Thursday, December 26, 2019

On Academic Language

When I was a grad student, there weren't enough courses for me to complete my MA in Applied Linguistics. I'd been offered a choice between that and an MS in Education in TESOL.

Most people went for the latter, because it led to certification in teaching. However, I already had a certification in English. I didn't need the MS, and I thought Applied Linguistics sounded marginally more impressive. Essentially it made me a language teacher, but I liked the title.

I was missing two courses. For one, my grade advisor said he'd let me take student teaching. This was convenient for me. I already had a full-time job teaching ESL at John Adams High School. All I had to do was go to work, be observed by some guy at Queens College, and my supervisor would get a free college course. It was a WIN-WIN for sure. My classmates told me the magical observation formula--you show a picture, you use five vocabulary words, and do other things I've since forgotten. I only used it when the guy observed me, but he thought I was a genius for following directions.

For my other course, I had to find something. One of my professors approached me about editing the opening chapters of a textbook she'd prepared. It was essentially a life manual for ELLs. What do you do at interviews? How do you get a job? How do you get into college? I read the book and didn't see great commercial potential. I told her I would do it only if she got me credit for independent study.

This professor was great at academic English. She was so good at it, in fact, that most people who picked up the book would likely put it down very quickly. I know that was my inclination. I sat and translated the chapters into comprehensible and accessible English. It was a lot easier to follow, and I hadn't diluted the ideas. The thing is, though, that if you happened to be up on rudimentary culture in your native language, you didn't need this guide. I didn't know anyone who needed this guide. I needed the credits though. I got an A and it was worth my time.

So here's my take on academic English--it likely as not entails language no one wants to read. It might mean you use big words whether or not they are necessary. It might mean you make ideas more complicated than they need be. It might not, of course. There's always the possibility that you need to use big words. Maybe you need to express ideas with such absolute precision that this is the only way to do it. Diane Ravitch writes books full of facts that are compelling as novels. That's not simply because she knows a lot of vocabulary. It's because she is well-read, because she loves and appreciates the written word, because she's thoughtful and talented, and is consequently a great writer.

I'm 100% sure the book I edited was not as complex as the language used. The professor knew it and that's why she had me rewrite it. I'll tell you also that we're making a huge error trying to force our high school students to read and write academic English, particularly if it's to the exclusion of all else. The way we approach it and teach it is completely wrong. It's still based on David Coleman's massive inferiority complex, inextricably tied to his famous notion that no one gives a crap what you think or feel. I'll grant you that I don't give a crap what David Coleman thinks or feels, but there's no reason to lay that on my students. They've all come from other countries, and they're all more interesting than he is.

This notwithstanding, I may not wish to hear their theories on whether or not we should use shark netting on beaches. Actually we don't ask for their theories. Instead, we have them read  bunch of articles on the topic and state which ones they agree or disagree with. We do that on the NY State Regents exam, which is Common Core to the core. I can show them how to pass this test. I do so by having them follow directions. There's no self-expression, and barely a glimmer of original thought.

That's why their writing sucks even if they end up passing the test, even if they use academic words they studied on a list somewhere. No one would read this stuff if they didn't have to. We're so wrapped up in trying to teach them academic writing that we don't stop and think--who the hell wants to read academic writing simply for the sake of doing so?

Furthermore, we don't call it academic writing. We call it writing. That's not what it is. It makes me wonder how many English teachers never consider the difference. Why should they? It's their job, according to David Coleman, to make students pass the test. If they do that, their supervisors are grateful, their school looks good, and they're Highly Effective.

And whether or not we've expressed it directly, our students know that no one gives a crap what they feel or think. While this works for tests, it might not work for the student long-term. We're teaching academic language and test prep, but we're not teaching writing. Make no mistake, we're not teaching reading either. We're presenting it as a chore. My Queens ELLs are not highly motivated to learn about shark netting, and would likely never explore it given half a chance.

There's a huge body of great fiction about immigration and the American experience. I've read a great deal of it and I love it. We don't bother with that in our classes because it's not on the test. No one needs to relate the written experience of other people to their own lives. No one needs to empathize with them. No one needs to understand that others have been through the same or similar as they have and come out having achieved something.

We could teach our students that reading is something they can love, something from which they can benefit. Instead we present it as a chore to be completed, a task to get over with. We then wonder why our students hate it. We wonder why they can't write their way out of a paper bag.

The answer's easy. We listen to the "experts," who don't teach, who know nothing, and do all the wrong things. We belittle the teachers who work with kids every day. We end up with a process more suited to sausage making than child rearing.

There are ways to teach reading and writing, and there are ways to inspire young people. We've drunk so much Kool-Aid from Bill Gates and others that we're moving backward and bragging about it.
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