Terms, Words, Idioms, and Phrases: What ELL Teachers Need to Know for Academic Content Learning

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Academic content often has various meanings across subjects, which can be confusing for ELLs.

English Language Learning for Academic Content Can Be Challenging

At a seminar I attended recently, the presenter asked for an audience member to look up the word “leverage” to clarify a point. A helpful gentleman volunteered and read through four distinct definitions of “leverage” before finally reaching the one that accurately matched the presenter’s meaning.

When confronted with a word that has multiple uses, “looking it up” can add to the confusion.

In addition to multiple definitions for everyday vocabulary, there are subject-specific definitions which are especially challenging for ELLs in content-area classes, like most science and social studies classes.

In the article “Academic Language and ELLs: What Teachers Need to Know” Lydia Breiseth offers these examples of words whose meanings change by subject:

Chart Excerpt from “Academic Language and ELLs: What Teachers Need to Know”

WordMeaning/Use
Table
  1. Lunch table (Social language)
  2. Periodic Table of Elements (Science)
  3. Table of Contents (ELA)
  4. Multiplication tables (Math)
  5. To table (delay) the discussion (Social Studies)
Plot
  1. Plot of a story (ELA)
  2. Plot of land (Geography)
  3. Plot ordered pairs on a graph (Math)
  4. To plot a government coup (History)
Branch
  1. Branch of government (Social Studies)
  2. Branch of a river (Geography)
  3. To branch out (Idiom)
Foot
  1. Your foot (Health)
  2. One foot in length (Math)
  3. Foot in your mouth (Idiom)
  4. Foot of the mountain (Geography)
  5. To foot the bill (Idiom)
It’s so important for ELLS to develop content-area academic vocabulary.

For students already struggling with literacy and content-area knowledge, having to read through multiple definitions to select the right one is painful and distracts from the meaning of the text. Far more helpful is providing the precise definition for a specific context.

Terms, Words, Idioms, and Phrases

And it’s not just words!

Later in the same article, Breiseth brings up Debbie Zacarian and Judie Haynes, who coined the term TWIPs (Terms, Words, Idioms, and Phrases) in their book Teaching English Language Learners Across the Content Areas, for important language structures. The article provides these examples that further illustrate how important content specific definitions are:

TermsThe boiling point of water is 212° F.
WordsThe Declaration is now on display in Washington, DC.
IdiomsShe came to town once in a blue moon.
PhrasesBased on the data, we agree with the scientists’ conclusion.
Terms, words, idioms, phrases: which is which, and how do ELL’s know this?

How Do You Make it Easier to ELL to Learn Academic Language?

Analyzing texts, identifying vocabulary pitfalls, and developing instructional materials to address those challenges are the time consuming tasks that discourage you from using fresh, authentic materials in their classes.

But, when teaching new academic language, it’s important to do all of those things. Teachers should identify words that may be new to students, and then use multiple ways of teaching that word to help students understand the meaning. It’s also helpful to use academic language across different contexts, and address those instances. When you’re discussing a “plot” in English, and a “plot” in math, don’t be afraid to note the different ways this same word is used.

At LessonWriter, we created our application to automatically analyze text, identify potential vocabulary issues, and develop instruction materials for any reading you choose, so you can teach what suits your students best and still deliver high quality literacy support.

And with LessonWriter’s Differentiated Instruction options, definitions, jargon and slang can be taught as needed to some students and not to others where they may be inappropriate or distracting. Explicit instruction in slang, for example, is often helpful to second language learners but not to native speakers.

Ready to take your English language learners to the next step by teaching them academic language? Sign up for LessonWriter today to get started customizing language learning support for your students today.

3 Haynes, J. & Zacarian, D. (2010). Teaching English Language Learners Across the Content Areas. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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