Touro College TESOL Candidate Gabrielle Mescia: The Divide between Proficiency in Social versus Academic Language

Touro College, Graduate School of Education and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

New York is a state that speaks many languages. We need teachers who can find the common ground. The MS in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) Program helps NYS-certified PreK-12 teachers more effectively teach and communicate with a diverse student population.

Academically rigorous and practice-intensive, the 33-credit program includes 50 hours of fieldwork and at least 20 days or 100 hours of supervised student teaching experience. Candidates that complete all coursework, fieldwork, and student teaching requirements are eligible for recommendation for ESL certification.

Gabrielle Mescia is a Pre-K teacher in the West Islip School District in Long Island, NY. Gabrielle graduated from St. Joseph’s College in May 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Child Study and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in TESOL at Touro College. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, reading, exercising, and spending time with her loved ones.

I think that it is important to give students real-life context and how learning is applicable to real-world, everyday tasks.

Gabrielle Mescia, Touro College, GSE, TESOL Candidate
  1. Have you had any students who were proficient in social language but struggled with academic language?

After reading this question and article I can think back in particular to my fieldwork hours last semester. For some of my fieldwork experiences, I went to one of our district’s middle schools, where I could see more of this divide between proficiency in social versus academic language. I teach very young students, so it was easier to see the use of more dense and challenging academic language at the secondary level. I was also able to see how the ENL teacher collaborated with content area teachers to give them insight on how to better help their students, as suggested in the above article. 

If so, how did their social and academic language use differ?

Many of the students were proficient in conversational English and would appear “fluent”, however, when it came to completing assignments such as science labs and social studies reports, they struggled to understand some of the academic language. For example, one student had difficulty completing an assignment because he did not understand what an egg “hatching” meant before the ENL teacher showed him a video. After seeing it, he was able to complete the assignment. Or with the social studies report, when a student was having difficulty interpreting one of the prompts, the ENL teacher had to rephrase the prompt for him. He was struggling to understand words and ideas such as the causes of war and how it affected people. 

Did anything in their language abilities surprise you?

It certainly surprised me to see how some of these students could communicate so well but really got “stuck” when it came to certain terms and ideas for assignments. In speaking with my mentor ENL teacher, she explained to me how dense the academic vocabulary and language can be, especially in a subject area like science. 

What are some examples that could be used to compare social and academic language in your classroom?

A couple of examples I could think of at the level that I teach (Pre-K) include something such as if I asked students to “sort” objects (academic) instead of “putting them in groups” (social). Or, a word such as “opposite” (academic) instead of “hot and cold are different” (social). 

What changes have occurred regarding the teaching of a) pronunciation, b) grammar and c) vocabulary in the many approaches discussed in this chapter? Has there been a swinging of the pendulum in respect to the teaching of these areas? Why or why not? Celce-Murcia Chapter edition 4 Chapter 1:

After reading Chapter 1 of the Celce-Murcia textbook, it is quite evident that there has been a “swinging of the pendulum” in respect to teaching pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary in the many approaches used in teaching second language acquisition. For example in the grammar-translation approach, “The focus is on grammatical parsing, that is the forms and inflections of words” (Celce-Murcia et al., 2014). Then after that in the direct method, “Grammar is learned inductively”, and “Literary texts are read for pleasure and are not analyzed grammatically” (Celce-Murcia et al., 2014). Then there was the reform movement in which phonetics was a strong focus to be applied to language teaching. Following that came the reading approach in which vocabulary is controlled at first and then expanded. After that came the audiolingual approach in which “Grammatical structures are sequenced and rules are taught inductively”, “Accurate pronunciation is stressed from the beginning”, and “Vocabulary is severely controlled and limited in the initial stages” (Celce-Murcia et al., 2014). These are several examples of the various approaches that have been used with ELs over time, and the differences in focuses between them. Now, thinking has evolved so that we are aware that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach, and that not one of these approaches is the “correct” answer all of the time. 

How is Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) related to other proficiency-based approaches to language teaching? Celce-Murcia Chapter edition 4 Chapter 2:

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) “is an approach to language teaching that emphasizes learning a language first and foremost for the purpose of communicating with others” (Celce-Murcia et al., 2014). It relates to the American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Standards for Foreign Language Learning for the 21st Century, or the Five Cs model, Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), Canadian Language Benchmarks (CLB), content-based language teaching, task-based language teaching, and service learning. CLT is related to these other proficiency-based approaches to language teaching because it is both informed by some of the approaches that preceded it and then influenced other approaches that came after it. Similar to these other approaches, CLT focuses on helping language learners communicate effectively and exchange messages across various contexts and purposes. CLT aims to make language practice interesting, useful, and relevant while building the confidence of language learners. CLT has evolved over time and has been used and adapted for various curricular purposes. 


Breiseth, L. (2014, January 7). Academic Language and ELLs: What Teachers Need to Know. Colorin Colorado. Retrieved January 31, 2022, from

Brinton, D., Celce-Murcia, M., & Snow, M. A. (2014). Teaching English as a Second Or Foreign Language (M. Celce-Murcia, D. Brinton, & M. A. Snow, Eds.; Fourth ed.). National Geographic Learning.

Peer responses

Hi B!

It was great to read your post this week. I liked how you discussed your experiences with your own students regarding social and academic language. It was interesting to read about your experiences. It seems to be pretty common that ELLs seem much more easily able to have basic conversations and make friends, but academic language use, both orally and in writing is completely different. I liked what you said regarding your surprise about your students’ language abilities. They were able to answer “right there” questions but had difficulty extending their thinking. I also like how you mentioned helping your students develop their answers to questions from basic to more detailed and specific responses. You also gave a great and thorough summary of the changes that have occurred in the teaching of grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary.

Hi K!

I enjoyed reading your post this week. Your experiences with your students regarding social and academic language was very interesting. I like how you described your students’ growing independence and social skills at that age as they begin to get ready for middle school. At that age, socializing with friends seems to become an even more important part of their life than it already has been. It is also interesting how although you said that they do not use academic language as fluently, they were able to work and discuss with their group to figure out the particular task at hand. I also like those suggestions of comparison between social and academic language. I think that it is important to give students real-life context and how learning is applicable to real-world, everyday tasks.

Good afternoon J.,

This was a great post! I like how you mentioned that the verbal language production of the students seemed fairly proficient in social context, but how it was very different when it came to an academic task such as writing. I have seen that writing can be quite a difficult task for many students and is not always something that they enjoy doing. As you said, I am sure that your students were great at expressing their personal opinions and needs! Academic tasks are very different though. It is important how you mentioned that they struggled to use critical linking words in their writing to connect their ideas. Those types of words can be very difficult. That is the idea of “bricks and mortar”, and in this case the phrases such as even though, alternatively, consequently are “mortar” words. Students need to understand these connecting words to fully understand something that they are reading, and they must be able to then use them in order to produce clear writing. “Understanding signal words and phrases is a key step in a student’s ability to “unlock” the academic language they encounter, as well as to start using it correctly themselves” (Breiseth, 2014). As you mentioned, a chart highlighting the differences between social and academic language would be a great idea.


Breiseth, L. (2014, January 7). Academic Language and ELLs: What Teachers Need to Know. Colorin Colorado. Retrieved January 31, 2022, from

Author: drcowinj

Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs only to the people who prepare for it today,” determined Malcolm X at the O.A.A.U.’s [Organization of Afro-American Unity] founding forum at the Audubon Ballroom. (June 28, 1964). (X, n.d.) Dr. Jasmin Bey Cowin a Fulbright Scholar, SIT Graduate, completed the Education Policy Fellowship Program (EPFP™) at Columbia University, Teachers College. Dr. Cowin served as the President of the Rotary Club of New York and Assistant Governor for New York State; long-term Chair of the Rotary United Nations International Breakfast meetings; and works as an Assistant Professor at Touro College, Graduate School of Education. Dr. Cowin has over twenty-five years of experience as an educator, tech innovator, entrepreneur, and institutional leader with a focus on equity and access to digital literacy and education in the Sub-Saharan Africa region. Her extensive background in education, administration, not-for-profit leadership, entrepreneurial spirit, and technology innovation provide her with unique skills and vertical networks locally and globally. Dr. Cowin participates fully in the larger world of TESOL academic discipline as elected Vice President and Chair-Elect for the New York State, NYS TESOL organization, for the 2021 conference. Ongoing research, expressed in scholarly contributions to the advancement of knowledge is demonstrated through publications, presentations, and participation in academic conferences, blogging, and other scholarly activities, including public performances and exhibitions at conferences and workshops. Of particular interest to her are The Blockchain of Things and its implications for Higher Education; Current Global Trends in TESOL; Developing Materials and Resources in Teaching English; E-learning; Micro and Macro-Methodologies in TESOL; E-Resources Discovery and Analysis; and Language Acquisition and the Oculus Rift in VR.

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