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From the Secondary Section Can English Language
Learners Acquire Academic English?
MaryCarmen Cruz Cholla High Magnet School Tucson, Arizona [email protected]
"They've got to keep up. I can't afford to slow down my teaching; I average thirty-seven students in each class. I'm willing to stay after school if they want more help." "Poor kids. I don't know how they do it. Taking six academic classes all day long in a language that they're barely learning. I know I wouldn't survive." These are typical comments from well-intentioned colleagues sharing their experiences with English Language Learners
. Perhaps you have had these very same thoughts. What are we to do, carrying daunting workloads yet conscious of our responsibility and desire to help all learners in our classes to succeed? We know we cannot ignore this population; it has grown considerably over the past ten years and is expected to continue growing. In fact, close to 7 percent of all secondary students are categorized as having limited English proficiency
(Kindler). In many of our classrooms the percentage is much higher. What are we asking of the monolingual and multilingual learners in our classrooms? We want them to understand lectures and participate in academic conversations. We want them to comprehend challenging texts, make informed decisions based on information they have read, form rational opinions, and offer focused interpretations. We expect them to write with clarity, conviction, color, and sophisticated thought. In short, we want them to express themselves intelligently, articulately, and thoughtfully. Sounds formidable. Our English language learners can do this, but we must plan and teach mindfully to help them accomplish each skill. We could say that the same is true for all learners in our classrooms. native speakers
of English are also honing their language skills as they progress aca-
demically. However, as Anstrom points out, they are paying attention to the cognitive tasks required of them, gathering and sorting new information, following procedures and processes. English language learners must pay attention to these cognitive tasks while also acquiring the vocabulary, sentence structure, and academic discourse
patterns that correspond to each cognitive task (McKeon). Most importantly, they must demonstrate competency in all these areas within their brief time in high school. Now, that is an impressive task. So, what do we choose to do to assist the English language learners in our classes? How do we improve our instruction so that all students have equal access to learning? Understanding language acquisition
is a start. Vygotsky reminds us that learning is a social process. language learning
, similarly, develops through highly contextualized social interaction
. Through negotiating meaning with others we learn to use language appropriately and successfully. We know that when students work in their zone of proximal development, learners are challenged to make connections just beyond their comfort level, connections that extend knowledge and create new learning. As students interact to solve problems or learn by discovery in highly contextualized, collaborative settings, they develop language, academic skills, and cognition together (Thomas and Collier). Language learners can also increase their proficiency as they understand material at a level slightly beyond their current competence (Krashen). The material must, however, be presented as meaningful, comprehensible input with visual and extralinguistic clues to provide the necessary bridge or scaffolding between day-to-day language and more rigorous academic language.
English Journal Vol. 93, No. 4 March 2004
Copyright © 2004 by the National Council of Teachers of English
. All rights reserved.
Can English Language Learners Acquire Academic English?
Cummins identifies Cognitive Academic language proficiency
(CALP) as competence in the academic aspects of English, the formal language of reports, essays, standardized tests
, and other works used to assess students' knowledge ("The Role"). Ironically, students may have the knowledge, but if they do not possess the linguistic labels that correspond to that awareness, they do not achieve academic success
. CALP is acquired by deciphering text and discourse; it is not rich with visuals, gestures, intonation, or other graphic representation, as is everyday speech or Basic Interpersonal communication
Skills (BICS). We usually do not encounter it in casual daily speech nor on television program
s (with the exception of something like the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer). Abstract and complex, it develops slowly. Whereas most language learners take up to two years to acquire BICS, they require five to seven years to attain academic language proficiency (Collier; Cummins, "The Role"). The link between cognition and communication is critical. As learners progress through their schooling, they face increasingly demanding cognitive tasks. With those tasks is the assumption that they possess the level of language necessary for expressing that critical knowledge. What are the implications of this research for us in the English LANGUAGE ARTS
classroom? First, we must allow English language learners time to demonstrate academic literacy. Some students will require time to process what they are hearing--the lectures we present, the dialogue among peers, the class discussions
that unfold. They are making sense of English discourse, following not merely the content but also the presentation of ideas, the structure of sentences, and the determination of what vocabulary is meaningful. Others will need extra time to negotiate the tasks embedded in an assignment and their thinking in English. Recognizing that the English language learner may not demonstrate competency today but is in the process of acquiring proficiency is key. Second, we can use several strategies that will assist English language learners to comprehend the reading material and progress with academic language proficiency. Using visual clues such as gestures, facial expressions, and pictures as we speak gives context to abstract concepts. If students can match an image with a concept or word, they are more likely to remember the concept. We need to provide visual clarification in the form of graphic or-
ganizers: Venn diagrams, semantic web
s, charts, and so on. These help students to see connections between ideas and make an abstract concept concrete. Once students comprehend a concept, they need the appropriate form to express that understanding. Therefore, patterns such as outlines, formulas, sentence beginners, skeleton sentences, and structures for discourse are also necessary. Ideally, we will simplify our speech patterns. This does not mean speaking more loudly or slowly; it does mean paying attention to the language we use. Are we using idiomatic expressions unfamiliar to someone from another culture? If so, do we rephrase the meaning?Are we offering examples as a means of clarifying an idea? Do we allow students time to finish an idea? These techniques assist students' comprehension. Next, we can provide opportunities for students to practice academic language while expressing key content. We can ask students to use patterns, especially in role-playing, partnered work, largegroup discussion, and oral presentations. This enables learners to interact not only with each other but also with the concepts. Most important is to develop cognitive and linguistic skills. We want students to be able to ask for clarification and to clarify ideas themselves. Paraphrasing, giving examples, and encouraging guesses all prompt thinking and help students develop oral language. During lectures, for example, we may frequently pause to check for understanding. If we ask students to paraphrase the main points, we are providing an opportunity to use the language just heard to demonstrate comprehension. During class discussions, asking students to paraphrase another student's remark before offering a comment encourages listening and critical thinking
and offers more practice with academic language. We want critical thinkers. Scaffolding must be thoughtful and constant. Our expectations must be explicit and challenging but chunked appropriately to the linguistic abilities of the students. One of my colleagues approached me excitedly the other day. "Let me tell you what I'm doing with persuasive writing," she exclaimed, grinning. "I've decided to have my students work on debates as an introduction to writing. I figure they follow the same basic patterns as persuasive writing. Besides, speaking one's mind seems a lot less intimidating than writing about what's on one's mind." So true. What I appreciate in addition to my colleague's enthusiasm
From the Secondary Section
is how her modification will help English language learners move deftly from basic interpersonal communication to the next arena of cognitive and academic challenge, academic literacy. As a former speech teacher, my colleague knows that both writing and speaking follow certain patterns of organization and language use. Having students play with formal spoken language as a cue to moving into formal written language is a potent strategy. Like my colleague, when I work with secondor third-language students I seek the movement from context-rich language to context-reduced and more cognitively demanding language (Cummins, Empowering). I introduce a controversial topic
from current events on the television, radio, or newspaper; from the students' lives; or from my life. Last year, we heard a report about an expectant mother who had been in an accident-induced coma for several months. After the baby had come to full term and had been surgically delivered, the doctors and family wrestled with whether or not to continue life support for the mother. "What would you do in this situation?" was the question my students posed to each other. After discussing the facts as we knew them, we each wrote a response to the question. Then, student pairs tried to resolve the dilemma. Each pair presented their ideas to the entire class. To raise the discussion to the next level, I asked the students to take the viewpoint of the doctors, the family, and the attorneys for both sides. I was asking the students to consider different viewpoints, but many students realized that they needed more information to help them express their ideas clearly. We gathered more information, read a few more articles, and discussed the situation. Students began forming clear opinions about using life-support systems. I asked the class to break into groups of pro and con. Each group received a neutral article about the topic in addition to one that supported their group's assigned views. Referring to the articles, students took notes together, clarified ideas, and discovered new arguments. However, they realized that they needed the other side of the issue and sent one scout to the other group to listen to the conversation. As the group summarized the main points, the scout took notes, asked questions, and returned to her home group to report the opposing group's thinking. She also took copies of their article to discuss with her group.
As the groups prepared their arguments, they were ready for another interjection from me. In addition to reviewing rhetorical patterns--the main (first, second, another) reason . . . and the opposing argument . . . --I also offered them sentence patterns to use as they borrowed language from their readings. Sentence beginnings like, "According to (source), (state your argument . . . )"; "As noted, (state the occupation and name of source) says, . . ."; or "Opponents believe that . . . ; however, . . . ." Finally, before students gave their debates, I modeled a preliminary and counter speech for them. Students evaluated each other during the debates, listening for arguments, organization, language, and delivery. We discussed their success with the debates, including their ability to argue a topic formally. Students felt comfortable with the process of defending their ideas because they knew the format, they knew what to expect, and they understood the language patterns necessary to express their points. Later, they were ready to try persuasive writing because they had already gone through a similar process orally. I believe this process helped students develop academic literacy for several reasons. First, the work began with the prior knowledge of the students. They recognized that, even if they were in the process of acquiring academic language, they still had ideas to share. Their point of view mattered. Next, they had time to process information and to play with language. They had time to try out their ideas and their language. They moved from basic interpersonal communication to more formal academic language. In addition, they worked on the process in meaningful sections. Each part of the assignment was structured so that students knew what was expected of them. Each piece was at a level more challenging than the previous one, yet all led to competency. They had several opportunities to role-play and to test ideas and the corresponding language. Finally, they worked together to ask questions of each other, to clarify information, to elaborate their understanding and, finally, to rehearse their part. We know from brain-based research that all of these activities help a learner to store information in long-term memory. Moreover, for the English language learner, these activities provide the language practice necessary for patterns and vocabulary to become automatic. Their oral academic development will influence their written academic language. Of course, their adeptness at reading aca-
Can English Language Learners Acquire Academic English?
demic language will also influence their oral and written production. These language development
strategies are effective with any topic. It is a rather lofty goal to teach students the art of communication in English--assisting them to read with comprehension, use strategies skillfully, and express ideas and opinions effectively in oral and written form
. Wonderfully, these are goals for English as a Second Language students and native speakers of English. What we can do is educate ourselves about the characteristics of second-language learners and follow best practices that assist English language learners and native speakers. Seeing the connections between effective instruction and successful learning of all the diverse learners in our classrooms will help answer the question, Can English language learners acquire academic English? If we recognize that best instructional practices for ESL students are best practices for all students, we will know that the answer is yes. Works Cited Anstrom, Kris. Preparing secondary education
Teachers to Work with English Language Learners: English Language Arts. National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education Resource Collection Series 10. Washington: George Washington U, 1998. 27 Oct. 2003 .
Collier, Virginia P. "Acquiring a Second Language for School." Directions in Language and Education. National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, Fall 1995. 27 Oct. 2003 . Cummins, Jim. Empowering Minority Students. Sacramento: California Assn. for Bilingual Education, 1989. ------. "The Role of Primary Language Development in Promoting Educational Success for Language Minority Students." Schooling and Language Minority Students: A Theoretical Framework. Sacramento: California Dept. of Education, 1981. 350. Kindler, Anekka L. Survey of the States' Limited English Proficient Students and Available educational programs and Services: 20002001 Summary Report. Washington: Natl. Clearinghouse for English Lang. Acquisition and Lang. Instruction Education Programs, 2002. 27 Oct. 2003 . Krashen, Stephen D. The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. New York: Longman, 1985. McKeon, Denise. "When Meeting `Common' Standards Is Uncommonly Difficult." Educational Leadership 51.8 (1994): 4549. Thomas, Wayne P., and Virginia P. Collier. School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students. Washington: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, 1997. 27 Oct. 2003 . Vygotsky, Lev. Thought and Language. Trans. Alex Kozulin. Cambridge: MIT, 1986.
> EJ on the Web
The Web site provides information and material beyond that in the journal. Some content changes every two months as new issues of English Journal are published. Featured items for March and April include: > For Fun. Play "Absent Neighbors" and share this game with your students. > Contests and Awards. You still have time for students to enter the 2004 Holocaust Remembrance Project National Essay Contest. The details are all here. > Personal Reading Forum. Discuss Gap Creek, the novel reviewed by Linda Null and Suellen Alfred in the "Personal Reading" column in the journal, or recommend other good titles for teachers to read.