The Profound Effects of Language in Both ELA and Math

August 1, 2018

How do we get students to engage authentically—to genuinely desire to communicate their ideas—in both ELA and math?

This is a central question in Dr. Timothy Shanahan’s and Dr. Jeff Zwiers’ keynotes at the summer Standards Institute. United by a desire to improve student outcomes across the country, Shanahan and Zwiers implored participants to examine the role that language, specifically the type of language we as use as both teachers and students, plays in learning.

In his keynote, Timothy Shanahan uses an apt metaphor for literacy. Imagine, if you will, a gym-goer who has just watched a hundred YouTube videos on how to master the right technique for lifting weights. He can curl, bench, and squat with perfect form. He then goes to the gym and puts these techniques to practice, using one-pound dumbbells. After months of doing this, how much muscle will he gain? Not much. In order to build strength, the weight lifted must increase. Likewise, all the skills encouraged by the standards are fruitless unless applied to adequately and increasingly complex text. The complexity of the language we use—the language in texts and the language that teachers use to communicate—is paramount to improving literacy.



For Zwiers, a focus on language is no less essential for math. How, he asks, do we get students to actually care about the problems they are being asked to solve? His answer is that we must increase the time we spend engaging in what he calls authentic communication. Authentic communication is speech intended for collaborating as well as for understanding, building, using, and communicating whole ideas. For both students and teachers, authentic communication requires shifting away from communicating to indicate that you’re listening, attempting to win, or fulfilling a participation quota.



About Timothy Shanahan

Timothy Shanahan is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chi­cago and former director of reading for the Chicago Public Schools. He is author/editor of more than 200 publications and served on the author team of the Common Core State Standards. Professor Shanahan is past president of the International Literacy Association. He was inducted to the Reading Hall of Fame in 2007 and is a former first-grade teacher. For more information, visit his blog:

About Jeff Zwiers

Jeff Zwiers is a senior researcher at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. He has taught in secondary and elementary settings. His research consists of collaborating and co-teaching with teachers to learn what works best in real classrooms for diverse students. In his spare time, he writes books and articles on literacy, thinking, and language development, along with bilingual curriculum materials for oral language development in rural schools in Guatemala.