Jargon and the English Language Learner…

Marily Shatz and Louise C. Wilkinson, editors, The Education of English Language Learners, Research to Practice. New York: The Guilford Press, 2010.

Several years ago, I was asked to participate in a grant program run through the Education Alliance at Brown University on the topic of improving training  for student teachers in relation to English Language Learners (ELLs).  Along the way I had the opportunity to work with several of my colleagues more closely than in previous years while learning quite a bit about language acquisition and its impact on education.  In the year or so since my completing participation in the grant, I have taken stock of a variety of resources to which I was introduced and how they have (or have not) been integrated into my classroom.  In addition, my student teachers are soon to face an additional challenge as the work I do in my history methods classroom will not be enough and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will require all teachers to have coursework and/or professional development specifically focused on ELLs.

There is, as Shatz and Wilkinson point out, ample evidence to suggest that more training in this realm is important.  The reality is that whether it is Farsi, Russian, Spanish, or another language, there has been an increase in the number of ELLs in American schools across the country.  This issue is not restricted to urban environments either as it can be seen in remote rural communities, suburbs, and the city (2).  As the Commonwealth has discovered, teachers are not adequately prepared for facing this challenge.  Shatz and Wilkinson have collected a number of essays in this text, all of which ask questions about preparedness while also providing solid suggestions that teachers might implement in order to be effective with their students.  Not surprisingly, many of the methods that are recommended to aid ELLs in the classroom will serve to make an individual a better overall teacher.

The book’s introduction lays out the course of study in addition to emphasizing the background of the challenge.  Nearly every chapter follows a helpful organizational guideline, listing focus points, research, best practices, summative comments, and thoughts on future implications.  Particularly if you are interested in selecting sections from this collection to aid in teacher training, this organizational style is important and can help make the sections flow more clearly.  A key point that is emphasized again and again, no matter the author throughout the chapters is that teachers must recognize that “academic language” must be decoded for students who are acquiring English in order to effectively teach them a variety of subjects.  It’s difficult to teach a student about the history of the American Revolution if you have never explained things such as “timeline,” “republic,” “Constitutionalism,” “founders,” and other words that are embedded in American culture.  Students who acquire the ability to communicate on a social level, will still need instruction in ideas like “primary document,” “paragraph,” “thesis statement,” etc.  Finally, we shouldn’t assume that our native English speakers know these academic phrases either!

Some issues with the text include, ironically, the heavy use of jargon.  It is an education text, so I can’t say that I’m surprised, though I will express dismay.  In a field where it is repeatedly emphasized that to reach students and aid them, it is best practice to teach what “academic language” is, it seems awkward to use phrases that require teacher candidates to do serious translation work.  For example, in discussing how children tend to be “conservative learners,” the authors say “They [students] cannot be certain that words in one language will map to precisely the same conceptual space that they do in another language” (6).  Another example is the discussion of L1 to L2 without defining what that abbreviation means – it’s easily inferred, but still, why not say language 1, language 2 first?  One more – that bilingual teachers might speak two languages fluently but “may not have sufficient metalinguistic knowledge of critical linguistic contrasts between the two languages” (12).  Sigh.

In addition, there are some assertions in the introduction that are worth questioning.  The authors suggest that American students trail children from other countries in certain subjects (math and science) and further imply that this occurs despite investment in some ELL and special education services among others (3).  Everyone from Shatz and Wilkinson to current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan suggest that by falling behind we run the risk of not being competitive on an international level.  In fact one report suggests that the nation faces a serious security risk should we not improve – alternative points of view believe that the security risk notion is severely overstated.  The scores on international testing that have emerged since Shatz and Wilkinson published this work indicate that the United States has made some improvements and is not among the worst-performing developed nations.  Also, when one adjusts score results to include poverty statistics, American students turn out to be in the top two of nations.  So – is it that we need to adopt strategies from homogenous nations such as Finland or perhaps we need to concern ourselves more when a district has over 50% of its students are on free or reduced lunch.

The Education provides readers with some important baselines of information on language acquisition and its relation to being ready for school – interested readers will gain much in the way of how first and second languages are embedded in students’ minds.  Additional sections focus on specific issues related to learning to speak and write in English as well as emphasizing once more that ELLs need direction in how to use the language they are learning in academic settings.  Do we truly, as the authors suggest, have an ethical obligation “to fulfill the promise of a better life that America offers to immigrants?” (3).  I don’t know the answer to that question because it seems like an impossible promise, particularly in light of our nation’s strained relationship with immigrants.  I do know however, that as educators, we can give all of our students a fighting chance to learn – if the strategies in texts such as this can be useful and help all students, not only ELLs, they are worth reading and exploring in further depth.

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