From Academic English to School Discourses: Reconceptualizing Academic Language
Sewall, Ethan McDermott
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The widely accepted conceptualization of academic language (AL) as a unitary construct relies heavily on a claim of greater grammatical complexity of AL. This study empirically investigates that claim. It offers a conceptual framework for distinguishing AL from non‐AL, supporting that framework with a survey in which 77 expert group participants (a) judged 42 language samples to be AL or non‐AL and (b) optionally commented on their judgments. Survey participants’ judgments are quantitatively analyzed to test the framework, and their comments are qualitatively analyzed to illuminate their conceptualizations of AL. The study then calculates the frequencies, in AL and non‐AL language samples, of grammatical features claimed in AL research to enhance grammatical complexity. The language samples data (N=160, 100-standaridized-unit for all) are balanced between AL writing, AL speech, non‐AL writing, and non‐AL speech samples. Additionally, writing and speech samples are balanced between edited/unedited and prepared/unprepared samples, respectively. A three‐factor model with AL/non‐AL, written/spoken, and edited‐prepared/unedited‐unprepared as independent variables and twenty‐six grammatical features as dependent variables compares expected log counts using negative binomial regression. No categorical and only modest frequency differences are found between the grammatical features of AL and non‐AL language samples. These findings challenge the claim that AL has more complex grammar than non‐AL, indicating more similarity than difference. It is concluded that, given the prominence of discourse features in AL scholarship, the unitary construct of academic language should be reconceptualized as non‐unitary sets of school discourse practices. Implications for pedagogy and language‐of instruction policy are addressed, and suggestions are made for further research.