Children need to use language to develop their powers of reasoning and observation, prediction, sequencing, and other skills connected with academic thinking, speaking, reading and writing. From the moment children begin narrating the pictures in their minds, to the moment they use language to talk themselves out of taking an extra cookie, they use language to direct thinking. Language is used to think about thinking (meta-cognition), guide learning, and select the most suitable words to communicate their thoughts effectively.
Thinking is foundational in the English Language Arts Standards. Students are required to formulate and interpret arguments, determine sufficiency of evidence, and construct explanations. Students will have to understand how to ask questions and define problems in order to design solutions.
Many students may need explicit teaching in thinking as well as how to use language to communicate their thinking. Explicitly describing, modeling, and practicing how to think using language, signal words, cohesive devices, and discourse specific to each content area will foster significant improvement in the performance of struggling learners.
Some cognitive issues limit language processing. These include the amount of information that can be held in memory at any given moment, the ability to effortlessly retrieve previously learned information, the ability to manage emotions, and the ability to selectively attend to what a speaker is saying.
When the ability to process what is being said or read gets jammed, learning cannot be assured. Although we cannot always see a language-processing jam, teachers should watch for and try to mitigate conditions where language demands exceed a student’s ability to process. Experience and research show us that teachers can learn to provide scaffolding and language supports with minor adjustments to their current instruction that will mitigate the impact of cognitive concerns.
Language development is a continuum that builds from informal to formal communications necessary for acquiring and using knowledge in school and workplace settings. Teachers and administrators will promote significantly higher student performance when they provide systematic opportunities and guided practice in academic language with increasing sophistication from grade-to-grade, applied within and across content areas.