21st Century Academic Skills in School and Beyond

By Deborah ShortImage

Increasingly educators are realizing that the development of academic language skills among all learners is important for success in school, in college, and in a career. Academic language involves decoding meaning—determining what a text says, a question asks, or a task requires, and encoding meaning—expressing one’s thoughts so they may be shared with others. The skills needed for students and workers in the 21st century include analytical reading and writing, clear communication, critical thinking, and creativity. These skills are conveyed in the new Common Core State Standards for English language arts and mathematics and in the Next Generation Science Standards as well.

Analytical reading and writing skills build on foundation skills of early literacy, basic reading comprehension, and simple sentence formation. Making inferences about what is read and crafting an argument in writing to express an opinion pull together a number of complex cognitive processes. We must sort through multiple ideas, tap background knowledge, provide details, elaborate, and justify.

Clear communication involves the use of precise words, planning for a specific audience, and the ability to be responsive to the feedback in a conversation. If someone does not understand an utterance, then the speaker must rephrase or provide an example or find another way to make the message clear. If the listener has a follow-up question, the speaker must think about a response and then provide it.

Critical thinking and creative activities may seem less language-dependent at first glance. In many ways they require us to apply our knowledge. Although they can be accomplished non-verbally, the results must be shared in writing or orally. Students generally need to listen and participate in academic talk in order to discuss their critical reasoning. Open-ended, higher-order questions and tasks by their very nature require more language knowledge to understand the intent of the question and to produce a response that communicates complex reasoning and describes abstract concepts.

Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (Echevarría, Vogt & Short, 2013) offers teachers an approach to teach for academic language development at the same time they make the content accessible to English learners and others who benefit from such integrated instruction. The SIOP Model has been tested empirically in several studies over 15 years (Short, Echevarria, & Richards-Tutor, 2011) and by others (Batt, 2010; McIntyre, et al., 2010). Standards such as the Common Core tell teachers what students need to learn and do as a result of instruction while the SIOP Model shows teachers how to plan and deliver effective lessons.

For instance, well-implemented SIOP instruction incorporates all four language skills—reading, writing, listening, and speaking—in lessons across the content areas. Several features of the SIOP Model promote oral interaction; teachers design lessons that build oral discourse skills and use oral language to support and strengthen reading and writing. Teachers include techniques that require student-student communication, such as cooperative group activities, pair work, literature circles, author’s chair, and role-play. They may assign projects that ask students to create something new, such as a cover for a National Geographic magazine and a summary for the accompanying article related to topic being studied in science.

Teachers using this method also purposefully plan scaffolding, building background, and vocabulary activities to make lessons accessible to English learners. Scaffolding provides support for students as they learn to do a task independently. For example, scaffolds may help students understand procedures (e.g., watch the teacher model a task step by step) or the new material being taught (e.g., add notes to a partially completed outline while reading a section of the textbook) or how to describe a diagram (e.g., use sentence starters: The illustration on the left shows…, The arrow indicates…). These scaffolds may be reduced and eventually removed as students gain academic language proficiency.

Teachers will help students develop their background knowledge (e.g., through audio-visual aids and hands-on experiences) in order to facilitate their reading comprehension skills and set them up for adding content information to their knowledge base. SIOP teachers not only pre-teach key vocabulary and give students multiple opportunities to use the new words (e.g., with vocabulary routines, games, and graphics), but they also teach students strategies to help determine word meanings.

Effective teachers are often described as ones who know their subject matter deeply and have the strong content-related pedagogy. In today’s classrooms, we also need teachers who know how to teach and promote the academic language of their subject area so students can develop and use 21st century skills successfully in school and beyond.


Batt, E. (2010). Cognitive coaching: A critical phase in professional development to implement sheltered instruction. Teaching and Teacher Education 26, 997-1005.

Echevarría, J., Vogt, M.E. & Short, D. (2013). Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners: The SIOP® Model, Fourth Edition. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

McIntyre, E., Kyle, D., Chen, C., Muñoz, M. & Beldon, S. (2010). Teacher learning and ELL reading achievement in sheltered instruction classrooms: Linking professional development to student development, Literacy Research and Instruction, 49(4), 334-351.

Short, D., Echevarría, J., & Richards-Tutor, C. (2011). Research on academic literacy development in sheltered instruction classrooms. Language Teaching Research, 15(3), 363–380


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