Fifth-graders learning the difference between texting, every day, and academic language

ALIAS vocabulary program helping students build literacy skills, understand the concept of ‘code-switching’

For students to be successful in the Digital Age, they must learn to distinguish between the abbreviated syntax they use in texting, the casual way they speak to their friends in person, and the more formal style of communication called for when writing school essays or drafting a business memo.

Fifth-graders at more than three dozen HISD elementary schools will soon be making those distinctions while building their academic vocabulary this year, thanks to a partnership the district forged with two educators from Harvard University.

This will be the district’s second year to use the Academic Language Instruction for All Students (ALIAS), which was developed by Nonie Lesaux and Joan Kelly. It was designed both to help students learn words they were likely to encounter in academic settings (such as “assume,” “however,” “identify,” “observe,” “critical,” “expert,” “foundation,” and “impact”), and to help them understand the concept of “code-switching,” or adapting one’s communication style to better suit one’s audience.

“What I’ve noticed is the way students answer questions in class tends to reflect the way they express themselves in writing,” observed Fidella Thompson, a teacher at Atherton Elementary School. “So it’s important to set that tone early, of having them give more complete answers aloud.”

“Building this type of awareness in fifth grade is critically important,” said HISD Director of Literacy Cindy Puryear. “Because middle school marks the time when students are expected to increase their essay writing skills and explain themselves using text evidence through speech. Most adults know that they wouldn’t talk to their boss as familiarly as they do their friends, but this program spells out why and gives them tools to build solid arguments and defend their positions in ways that will be taken seriously in an academic setting.”