Course 4: Academic Literacies and Writing



“We cannot opt out of the Western print world and still remain active participants in society.” 

Pauline Gibbons

  • Being literate means being able to successfully navigate and craft a range of texts.
  • The context, purpose and language features of writing across the curriculum need to be explicitly taught for students to be successful writers.

  • Week 1: Understand what it means to be literate at school and the writing demands placed on students across subject areas.
  • Week 2: Analyze text-types/ genres within a subject area and develop teaching practices that incorporate the teaching of literacy.
  • Week 3: Understand what makes academic language hard and develop teaching practices that support students in academic language.

Work through the materials under the tabs first. Then use the flipboard magazine to delve deeper and support your own inquiries.

Made with Padlet

Week 1: Being literate and the demands of writing at school

This reading appears in week 2 and week 3, too:

The Critical Conversation About Text: Joint Construction 


Explore the Academic Literacies Flipboard magazine.

Explore the Writing Across the Curriculum Flipboard magazine.

Language is a central tool for cognitive development. All teachers need to focus on the teaching of language to provide access to the curriculum for all learners.

“If you think of language as a glass window, then for people who have high levels of literacy in their own subject area, then the glass is transparent. Competent users of the language can look through the clear glass and know clearly the content of what is being talked about. The language doesn’t get in the way, and the view through the window is clear. But for many students, the glass of that window is not transparent. Imagine it is made of frosted glass, so that the content students see is hazy and unclear: this is often the position for many EL learners if the language is not made explicit.” 

(Gibbons, 2009: 46)

Most people in the world today actively create print. Current technology involves people creating text via emails, tweets, blogs and so on.

Writing is a social process. It is a means of connecting with others in order to share information and ideas.

Yet learning to write is a difficult process and those who struggle are potentially disadvantaged. Learners who have poorly developed literacy skills and those whose home language is not English commonly fall into this group. This course aims to break down why writing can be difficult for students and how it can be explicitly taught.

What does it mean to be literate?

Literacy is not something that students become and once achieved completed once and for all. Throughout our lives, we are always being apprenticed into new forms of literacy. Think for example of the first time you had to write an application letter, or a proposal.  Think about the multiple modes of technological literacy we are now expected to be competent in. You might also recognize the feeling of being illiterate in some areas. How literate do you feel when reading the following text?

A two-dimensional crystal of molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) monolayer is a photoluminescent direct gap semiconductor in striking contrast to its bulk counterpart. Exfoliation of bulk MoS2 via Li intercalation is an attractive route to large-scale synthesis of monolayer crystals. However, this method results in loss of pristine semiconducting properties of MoS2 due to structural changes that occur during Li intercalation. Here, we report structural and electronic properties of chemically exfoliated MoS2. The metastable metallic phase that emerges from Li intercalation was found to dominate the properties of as-exfoliated material, but mild annealing leads to gradual restoration of the semiconducting phase. Above an annealing temperature of 300 °C, chemically exfoliated MoS2 exhibit prominent band gap photoluminescence, similar to mechanically exfoliated monolayers, indicating that their semiconducting properties are largely restored.

Unless you studied nanotechnology, you probably had some difficulty understanding this text. In the same way, we need to recognize that many forms of literacy are not familiar to our students. A big part of literacy is understanding how texts work and that different types have different purposes and associated language features and structure.

A student in the secondary school, in any given week, will be asked to move between different text types. In English, the expectation might be to write a poem or a narrative, Science might ask for a lab report. In Individuals and Societies students may be required to work on persuasive arguments for a debate, in Health for PE they may be required to write an explanation text and in Foreign Language they may be required to write a book review. All these text types need explicit instruction. Within these text types students need to use different registers or disciplines of language, which also need explicit teaching.

As teachers we need to ‘demystify’ the process of writing by making explicit the structure and language features of the texts demanded in their subjects.

All of this is especially true for English language learners, because for them the ‘glass’ is frosted. But it’s generally true for all learners, particularly if you consider that writing gets more difficult as students move through school:

When is it difficult?

  • Early to late elementary (increased use of academic and subject-related English).
  • Upper elementary to middle school (rapid increase in subject-specific literacy and academic language, literacy becomes the primary mode of learning new knowledge. There is a shift from learning to read to reading to learn.
  • Upper middle school to high school- students need to control high levels of discipline related language and increasingly abstract concepts.

When students are able to navigate text types and effectively craft and produce them, we are teaching them to be literate.

In all parts of the curriculum, teachers need to understand how to teach the language features and text types associated with their discipline.

In order to get a picture of the writing demands we place on students, add some text types to the Padlet.

Teachers need to understand what a successful writer does and break it down for their students. 

A successful writer….

Understands the context of the situation and of the culture

Differences in age, gender, status, generation, family history, country of birth, family background, interests and personality can potentially change the language used to write a text. What is valued may differ from culture to culture and person to person. The audience and the subject dictate the language choices a writer must make, as well as the mode of communication. Written texts differ: an email, text message, letter to the editor.

Ideas for the classroom

As part of the daily fabric of your classroom, talk about how language is used in texts. Discuss with students different text types. Highlight how they differ depending on the context and audience.

Has a real purpose for writing and an understanding that language choices can be made to suit the purpose and the audience

By having a real purpose for writing the writer can make specific choices about the language they use. If a writer is persuading, different language choices will need to be made than when describing or recounting, thought the topic may stay the same. It is essential for English language learners to know this. Similarly, students need to understand that different language choices are made depending on the audience.

Ideas for the classroom

Make the purpose clear. Are students writing to persuade? To inform, entertain or instruct? Create authentic writing assignments that are authentic and have a wider audience than just the teacher.

Understand the structure and language features of a specific text type

 January 9 - February 6 2017

Writers can have sufficient topic knowledge, but this won’t get them very far if they have no knowledge about how to structure a text. Each text type has a structure and specific language features. Adjectives, for example, are important language features in both narrative and persuasive texts, but they play a different role. English language learners often have difficulty understanding the role of language features in texts.

Ideas for the classroom

Familiarize yourself with the text type you are asking students to write. Involve the students in breaking the text down and create check-lists of what structure and language features the text should have. More on this in Week 2.

An understanding of the difference between the written and spoken modes of communication

A successful writer knows that in order to be effective they must be well-organized, succinct and appropriate. They do not have the luxury of face-to-face contact to ensure meaning is clear, or to repair a breakdown. People use many lines in conversation, such as “what I mean is…to put it another way… it’s like…”, but we would rarely use them in writing.

Ideas for the classroom

Talk to students about the differences in spoken and written language. When modeling or constructing a text, write two columns on the board. One with ‘words to think’ and one with ‘words to write’. Ask the student to reflect on whether the word would be used to ‘think’ or to ‘write’. Brainstorm alternatives with students. For example, instead of ‘but’, use ‘however’.  There is a lesson suggestion to get students to inquire into the difference between spoken and written language in Week 3: Noun groups.

A good knowledge of the subject they are writing about (known as field)

Successful writers demonstrate an understanding of the topic. It is impossible to write knowledgeably about something you haven’t learned about.

Ideas for the classroom 

February 13 - March 13 2017

Spend ample time with students activating background knowledge and ‘building the field’. Use plenty of hands-on experiences and speaking activities to build the bridge to more academic vocabulary.

The following was mentioned in Course 3: Talk and Engagement:


In order to move students language across the continuum from BICS to CALP or from spoken to more written like language, we need to:


  • identify the target language, i.e. the language we want students to be able to use.
  • provide students with opportunities to use ‘exploratory talk’, so they can turn their ‘inner speech’ to ‘outer speech’, build on each other’s ideas and extend their thinking and language.
  • give students opportunities to practise the new language through communicative activities.
  • allow students to practise using the newly acquired language by ‘sounding like an expert’.

It is mentioned here again because talking should be used to support writing. Writing is not the same as speaking or reading but there is evidence to suggest that children need to be able to orally produce texts in order to write them in depth (Gray, 1990). The type of speaking students engage in at school is closely linked to the texts they are expected to write. Consider how your students are practising the following speaking skills in your classroom. How often are they asked to engage in speaking tasks that focus on these areas?

  • Recounting: retelling, narrating, describing.
  • Describing: naming, describing, observing, defining, classifying, generalizing, qualifying, referring, comparing, contrasting.
  • Instructing: describing, ordering, commanding, listening, clarifying, noting, expressing conditions.
  • Explaining: expressing causality, opinion, reasons or conditions, elaborating, exemplifying, referring, reiterating, emphasizing.
  • Persuading: previewing, expressing opinion, stating, reasoning, generalizing, analyzing, qualifying, arguing, refuting, explaining, referring, concluding, summarizing, exemplifying, justifying, synthesizing.
  • Responding: recalling, recounting, revising, describing, defining, clarifying, comparing, contrasting, deciding, choosing, speculating, imagining.
  • Negotiating: interacting, greeting, leave taking, requesting, inviting, apologizing, suggesting, commanding, exclaiming, reiterating, emphasizing, rephrasing, interrupting, turn-taking, agreeing, disagreeing, confirming.

These speaking skills make clear that language is vast and highly complex. Think back to Course 1: A Shared Pedagogy. In our international school context, in which we want to develop bilingual and biliterate students, how can we support students in maintaining their home language in all these areas?


Students’ skills and knowledge in all their languages should be explicitly valued and recognized as resources for exploring new ways of thinking and knowing.

The speaking skills in the previous section make clear that language is vast and highly complex. Think back to Course 1: A Shared Pedagogy. In our international school context, in which we want to develop bilingual and bi-literate students, how can we support students in developing their home language as well as English in all these areas in order to achieve balanced bilingualism?  Here is how one teacher considers this:

Translanguaging Discussion

What texts do you ask your students to write in your subject area or grade level? Share how have you approached teaching this. Share how you have scaffolded tasks for students.

Apply one of the ‘ideas for the classroom’ under the successful writing section. Blog about student responses.

Make a note of  (or film) language functions students are using during speaking activities in your class. Are they linked to the texts you are expecting them to write?

In our international school context, in which we want to develop bilingual and bi-literate students, how can we support students in developing their home language as well as English in order to achieve balanced bilingualism? How can we support them in achieving the level of literacy presented in this course in both or all languages?

What are others blogging about? Don’t forget to tweet your blogpost using #speltac. See what others have shared by searching #speltac.

Week 2: Analyze texts within a subject area and develop teaching practices for literacy.

The Critical Conversation About Text: Joint Construction 

Examples of the Teaching and Learning Cycle (mentioned in the article) in practice:

Developing my year 9s’ ability to write like historians (as well as retain key knowledge)

Cunning Collaborators



Explore the Academic Literacies Flipboard magazine.

Explore the Writing Across the Curriculum Flipboard magazine.

The following video clip uses the teaching and learning cycle to support students writing a procedural text. Watch the clip and decide how this approach could be relevant to your own grade or subject area.

This image shows the stages of the teaching and learning cycle and it is explained in detail below.




The table below details how, like the teacher in the video , other teachers have used the cycle. Develop a sequence of learning engagements to support students in writing a text type in your own grade level or subject area.

The following slides give an overview of the different text types, their structure and language features. They also provide you with scaffolds to use with students to build the text. Particularly in the secondary school, not all writing we ask students to do will fall neatly into these categories, but they are a starting point. Most texts are a combination of text types.

  • Decide which text type you are asking your students to write.
  • Break the text down and decide on structure and language features.
  • Ask students to come up with words to think and then brainstorm ‘words to write’.
  • Use the teaching and learning cycle to think of a range of activities that lead up to writing the text independently.

This is an interactive section that asks you to ‘delve into’ a writing assignment you have set your student. There are two steps to this process:

  1. Analyse the text type for structure and language features. You can use a model text or a well-structured piece of writing completed by a student which can serve as a model. A template has been set up with an example on this shared Google Doc.
  2. Develop a sequence of activities using the teaching and learning cycle.

Choose a writing assignment and break it down according to structure and language features. Use the slideshow about text types to help you.  Secondary: You may also find these literacy guides useful, which include annotated student exemplars.

Using the teaching and learning cycle, develop learning engagements under the four stages: building the field, deconstruction, reconstruction and independent writing. Document student learning.

Consider how you could involve students’ home language in the teaching and learning cycle? How would you use the home language in the building the field stage?

What are others blogging about? Don’t forget to tweet your blogpost using #speltac. See what others have shared by searching #speltac.

Empty section. Edit page to add content here.

Week 3: What makes academic language difficult

The Critical Conversation About Text: Joint Construction 


Explore the Academic Literacies Flipboard magazine.

Explore the Writing Across the Curriculum Flipboard magazine.

It is important to discuss the difference between spoken and written language and how this affects our language choices with all students. It is particularly important for learners with diverse linguistic backgrounds and for students who are learning English.

Writing tasks in schools are usually in contexts that require academic English and students need to be aware of the purpose, audience and context of the text they will be writing. For example, writing to a letter to a friend will encourage spoken language whereas writing for publication in a local newspaper or a video clip will require more formal, decontextualized language. Preparing students for writing these texts should be approached by starting with texts that are meaningful and relevant to them before moving into the abstract and unfamiliar. 


Using different text types

A useful strategy to make students understand the differences between spoken and written language and the range of different text types available to them, is to have them re-write a text using a different text-type or to use a text type that is very relevant to them. Here are a few examples:

If students are interested in hip hop music this can be an effective context to engage them in writing poetry and verse, as it gives students an investment in and ownership of the work.

At Collarenebri Central School an English teacher started a hip hop group called the Colli Crew which was designed to improve attendance. The Colli Crew met in first period and students had to be there to participate. The project helped the students to code switch between Aboriginal English and standard English and this group of students went on to have improved results in writing. 

The following video shows students performing confidently using advanced vocabulary such as nominalisation to present meaningful lyrics that show deep understanding of Australian history.

Colli Crew Change the Game video 

Other examples of giving students practice with different text types:

  • Creating a news broadcast on curriculum content or school events
  • Creating a newspaper article
  • Producing a documentary
  • Writing story poems based on curriculum content
  • Creating obituaries such as this example

This video explains nominalization (turning words into nouns). The message is that it makes writing ‘dead’, but the reality is that academic language uses a lot of nominalization which is difficult for English language learners. Nominalization serves an important function in the English language: it allows expression of abstract ideas and packages more information into sentences. It allows the writer to focus on key abstract ideas, rather than on persons and events.

In order to consolidate your understanding of nominalization, read Features of Academic Writing.

Some strategies to support students with nominalization:

  • When reading a text, create a table. Ask students to highlight the nominalizations and record these in the table. Ask them to form other words from this nominalization, e.g. formation (noun)- form (verb)- formative (adjective).
  • Elizabeth Coelho explains a variation on this strategy:

  • Teach students word formation (rootwords, prefixes and suffixes) to show how nominilizations  are formed. Discuss how you can guess the meaning of the word by breaking it down. For example, de-forest-a-t-ion. If student know the meaning of the prefix ‘de’ Ask students to list other words they know with these suffixes and prefixes. A useful tool for students to use is to look up word origins.



Noun groups in grade 9


Noun groups in grade 4

Noun groups in grade 1

Noun groups in grade 1

Noun groups are another feature of academic language that makes writing hard for students new to a subject. Noun groups are used to package information by using a group of words, often a very long group of words, to represent a single thing.

The following blogpost explains about noun groups and how they were used as the focus of a lesson on extending language.

Extending Language: What does it look like?

A lesson on noun groups

A teacher gave out the following sheet to her students:

Text One

um… ah…. whenever people steal things … ah… you go to just say somebody steals something from K-Mart and they find out but they didn’t catch you and they increase all the prices because if they steal something two or three hundred dollars you have to pay for that cause the prices increase

Text Two

Stolen goods are a problem for stores like K-Mart because they don’t always catch the thieves. We have to pay for this through increased prices.

She discussed the two texts and the differences between them. The main point was that the first one ‘sounds’ like conversation or talking and the second one ‘sounds’ like writing.

She then introduced the concept of noun groups and verb groups. This required a further discussion of what a verb and a noun were! The students then underlined all the verb groups in the first text. They then had find what words two of the verb groups had been turned into in the last text.

They then practised the concepts with other verb groups, turning them into noun groups.  

Other Verb groups to Noun Groups

Verb groups Noun Groups
kids who live on the streets streetkids, the homeless
people who are addicted to drugs drug addicts
dogs which are meant to protect people guard dogs
people who follow sports teams supporters
shops lose stock because of shoplifting loss of stock
people who pay money to support teams sponsors
stories of events that are reported on TV and the radio media coverage

They then worked through the following sequence.


Many students have problems with writing because they tend to write the same way as they talk. Your writing needs to be more precise and controlled than talking, because your reader cannot watch your face or interrupt to ask you to explain, as they can in conversation.

  • In this activity you are going to record yourself. You can think about what you are going to say, and can write down some ideas, but you MUST NOT write your whole talk down. You should work in pairs. Each person talks on their chosen topic for no more than two minutes. When you have finished, play the talks back and choose one to work with.
  • Transcribe the talk exactly as it is spoken. Use a voice note app and make corrections.
  • What do you notice about how the talk is different from how you would normally write?
  • How many complete sentences are there? How hard was it to punctuate the talking? How many verbs are used? How often is there a word like ‘um’ or ‘ah’?
  • Rework the text into an acceptable piece of writing.
  • Now underline all the verbs. Rewrite the piece changing several of the verb groups into noun groups.


The next step was to choose one talk from the group and transcribe it. They had to choose one (it didn’t have to be theirs) and underline all the verb groups. They then had to try to change some of the verb groups into noun groups.



I think that people should not be allowed to have guns because you know just say they have a fight with someone they can get carried away and just get their gun out and shoot anyone, you know…

And like I reckon they shouldn’t have it for protection either cause they SHOOT someone and get into trouble for it even though they’re taking it for protection they’ll still get into trouble..

Take America for example – practically everyone in America owns a gun and I reckon its stupid that they do cause there’s so many shootings – more than one million people getting shot every day – it’s really bad – it’s just stupid.

If everyone owns a gun, you’re going to have so many murders and shootings happening.

Public Transport

Public transport is not very good here because in the city it only takes 15 minutes for a bus or train or tram – in Sydney it takes 5 minutes for a bus, or train, in Darwin you only wait ten minutes for a bus or train. In Hallam you have to wait 20 minutes for a bus. There are no trams, you have to wait 30 minutes for a train and on Saturdays one hour for a bus.

Buses are not very clean and they smell a bit – it would be good if they were not so crappy.

More people live in the suburbs around here than they do in the city and yet the suburbs still have really bad public transport. People use cars because the public transport is too expensive. Its 75 cents for a return ticket and $1.40 for two hours and $10.00 for a whole day adult fare. I think that’s what’s wrong with public transport.

Guard dogs

People should be allowed to own dangerous dogs – they should – because if someone’s trying to break into your back garden right, and you have a little chihuahua that goes woo, woo, they’re not gonna do anything, if you have a big dog that goes WOOF WOOF, they’ll run away because they know it’s a really big dog – if a big one comes they’ll jump the fence and run off, right.

If you’re on the street and you’re taking your dog for a walk and someone comes to beat you up the dog will scare them off for ya, and it will bite them and make them run off – if ya have a little chihuahua it won’t do anything it’ll just run off on ya and then you’ll get beaten up and badly injured.

And big German Shepherds we use as guard dogs – little chihuahuas – no you gotta use big German Shepherds – that’s better, right, – and if they try to rob your house they just go “ROOF” and your house’ll be safe.



There should be a ban on gun ownership, because two people can get into a fight, lose control and get shot. In America too many people are owners of guns. Too many people are getting shot and there are too many deaths happening in this world.

Public Transport Problems

Public transport is poor in suburbia. For example, in the inner city area, buses and trams arrive at fifteen minute intervals, whereas in suburbia arrival times vary from 20 minutes to two hours. Other problems are dirty buses with a repulsive odour. On top of this, public transport is the expense, with prices ranging from 75 cents to $10.00. In conclusion more commuters are situated in the suburbs than in the city.

Guard Dogs

People should be allowed to own dangerous dogs for protection. A small dog won’t give as much protection as a large dog would. A big dog will protect you from physical assault and robbery.  

Moving from the familiar to the abstract: What relevant and authentic tasks have you used in which students could use academic language?

For an upcoming writing task, adapt the lesson sequence under the section entitled ‘noun groups’: Ask students to record themselves speaking about a given topic and then transcribe it. A Google Voice transcriber might come in handy here. Get student to underline the verb groups and turn them into noun groups, in order to get them to understand the difference between spoken and written language.

What are others blogging about? Don’t forget to tweet your blogpost using #speltac. See what others have shared by searching #speltac.

Self- assessment tools

SPELTAC blogging rubric

Are you a SPELTAC practitioner?

References and resources

Embedding video into your post, by Matthew Dolmont

Gibbons, P. (2009) English Learners, Academic Literacy and Thinking

Recommended reading (If Understanding Language and Making it Explicit is part of your inquiry, consider purchasing these books)

Jeff Zwiers’ books (kindle editions) on Academic Language

Reading and Writing in Science


  • Write a minimum of two blog posts, using the SPELTAC approach. Use the blog ideas or create your own based on the course’s big ideas and your own classroom inquiries.
  • Give feedback on at least four other blog posts.
  • Tweet your posts using #speltac. You are encouraged to document, notice and name examples of  SPELTAC practice in the school and tweet these.

Staff-led PD Day: expectations

The SPELTAC approach to learning

Learn and plan

Follow online courses. Plan for language learning and literacy based on new ideas, alone or with a co-teacher. Establish language objectives and develop learning experiences that stretch language for all learners.

Make learning visible

Make language learning visible, using a variety of tools for formative assessment.


Document learning experiences on the SPELTAC blog; reflect, relate and curate. Make connections with previous learning and student work. Use screenshots, pictures, video and audio of student learning.

Share and connect

Online, share blog posts with other educators, read and learn from other blogs. Connect, and get new ideas and understandings about language learning. Offline, join inquiry groups. Discuss, create, plan and lead.
Bilingualism in International Schools
Linguistically Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Education: Helping Immigrant Children Realize Their Bilingual Potential
Second Language Students in English-Medium Classrooms: A Guide for Teachers in International Schools
Equal Rights to the Curriculum: Many Languages, One Message
Translanguaging with Multilingual Students: Learning from Classroom Moments
Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Language Learners
A Grammar Companion - for Primary Teachers
Teaching Language in Context
Language Assessment In Primary Classrooms
Mastering Digital Literacy
Leading the New Literacies
Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World
Mastering Media Literacy
Mastering Global Literacy
Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds
Third Culture Kids - The Children of Educators in International Schools
Building Academic Language: Meeting Common Core Standards Across Disciplines, Grades 5-12
Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning: Teaching Second Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom
English Learners, Academic Literacy, and Thinking: Learning in the Challenge Zone
Bridging Discourses in the ESL Classroom: Students, Teachers and Researchers

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