang.  We don’t speak in complete sentences. We don’t care so much for precision. We don’t read or write very much in these situations. We don’t use specialized vocabulary.

In formal instruction, by contrast, students are supposed to learn specialized vocabularies, to read books, and to write papers. Over time, schooling, and the language used in schools, aims to help students become expert at reading and even writing in several fields. In other words, even mono-lingual English-speaking students need a lot of practice in dealing with words, sentences, paragraphs, lectures, chapters, articles and essays, textbooks, and novels. In fact, official standards (such as the Common Core Standards) put all of those aims, ideas, and vocabularies clearly on record. That’s what academic language looks like.

For ELLs, the teaching of English must explicitly include practice in learning academic language on top of practice in learning social language. It’s just part of learning the new language. But don’t forget: many American students need something very similar. In a sense, formal education in academics—for however long it lasts—is a continuing effort to become better and better with the language. After all, scholarship happens with language and not much else. Where might one start on this long path to learn “academic language”? One logical starting point is vocabulary. Another is the sentence.

Sentence Frames

The sentence is a key structure in academic language. In the language of the street, we often do not use complete sentences. It’s faster not to! But in school, and in the sorts of writing that schools deal with and encourage, complete sentences are the rule.

Every language has different conventions for forming sentences. Some of these conventions are very, very different from those used in English. So it makes sense to give ELLs patterns for complete sentences, which can easily include practice with new vocabulary (for instance, for a math or reading lesson). Perhaps with the help of your teacher or instructional team, you can make sentence frames to use with ELLs involved in almost any lesson.

sentence frame is simply a well-made sentence with a word or two left out. The idea is to improvise with the missing words. The students supply the words. For instance:

  • In this lesson, we are learning about ____________.
  • The most difficult idea for me in this lesson is ____________.

If the lessons are about fractions, one might develop sentence frames like this:

  • The fraction 4/2 also represents one of the basic operations: ________.
    for instance: Fractions use one of the basic operations: division.
  • The ____ number in a ____________ is the ___________.
    for instance: The bottom number in a fraction is the denominator.
    The top number in a fraction is the numerator.
  • In ______________ fractions the ______________ is larger than the ____________.
    for instance:
    In proper fractions the denominator is larger than the numerator.
    In improper fractions the numerator is larger than the denominator.


  1. Look at the plan for a lesson that was recently taught or that is coming up soon. If you are not currently working in a classroom, find a lesson plan on-line to look at.
  2. Identify three to five key ideas presented in the lesson, and be sure you understand them.
  3. Write out the most important vocabulary (three to five words) related to each idea.
  4. Develop two sentence frames for the vocabulary associated with each key idea.
  5. If you are working on this activity in a group, meet to compare your sentence frames.


  • Perhaps link several sentence frames together to create a short paragraph. Try to figure out how to use a sentence frame or several sentence frames linked together to start a conversation among two or more students about a topic they are studying.
  • Sentence frames can be more general (e.g., to reinforce vocabulary used across different school subjects) or more specific (e.g., to teach vocabulary in particular school subjects). Develop some sentence frame to reinforce the meaning of specialized vocabulary relating to math, English/language arts, social studies, and science.
  • Sentences come in many different formats. Try to create some sentence frames for statements, questions, and exclamations.