Common misconception #2: Once learners can speak the language of schooling, they no longer require additional language support

Linguistically sensitive teachers know that “non-native” plurilingual learners may acquire competences in spoken school language more easily than they do in written school language, especially when it comes to academic contexts. Linguistically sensitive teachers support both oral and written academic language competences.

Cognitive academic language proficiency

Plurilingual learners need to be able to use the language of schooling not just for social and informal purposes but also to succeed academically, just like any other learner. This requires a level of competence in what has been called cognitive academic language proficiency (1). Academic language, as opposed to conversational language, is more formal and subject-specific, needed for discussing ideas in cognitively challenging contexts.

Written language vs. spoken language

Although the term academic language applies to both oral and written texts, it is more typical for written language. Spoken language, for example, is often highly contextualized and makes use of non-verbal clues to support meaning as well as incomplete and less precisely structured formulations. Written language, on the other hand, is more distant from the potential audience and needs to be carefully structured and precise. While oral communication in the classroom is extremely important, it is also essential that all students are provided with adequate support on how to formulate the newly acquired knowledge in increasingly articulated, coherent and abstract forms and eventually in subject-specific (written) genres (2).

Studies indicate that learners acquire basic communication skills within about 2 years of exposure to the language of schooling, but a period of 5-7 years is required for learners to approach grade norms in academic aspects of the language of schooling (3). Many teachers, unaware of this information, tacitly assume that because learners can engage in informal classroom talk, they will also be able to understand complex academic texts. Consequently, teachers withdraw the support in the language of schooling too early.
Students who do not receive additional language support may have difficulty in both accessing key academic content instruction and expressing their (lack of) comprehension. They may struggle to keep pace with their peers. Such students often represent the lowest performing group, with the highest drop-out and grade retention rates (4).

Valuing plurilingual academic language competence

Linguistically sensitive teacher remembers to encourage and provide opportunities for the plurilingual learners to compare and discuss how academic content is expressed in all the learner’s languages. Plurilingual competences brought in by all learners can be regarded as an asset for the whole classroom.

To enable non-native learners to fully develop all aspects of the language of schooling, linguistically sensitive teachers acknowledge the difference between academic and conversational language proficiency and as such provide support both in speaking and writing.

The misconception series is written by Listiac Researcher Tjaša Dražnik (University of Ljubljana).


(1) Cummins, J. (2008). BICS and CALP: Empirical and Theoretical Status of the Distinction. In Encyclopedia of Language and Education (pp. 487–499). Springer US. 
(2) Beacco J.C., Fleming M., Goullier F., Thürmann E., Vollmer H. (2016). A handbook for curriculum development and teacher training. The Language Dimension in All Subjects, Council of Europe.
(3) See reference 1
(4) Reports, F., Thomas, W., & Collier, V. (2002). Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence: A National Study of School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students’ Long-Term Academic Achievement.
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