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Academic Language-Reading Relationships

What specific academic language skills support skilled reading? And, how do these skills develop over time?


We have found in subsequent studies that the skills captured by the CALS-I (Core Academic Language Skills-Instrument) uniquely predict reading comprehension over and above the contributions made by vocabulary and basic decoding skills for both English Learners (EL) and their English-proficient (EP) peers in grades 4-8. While a common tendency in classrooms and in interventions targeting struggling readers has been to primarily focus on developing students’ lexicon (vocabulary) skills, our findings provide empirical support for pedagogical approaches that teach a wider array of language skills to support upper-elementary grade readers. This work has been published in Applied Psycholinguistics and Reading Research Quarterly and is currently under review at other peer-refereed journals.


As part of this research, my examination of the longitudinal development of these academic language skills that support reading is ongoing. Findings from an analysis of students’ academic language growth trajectories from grade 6 through 8. Results suggest a strong relationship between rates of growth in academic language skills and reading comprehension, further underscoring the potential relevance of academic language skills development to skilled reading for upper-elementary and middle grade students.


For what populations is academic language instruction particularly important?


As a former middle grade reading specialist and English/ language arts teacher, moving towards practical solutions for hard-working educators and the field more generally motivates much of my work. Driven to understand the instructional relevance of academic language instruction for academically vulnerable populations, my independent research within this larger project has examined the relationship between 4th, 5th, and 6th grade ELs’ and EP students’ socio-economic status and reading comprehension. For learners in these upper elementary and early middle school years, the findings suggest that the relationship between socioeconomic status and reading comprehension can be fully mediated by their academic language skills, vocabulary, and word reading skills (Phillips Galloway, in preparation). Building off of and advancing work with young children that highlights that children from low-SES homes often have less exposure to texts and to school-like language, these findings clearly demonstrate an ‘opportunity gap’ in academic language exposure for the participating students. In turn, this line of research further establishes the importance of explicitly building academic language skills in addition to vocabulary through instruction—as a matter of practice and of equity. 


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