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When Explicit Attention to Language Is Useful in the Content Classroom

by Scott E. Grapin |

Making language an explicit focus of attention has become a go-to strategy with multilingual learners of English (MLEs) in K–12 content classrooms. The growing popularity of this strategy is evident in the latest English language development standards by the WIDA Consortium, which are grounded in a functional approach to language development that emphasizes how language functions in disciplines (e.g., science). A classic example of this strategy is a teacher calling attention to how authors of science texts turn verbs into nouns (e.g., “The rocks eroded. This erosion…”) and make use of passive voice (e.g., “The investigation was carried out…”).

However, this strategy can be tricky for multiple reasons (Grapin et al., 2021). First, though explicit attention to language can make visible how language is used to construct and communicate meaning in disciplines, too much explicit attention can actually detract from students’ engagement in the ideas and practices of disciplines. Second, making language an explicit focus risks privileging the language of canonical disciplinary texts (e.g., “the language of science”) while overlooking students’ own ways of making meaning. To avoid these pitfalls, teachers need to be strategic in deciding when explicit attention to language is most useful.

In this article, I propose that explicit attention to language is useful when it:

    1. connects to core disciplinary ideas that students are making sense of,
    2. facilitates students’ engagement in disciplinary practices, and/or
    3. raises students’ critical language awareness. 

To illustrate these considerations, the following sections present classroom examples from my research team’s curriculum development work in U.S. science classrooms with MLEs.

Connect to Core Disciplinary Ideas That Students Are Making Sense Of

In a science unit anchored in the phenomenon of what happens to our garbage, fifth-grade students are carrying out an investigation to figure out whether materials (e.g., paper, soda can) change when they are crushed. Students record the properties of the materials, such as color, texture, and reflectivity, as well as each material’s weight before and after crushing. Then, students analyze and interpret the data, which culminates in the class co-constructing two claims:

    • Claim 1: Crushing the materials did not change the type of matter.
    • Claim 2: Crushing the materials did not change the amount of matter.

Though the two claims follow a similar structure, the distinction between them (type vs. amount) is significant conceptually, because each claim addresses a different science idea targeted by the investigation. The first claim addresses the science idea that “properties can be used to identify materials” (5-PS1-3 in the Next Generation Science Standards), and the second claim addresses the science idea that the “weight of matter is conserved when it changes form” (5-PS1-2 in the Next Generation Science Standards). Whether students understand this distinction has consequences for the evidence they use to support each claim. For example, the second claim (about amount of matter) requires weight data.

At this point in the lesson, the teacher might explicitly call attention to the two modifiers of matter (type and amount). For example, the teacher could start a class discussion with a series of questions, such as “Our two claims look similar, but what do you notice that is different?” “When we refer to the type of something and amount of something, what’s the difference?” and “What does this mean for the evidence we use to support our two claims?”

In this classroom, there are many opportunities for the teacher to call explicit attention to language. Indeed, almost any moment could lend itself to a language focus. However, this moment is strategically selected because it addresses an aspect of language that is crucial to making sense of the core science ideas targeted by the investigation. In this way, explicit attention to language supports students’ sense-making rather than getting in the way. 

Facilitate Students’ Engagement in Disciplinary Practices

In another science unit, the same class of fifth-grade students is explaining the phenomenon of why tiger salamanders disappeared from a local vernal pool ecosystem. As students make sense of complex relationships in the ecosystem, they generate a list of possible causes for the tiger salamanders’ disappearance, such as an increase in predators and poor water quality. Over the course of the unit, students gather data related to each possible cause and argue for different explanations of the phenomenon.

In one such argument, students are examining data on water quality in the ecosystem before and after the tiger salamanders’ disappearance. The data are messy and have been curated this way to avoid pointing to a single explanation. One student argues to his small group, “It might be the water, ‘cause it goes higher than the level allowed.” Another student in the group responds, “But it probably depends on the season. In the summer, the vernal pool dries up, and there’s not as much water.”

At this point, the teacher could explicitly call attention to how students are constructing their claims using language that conveys degrees of likelihood, such as might be and it probably depends (Moore & Schleppegrell, 2020). This could launch the class into a discussion of how likelihood language enables scientists to express the strength of their evidence and what other words or phrases could be used to convey similar meanings (e.g., is likely/unlikely and could possibly). In subsequent lessons throughout the unit, students can draw on this likelihood language to continue refining their arguments and explanations.

In this classroom, students aren’t just using likelihood language because it is part of “the language of science” or because this language commonly appears in science texts, but because this language is functional for engaging in the task at hand (i.e., explaining a puzzling phenomenon that defies a straightforward explanation). It is the uncertainty built into the task that makes likelihood language functional and thus worth calling attention to explicitly.

Raise Students’ Critical Language Awareness

In another unit, this time from a seventh-grade science classroom, students are explaining the phenomenon of COVID-19’s spread. Specifically, students are analyzing data to figure out why the virus disproportionately impacted people from racially and ethnically minoritized groups.

As students analyze the data in partners, one student asks, “Why didn’t people know how to stay safe? It’s based on science.” Another student comments, “Everyone was told what to do, but they probably just didn’t listen.”

At this point, the teacher could explicitly call attention to the powerful role of language in perpetuating inequities faced by minoritized individuals and communities. For example, the teacher might point out that phrases such as “based on science” may be interpreted differently by different groups based on their historical relationship with science disciplines. The teacher might also point out that, in the early stages of the pandemic, there was a lack of linguistically accessible and culturally tailored public health messaging, which contributed to the disproportionate impact on minoritized groups.

In this classroom, explicit attention to language goes beyond showing students how language is used in science to showing students how the language of science can perpetuate inequities in society. When students develop such critical language awareness in disciplines, they can begin to envision their roles in disrupting inequities—for example, envisioning health messaging campaigns that reflect the linguistic and cultural practices of minoritized communities.


In this article, I have proposed and illustrated three considerations for bringing explicit attention to language into content instruction with MLEs. Two themes are evident across the classroom examples. First, explicit attention to language must begin from noticing and building on the assets that students bring (e.g., the language students are already using to engage in science practices). Second, deciding when explicit attention is useful requires understanding disciplinary learning goals (e.g., understanding the distinction between type and amount in science), which makes collaboration between English language and content educators essential. 

When teachers explicitly attend to language in ways that are asset based and not a detour but an essential part of the disciplinary learning journey, students can develop a deeper understanding of how disciplines are practiced. They can also feel empowered with the knowledge and awareness to question how language could be used differently to promote justice for minoritized groups in society.



Grapin, S. E., Llosa, L., Haas, A., & Lee, O. (2021). Rethinking instructional strategies with English learners in the content areas. TESOL Journal, 12(2), 1–12. 

Moore, J., & Schleppegrell, M. J. (2020). A focus on disciplinary language: Bringing critical perspectives to reading and writing in science. Theory Into Practice, 59(1), 99–108.

Next Generation Science Standards. (n.d.). 5-PS1-2–3. 

About the author

Scott E. Grapin

Scott E. Grapin is an assistant professor of language education at the University of Miami. His research centers on equity and justice for multilingual learners in K–12 education, particularly in content-area classes. Scott began his career as a high school ESL and Spanish teacher.

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