Skip to main content Accessibility help

Core academic language skills: An expanded operational construct and a novel instrument to chart school-relevant language proficiency in preadolescent and adolescent learners



Beyond academic vocabulary, the constellation of skills that comprise academic language proficiency has remained imprecisely defined. This study proposes an expanded operationalization of this construct referred to as core academic language skills (CALS). CALS refers to the knowledge and deployment of a repertoire of language forms and functions that co-occur with school learning tasks across disciplines. Using an innovative instrument, we explored CALS in a cross-sectional sample of 235 students in Grades 4–8. The results revealed between- and within-grade variability in CALS. Psychometric analyses yielded strong reliability and supported the presence of a single CALS factor, which was found to be predictive of reading comprehension. Our findings suggest that the CALS construct and instrument appear promising for exploring students’ school-relevant language skills.


Corresponding author

ADDRESS FOR CORRESPONDENCE Paola Uccelli, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Larson 320, Appian Way, Cambridge, MA 02138. E-mail:


Hide All
Abedi, J., & Herman, J. (2010). Assessing English language learners’ opportunity to learn mathematics: Issues and limitations. Teachers College Record, 112, 723746.
Andersen, E. S. (1996). A cross-cultural study of children's register knowledge. In Slobin, D. I., Gerhardt, J., Kyratzis, A., & Guo, J. (Eds.), Social interaction, social context, and language: Essays in honor of Susan Ervin-Tripp (pp. 125142). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
August, D., & Hakuta, K. (Eds.) (1997). Improving schooling for language-minority children: A research agenda. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
August, D., & Shanahan, T. (2006). Developing literacy in second language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on language minority and youth. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Bailey, A. L. (2007). The language demands of school: Putting academic English to the test. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Bailey, F., Burkett, B., & Freeman, D. (2008). The mediating role of language in teaching and learning: A classroom perspective. In Spolsky, B. & Hult, F. (Eds.), The handbook of educational linguistics (pp. 606625). Oxford: Blackwell.
Benelli, B., Belacchi, C., Gini, G., & Lucangeli, D. (2006). “To define means to say what you know about things”: The development of definitional skills as metalinguistic acquisition. Journal of Child Language, 33, 7197.
Berman, R. A. (2004). Language development across childhood and adolescence (Vol. 3). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Berman, R. A., & Nir-Sagiv, B. (2007). Comparing narrative and expository text construction across adolescence: A developmental paradox. Discourse Processes, 43, 79120.
Berman, R. A., & Ravid, D. (2009). Becoming a literate language user: Oral and written text construction across adolescence. In Olson, D. R. & Torrance, N. (Eds.), Cambridge handbook of literacy (pp. 92111). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Berman, R. A., & Verhoeven, L. (2002). Cross-linguistic perspectives on the development of text-production abilities: Speech and writing. Written Language and Literacy, 5, 144.
Biancarosa, G., & Snow, C. E. (2004). Reading Next—A vision for action and research in middle and high school literacy: A report from Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.
Biber, D. (1995). Dimensions of register variation: A cross-linguistic comparison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Biber, D., Conrad, S., & Reppen, R. (1998). Corpus linguistics: Investigating language structure and use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Biber, D., & Reppen, R. (2002). What does frequency have to do with grammar teaching? Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 199208.
Biemiller, A. (2010). Words worth teaching: Closing the vocabulary gap. Columbus, OH: SRA/McGraw–Hill.
Biemiller, A., & Slonim, N. (2001). Estimating root word vocabulary growth in normative and advantaged populations: Evidence for a common sequence of vocabulary acquisition. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 498520.
Bishop, D. V. (2003). Test for Reception of Grammar (version 2). London: Psychological Corporation.
Blum‐Kulka, S. (2008). Language, communication and literacy: Major steps in the development of literate discourse. In Klein, P. & Yablon, Y. (Eds.), From research to practice in early education (pp. 117154). Jerusalem: Israeli Academy of Science.
Bowers, E., & Vasilyeva, M. (2011). The relation between teacher input and lexical growth of preschoolers. Applied Psycholinguistics, 32, 221241.
Butler, F. A., Bailey, A. L., Stevens, R., Huang, B., & Lord, C. (2004). Academic English in 5th-grade mathematics, science, and social studies textbooks (CSE report 642). Los Angeles: University of California, National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing.
Cain, K. (2007). Syntactic awareness and reading ability: Is there any evidence for a special relationship? Applied Psycholinguistics, 28, 679694.
Cain, K., & Oakhill, J. V. (2006). Profiles of children with specific reading comprehension difficulties. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 683696.
Cain, K., Oakhill, J. V., & Bryant, P. E. (2000). Investigating the causes of reading comprehension failure: The comprehension-age match design. Reading and Writing, 12, 3140.
Carlisle, J. F. (2000). Awareness of the structure and meaning of morphologically complex words: Impact on reading. Reading and Writing, 12, 169190.
Chafe, W., & Danielewicz, J. (1987). Properties of spoken and written language. In Horowitz, R. and Samuels, S. J. (Eds.), Comprehending oral and written language (pp. 83113). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Chamot, A. U., & O'Malley, J. M. (1994). The CALLA handbook: Implementing the cognitive academic language learning approach. Reading, MA: Addison–Wesley.
Christie, F., & Derewianka, B. (2008). School discourse: Learning to write across the years of schooling. London: Continuum.
Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010). English language arts standards. Retrieved from
Cortes, V. (2004). Lexical bundles in published and student disciplinary writing: Examples from history and biology. English for Specific Purposes, 23, 397423.
Cortes, V. (2006). Teaching lexical bundles in the disciplines: An example from a writing intensive history class. Linguistics and Education, 17, 391406.
Crosson, A., Lesaux, N., & Martiniello, M. (2008). Factors that influence comprehension of connectives among language minority children from Spanish-speaking backgrounds. Applied Psycholinguistics, 29, 603624.
Crowhurst, M. (1990). Teaching and learning the writing of persuasive/argumentative discourse.Canadian Journal of Education, 15, 348359.
Cummins, J. (1981). Bilingualism and minority-language children. Toronto: OISE Press.
Cummins, J. (2000). Language, power, and pedagogy: Bilingual children in the crossfire. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Cummins, J. (2001). Negotiating identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: California Association for Bilingual Education.
Dale, E., & O'Rourke, J. (1981). The living word vocabulary. Chicago: World Book–Childcraft International.
Derewianka, B. M. (2003). Grammatical metaphor in the transition to adolescence. In Simon-Vandenbergen, A., Taverniers, M., & Ravelli, L. (Eds.), Grammatical metaphor: Views from systemic functional linguistics (pp. 185220). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Deshler, D. D., Palincsar, A. S., Biancarosa, G., & Nair, M. (2007). Informed choices for struggling adolescent readers: A research-based guide to instructional programs and practice. New York: International Reading Association.
Dickinson, D. K., & Tabors, P. O. (2001). Beginning literacy with language: Young children learning at home and school. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
Fang, Z. (2012). Approaches to developing content area literacies: A synthesis and a critique. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 56, 111116.
Ferguson, C. (1994). Dialect, register, and genre: Working assumptions about conventionalism. In Biber, D. & Finegan, E. (Eds.), Sociolinguistic perspectives on register (pp. 1530). New York: Oxford University Press.
Flowerdew, L. (2003). A combined corpus and systemic–functional analysis of the problem–solution pattern in a student and professional corpus of technical writing. TESOL Quarterly, 37, 489511.
Gibbons, P. (1998). Classroom talk and the learning of new registers in a second language. Language and Education, 12, 99118.
Givón, T. (1992). The grammar of referential coherence as mental processing instructions. Linguistics, 30, 555.
Graves, M. F. (2007). Vocabulary instruction in the middle grades. Voices from the Middle, 15, 1319.
Halliday, M. A. K. (1980). Three aspects of children's language development: Learning language, learning through language, learning about language. In Halliday, M. A. K. (Ed.), The language of early childhood (pp. 308326). New York: Continuum.
Halliday, M. A. K. (2004). The language of science—Collected Works of M.A.K. Halliday (Vol. 5). New York: Continuum.
Halliday, M. A. K., & Hasan, R. (1976). Cohesion in English. London: Longman.
Halliday, M. A. K., & Martin, J. R. (1993). Writing science: Literacy and discursive power. London: Falmer Press.
Hart, B., & Risley, R. T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. New York: McGraw–Hill.
Heath, S. B. (2012). Words at work and play: Three decades in family and community life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hunston, S., & Francis, G. (2000). Pattern grammar: A corpus-driven approach to the lexical grammar of English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Hyland, K. (2004). Disciplinary discourses: Social interactions in academic writing. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Hyland, K. (2005). Metadiscourse. London: Continuum.
Hyland, K. (2009). Academic discourse. London: Continuum
Hyöna, J., & Lorch, R. F. (2004). Effects of topic headings on text processing: Evidence from adult readers’ eye fixation patterns. Learning and Instruction, 14, 131152.
Kieffer, M. J. (2009). The development of morphological awareness and vocabulary knowledge in adolescent language minority learners and their classmates. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Kieffer, M. J., & Lesaux, N. K. (2007). Breaking words down to build meaning: Vocabulary, morphology, and reading comprehension in the urban classroom. Reading Teacher, 61, 134144.
Kieffer, M. J., & Lesaux, N. K. (2008). The role of derivational morphological awareness in the reading comprehension of Spanish-speaking English language learners. Reading and Writing, 21, 783804.
Kieffer, M. J., & Lesaux, N. K. (2010). Morphing into adolescents: Active word learning for English language learners and their classmates in middle school. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54, 4756.
Kintsch, W. (2004). The construction–integration model of text comprehension and its implications for instruction. In Ruddell, R. & Unrau, N. (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (5th ed., pp. 12701328). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Krashen, S. (2013). Academic gibberish. RELC Journal: A Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 43, 283285.
Kurland, B. F., & Snow, C. E. (1997). Longitudinal measurement of growth in definitional skill. Journal of Child Language, 24, 603625.
Layton, A., Robinson, J., & Lawson, M. (1998). The relationship between syntactic awareness and reading performance. Journal of Research in Reading, 21, 523.
Lesaux, N. K., Crosson, A., Kieffer, M. J., & Pierce, M. (2010). Uneven profiles: Language minority learners’ word reading, vocabulary, and reading comprehension skills. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 31, 475483.
Lesaux, N. K., Kieffer, M. J., Faller, S. E., & Kelley, J. G. (2010). The effectiveness and ease of implementation of an academic vocabulary intervention for sixth graders in urban middle schools. Reading Research Quarterly, 45, 196228.
Mancilla-Martinez, J., & Lesaux, N. K. (2010). Predictors of reading comprehension for struggling readers: The case of Spanish-speaking language minority learners. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 701711.
Marinellie, S. A. (2001). What does “apple” mean? Learning to define words. Young Exceptional Children, 4, 211.
Martiniello, M. (2008). Language and the performance of English language learners in math word problems. Harvard Educational Review, 78, 333368.
Mather, N., Hammill, D. D., Allen, E. A., & Roberts, R. (2004). Test of Silent Word Reading Fluency (TOSWRF). Austin, TX: Pro Education.
Meyer, B. J. F., & Poon, L. W. (2001). Effects of structure training and signaling on recall of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 141159.
Meyer, B. J. F., & Rice, G. E. (1982). The interaction of reader strategies and the organization of text. Text: Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Discourse, 2, 155192.
Mokhtari, K., & Thompson, H. B. (2006). How problems of reading fluency and comprehension are related to difficulties in syntactic awareness skills among fifth graders. Reading Research and Instruction, 46, 7394.
Nagy, W., Berninger, V. W., & Abbott, R. D. (2006). Contributions of morphology beyond phonology to literacy outcomes of upper elementary and middle-school students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 134.
Nagy, W. M., & Townsend, D. (2012). Words as tools: “Learning academic vocabulary” as language acquisition. Reading Research Quarterly, 47, 91108.
Nation, K., & Snowling, M. J. (2000). Factors influencing syntactic awareness skills in normal readers and poor comprehenders. Applied Psycholinguistics, 21, 229241.
National Research Council. (2010). Language diversity, school learning, and closing achievement gaps: A workshop summary. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Retrieved from
Ninio, A., & Snow, C. E. (1996). Pragmatic development. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Nippold, M. A. (2007). Later language development: School-aged children, adolescents, and young adults (3rd ed.). Dallas, TX: Pro-Ed.
Nippold, M. A., Hegel, S., Sohlberg, M., & Schwarz, L. (1999). Defining abstract entities: Development in pre-adolescent, adolescent, and young adults. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 42, 473481.
Oakhill, J., & Cain, K. (2000) Children's difficulties in text comprehension: Assessing causal issues. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 5, 5159.
Ochs, E. (1993). Constructing social identity: A language socialization perspective. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 26, 287306.
O'Reilly, T., & McNamara, D. S. (2007). The impact of science knowledge, reading skill, and reading strategy knowledge on more traditional “high-stakes” measures of high school students’ science achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 44, 161196.
Perfetti, C. A., Landi, N., & Oakhill, J. (2005). The acquisition of reading comprehension skills. In Snowling, M. J. & Hulme, C. (Eds.), The science of reading: A handbook (pp. 227247). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Proctor, P., Dalton, B., Uccelli, B. G., Mo, E., Snow, C. E., & Neugebauer, S. (2011). Improving comprehension online: Effects of deep vocabulary instruction with bilingual and monolingual fifth graders. Reading and Writing, 24, 517544.
Proctor, P., Uccelli, P., Dalton, B., & Snow, C. E. (2009). Understanding depth of vocabulary and improving comprehension online with bilingual and monolingual children. Reading and Writing, 25, 311333.
RAND Reading Study Group. (2002). Toward an R&D program in reading comprehension. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.
Ravid, D., & Tolchinsky, L. (2002). Developing linguistic literacy: A comprehensive model. Journal of Child Language, 29, 419448.
Rex, L. A., Thomas, E. E., & Engel, S. (2010). Applying Toulmin: Teaching logical reasoning and argumentative writing. English Journal, 99, 5662.
Reznitskaya, A., Anderson, R., & Kuo, L. (2007). Teaching and learning argumentation. Elementary School Journal, 107, 449472.
Sánchez, E., & García, J. R. (2009). The relation of knowledge of textual integration devices to expository text comprehension under different assessment conditions. Reading and Writing, 22, 10811108.
Scarcella, R. (2003). Academic English: A conceptual framework. Davis, CA: University of California, Linguistic Minority Research Institute.
Schleppegrell, M. J. (2001). Linguistic features of the language of schooling. Linguistics and Education, 12, 431459.
Schleppegrell, M. J. (2004). The language of schooling: A functional linguistics perspective. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Schleppegrell, M. J. (2012). Academic language in teaching and learning introduction to special issue. Elementary School Journal, 112, 409418.
Schleppegrell, M. J., Achugar, M., & Oteíza, T. (2004). The grammar of history: Enhancing content-based instruction through a functional focus on language. TESOL Quarterly, 38, 6793.
Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content- area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78, 4059.
Simpson-Vlach, R., & Ellis, N. C. (2010). An academic formulas list: New methods in phraseology research. Applied Linguistics, 31, 487512.
Snow, C. E., & Uccelli, P. (2009). The challenge of academic language. In Olson, D. R. & Torrance, N. (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of literacy (pp. 112133). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Stahl, S. A., & Nagy, W. E. (2006). Teaching word meanings. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Stanford University, Graduate School of Education. (n.d.). Understanding language: Language, literacy and learning in the content areas. Retrieved November 20, 2013, from
Stein, N. L., & Glenn, C. G. (1978). An analysis of story comprehension in elementary school children. In Freedle, R. (Ed.), Discourse processing: Multidisciplinary perspectives (pp. 53120). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Swales, J. M. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Taylor, N. A., Greenberg, D., Laures-Gore, J., & Wise, J. C. (2011). Exploring the syntactic skills of struggling adult readers. Reading and Writing, 25, 13851402.
Toulmin, S. (1958). The uses of argument. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Uccelli, P., & Barr, C. D. (2011). Psychometric report of the academic language evaluation. Unpublished manuscript.
Uccelli, P., Dobbs, C., & Scott, J. (2013). Mastering academic language: Organization and stance in the persuasive writing of high school students. Written Communication, 30, 3662.
Uccelli, P., Rosenthal, F., & Barr, C. D. (2011). Promising connections: Play, multimodality, and more than one language in learning connectives at school. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA.
Valdés, G. (2004). Between support and marginalization: The development of academic language in linguistic minority children. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 7, 102132.
van Lier, L., & Walqui, A. (2012, January). Language and the common core state standards. Paper presented at the Understanding Language Conference, Stanford, CA. Retrieved from
Wong-Fillmore, L., & Fillmore, C. J. (2012, January). What does text complexity mean for English learners and language minority students? Paper presented at the Understanding Language Conference, Stanford, CA. Retrieved from
Zeno, S. M., Ivens, S. H., Millard, R. T., & Duvvuri, R. (1995). The educator's word frequency guide. Brewster, NY: Touchstone Applied Science Associates.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed