Academic English and Achievement

Comparative Study of Teachers’ Academic English Use and Students’ Academic Achievement Rates

The Three Rivers Education Foundation is seeking funding to research the relationship between teachers’ modeling and reinforcement of academic English and students’ academic achievement.


New Mexico has many students classified as English Language Learners (ELLs) who use English as their primary language. They were born into households that speak predominately English, they communicate with their peer using English, they hear and use English in their communities, and yet they are considered ELLs. They are, for all practical purposes, native English speakers.

Achievement scores for these students are abysmal. They perform poorly on standardized achievement tests, even though they may be successful in the classroom environment, meaning they pass their classes, advance to the next grade, and graduate from high school. One possible explanation is that the achievement requirements of the classroom are lower than the requirements for demonstrating proficiency on standardized tests. This issue has been repeatedly explored in education research.

Another possible explanation is that students don’t have the language skills necessary to understand the language on achievement tests or the ability to communicate successfully in an academic context. If this is the case, these ELL students are more appropriately classified as Academic English Learners (AELs), an education classification that does not yet exist because a general responsibility for educators  is to help students develop academic English skills. In other words, helping students achieve academic English proficiency is not the function of specialists (as with special education teachers and reading intervention specialists) but is the function of all teachers as a part of their basic responsibilities.

Academic English is formal, standard English. Academic English is characterized by

  • adherence to grammar rules
  • use of specific and subject-related terminology
  • absence of slang

Academic English is the language used in text books, in other instructional resources, and on assessments for academic proficiency.

We are making the assumption that students who do not understand academic English cannot fully access information in instructional materials (e.g., text books) and cannot fully understand the content of proficiency tests. The result is that students do not learn what they are expected to know and are unable to demonstrate what they have learned. In brief, they don’t speak the language of the instructional materials, and they don’t speak the language they encounter on standardized assessments.

As an analogy, consider a 14-year-old student who has just immigrated to the U.S. from China and whose primary language is Mandarin. Since arriving in the U.S., the student has been learning English but still struggles to communicate in English, the target language. At school, the student receives text books in English and is expected to take achievement tests written in English. Although this student may have some English speaking skills, those skills are insufficient to understand much of content in the text book and assessments. In this case, the student cannot be expected to perform well in school because the student does not have sufficient skills in the target language. This is identical to the challenges students face when they do not speak and do not understand formal, academic English.

The target language for AELs is academic English. As with any language, the ability to speak academic English depends on three things:

  • Exposure to the target language (i.e., hearing and seeing examples),
  • Direct instruction in the target language, and
  • Reinforcement of the target language (i.e., correction of incorrect use, benefits for correct use).

Through this study, therefore, we will examine the degree to which students are exposed to, receive instruction in, and are held accountable for the use of academic English in education environments, and we seek to understand the how the degree of exposure, instruction, and reinforcement corresponds to students’ academic proficiency as measured by standardized proficiency assessments.

Study Methodology Summary

  1. Determine indicators of academic English (e.g., grammatically correct and complete sentences, specific subject-related terminology, absence of slang).
  2. Identify 20 education pipelines, no more than 2 per school district: 10 with high rates of academic failure among primary-English speaking students and 10 with high rates of academic success among primary-English speaking students.
  3. Conduct 2 1-hour audio recordings per teacher per grade level and transcribe the recordings.
  4. Analyze the transcripts for examples of non-academic English by teachers and by students. Determine the percentage of total teacher speech and total student speech representing non-academic English.
  5. Analyze the transcripts for examples of correction by the teacher when students use non-academic English. Determine the percentage of non-corrected examples of students’ non-academic English use.
  6. Collect a sample of teacher-graded student writing artifacts.
  7. Analyze the writing artifacts for the use of non-academic English and the rate of teacher correction.
  8. Compare rates of student and teacher academic English use between high and low performing education pipelines.
  9. Compare rates of teachers’ correction of students’ non-academic English use between high and low performing education pipelines
  10. Compare rates of non-academic English use on written artifacts between high and low performing education pipelines.
  11. Compare rates of teachers’ correction of non-academic English use on written artifacts between high and low performing education pipelines.


  • Education pipeline: A high school plus a feeder middle and elementary school.
  • Primary English-speaking student: A student who uses English to communicate with parents and in social settings with peers.
  • Low rates of academic achievement: Less than 40% of students are demonstrating grade level proficiency in English, Mathematics, and Science on standardized assessments.
  • High rates of academic achievement: More than 60% of students are demonstrating grade level proficiency in English, Mathematics, and Science on standardized assessments.


Hypothesis 1: Teachers in education pipelines with low performing students use non-academic English for a higher percentage of total speech than the teachers in education pipelines of high performing students.   

Hypothesis 2: Teachers in education pipelines with low performing students are less likely to correct students’ non-academic English than the teachers in education pipelines with high performing students. 

Hypothesis 3: Low achieving students have a lower rate of spoken and written academic English use than higher achieving students. 


This methodology purposely does not take into account students’ socio-academic status. Although more affluent students tend to meet grade-level expectations at a higher rate than poor students, English usage is a learned skill and is not caused by financial resources. This study, therefore, looks at the process by which students learn academic English skills, particularly the influence of the classroom experience on the development of those skills.


The budget for this study will include the following components.

  • Lead researcher
  • Secondary researcher
  • Statistician
  • Transcription services
  • Publications and promotions
  • Travel to school sites
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