Every Teacher is a Language Teacher



Jeff ZwiersJeff Zwiers is a senior researcher at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. He consults internationally on language and literacy instruction, curriculum development, and teacher education program development. He is the author of Building Academic Language.Please visit him at: www.jeffzwiers.org

Every Teacher is a Language Teacher

Different disciplines have different ways of viewing the world, gathering information, interpreting data, and organizing knowledge. Each discipline uses variations (subregisters) of academic language that branch off to accomplish these purposes. This branching begins as students start to learn, for example, that thinking and talking in science differ from thinking and talking in history. These overlapping subregisters then branch off further and become more specialized as they form the highly technical languages of higher education and the professional world. If you have ever heard computer engineers chatting about their work or read a medical research report, you know how specialized such languages can become.

 As experts in their content areas, teachers often have “expert blind spots” (Nathan & Petrosino, 2003) that keep them from realizing that much of their complex and abstract knowledge has become concrete and basic to them. This is like the fish trying to describe water. Their lack of awareness of academic language leads them to skip over information that novices need, because they have lost the sense of being a learner in the early stages of the discipline. Shulman (1987) argues that teachers must develop pedagogical content knowledge. This means knowing how novices think and struggle as they are learning the content. Many students, for example, think about an algebra problem much differently than a math teacher does. Teachers must be able to keenly observe, listen, and predict where glitches in learning might occur, so that they can then use appropriate methods to move students to higher levels of content and discipline-specific language.

 Unfortunately, too many schools see language development as the responsibility of the language arts or English teacher. Yet many students don’t have as many language-related problems in their English classes as they do in their science, math, and history courses (Zwiers, 2005). Fortunately, the Common Core anchor literacy standards describe reading and writing standards for students in history, social studies, science, and technical subjects. And a welcome development is having content literacy standards extra focused and aligned with English language arts (ELA) standards. Consequently, language and literacy must be better emphasized in content classes. Science, math, and history teachers, for example, must make extra efforts to be strategic at teaching the many tools and skills of the language that describe the increasingly complex ways of organizing and thinking about knowledge.

The following sections look at academic language in four content-area disciplines: language arts, history, science, and math.


 Language arts classes serve to cultivate the skills of reading, writing, speaking, grammar, and interpreting literature, mostly in the mainstream versions of a language. Early grades (K–3) tend to emphasize getting the main points of the story and understanding literal levels; later grades emphasize more thematic and figurative understandings, which are often displayed through written responses to literature. The Common Core standards for language arts do not specify particular works of literature to cover each year, but the standards do require many rigorous reading, writing, and literary analysis skills.


 The language of history is used primarily to describe the past, its interpretations, and its relevance to the present and future. Historical thinking has different layers. The surface layer is composed of facts and events of the story. The second layer then zooms in on particular events or words of the story, and the deepest layer uses abstract ideas to build a thesis and support it with evidence and explanations (Coffin, 1997). Despite the common images of time lines on the walls, historical analysis is not a linear process. Wineberg (2001) points out that thinking historically means standing back from first impressions, cultivating questions, and letting them point us in new directions of interpretation. Being a historian means suspending judgment about the past, realizing our present-centered biases, and challenging our beliefs about the past in order to learn from it. Expressing our suspensions of judgment, our biases, and our beliefs about the past both requires and develops large amounts of academic language.


 Whereas history and language arts registers tend to describe social experiences, science language tends to be more technical, describing what happens in the natural and physical worlds (Martin, 1991). Scientific literacy, moreover, involves more than just text. It requires understanding multimedia genres and making meanings “by integrating the semiotic resources of language, mathematics, and a variety of visual-graphical presentations” (Lemke, 2002, p. 21). Thus, teachers of science must keep in mind that scientific language and literacy can differ significantly from the language and literacy that students use in other classes. The language of science, for example, tends to: Describe relationships of taxonomy, comparison, cause and effect, hypothesis, and interpretation. Unlike language arts and history, science texts have few stories or narratives. The text structure is dense and hierarchical (topic, subtopics, details).


 “Can I count math as a foreign language for my college entrance requirements?” a high school student once asked me. Math’s language (and thinking) can be even more foreign than that of other content areas. It is very abstract, particularly in upper grades. Although some visuals and objects can be used, much of math happens in the brain. The development of mathematical language and literacy can be more challenging than in other subjects for several reasons:

There is less overlap with concepts, ideas, and terms found in other subjects. Math has many distinct vocabulary terms used only in math. Students must learn to decipher and use a wide range of symbols. There is often a range of symbols, numbers, letters, illustrations, and words mixed together in problems. The Common Core math standards emphasize the need to know why something works in math, not just how. The CCSS Standards for Mathematical Practice, for example, focus on teaching students to “make sense of quantities and their relationships,” “justify their conclusions,” “reason inductively about data,” “give carefully formulated explanations to each other,” and “examine claims and make explicit use of definitions” (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, 2010).Knowing and explaining why requires students to use sophisticated language and terminology.


  1. Coffin, C. (1997). Constructing and giving value to the past: An investigation into secondary school history. In F. Christie & J. Martin (Eds.), Genre and institutions: Social processes in the workplace and school (pp. 196–230). London, UK: Cassell.
  2. Nathan, M. J., & Petrosino, A. J. (2003). Expert blind spot among preservice teachers. American Educational Research Journal, 40(4), 905–928.
  3. Shulman, L. S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), 1–22.
  4. Wineberg, S. (2001). Historical thinking and other unnatural acts: Charting the future of teaching the past. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
  5. Zwiers, J. (2005). Developing academic language in middle school English learners: Practices and perspectives in mainstream classrooms. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of San Francisco.
  6. Khisty, L. L. (1993). A naturalistic look at language factors in mathematics teaching in bilingual classrooms. Proceedings of the third National Research Symposium on Limited English Proficient Student Issues: Focus on Middle and High School Issues. Washington, DC: US Department of Education, Office of Bilingual and Minority Language Affairs. Available: http://www.ncela.gwu.edu/pubs/symposia/third/khisty.htm
  7. Lemke, J. (2002).Multimedia semiotics: Genres for science education and scientific literacy. In M. J. Schleppegrell&M.Colombi (Eds.), Developing advanced literacy in first and second languages: Meaning with power (pp. 21–44). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  8. Martin, J. (1991). Nominalization in science and humanities: Distilling knowledge and scaffolding text. In E. Ventola (Ed.), Functional and systemic linguistics (pp. 307–337). Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter.
  9. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices. (2010). Common Core State Standards. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers.


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