Academic Language Acquisition in First-Generation College Students
The past thirty years have seen an unprecedented expansion of access to higher education among traditionally disadvantaged groups. Along with increased opportunity, this access brings new challenges, including student preparation and social and academic integration of college campuses (Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, & Terenzini, 2004). One area of academic integration that requires further examination is how first-generation students acquire the written academic language they will need to succeed in college courses. Because language is closely tied to identity, acquiring academic language can have personal and social effects (White & Lowenthal, 2011). In addition to the struggles that these students have in acquiring academic language, they also bring alternate forms of cultural capital (Yosso, 2005) that are not captured in traditional assessment. This qualitative study considered the academic language acquisition of ten first-generation college students who completed a transitional bridge program. Writing samples from four different time points were assessed with an operationalized definition of academic language to capture how these skills were acquired during the first year. The samples were then analyzed using Critical Discourse Analysis to identify alternate forms of cultural capital. Finally, the same ten students were interviewed about their experiences of academic language during their first year of college. The results of this study show that students benefitted from direct instruction of academic conventions and other assumed expectations of academic discourse, and they were most successful with assignments that drew on lived experience. The writing samples also revealed critical forms of alternate cultural capital that must be recognized and leveraged in academic settings. Finally, students saw the process of academic language acquisition as voluntary, conscious, and ultimately worthwhile. Understanding the challenges these students face, as well as their unique strengths, is vital to their full inclusion within the university and for meaningful diversity in higher education.