Saturday, December 28, 2019

On Academic Language and ELLs

I've read most of a book called Cultivating Knowledge, Building Language. Someone from UFT told me it was the book on which the geniuses in Albany based their ELL policy. I'm not sure where to begin, if indeed that's the case, but I'll start with the fact that it focuses exclusively on elementary students.

I'm a high school teacher. The fact is my students come to me with varying knowledge of their first languages. They may be much more sophisticated than the learners on which this book focuses. Since this book focuses only on elementary students, it doesn't need to be aware that such skills are likely to transfer into English with experience. However, if the geniuses in Albany base practices for all students on such a book, it behooves them to know.

If I were to assume that my students had little knowledge of language because they have little knowledge of English, I'd be unqualified to teach these kids. Of course I get students who've had interrupted formal education, students who haven't received the instruction or attention elementary students usually get, but they are the exception, not the rule.

If you've studied language acquisition, you know that age is a big factor. You also know that puberty tends to be a real turning point. My students will not acquire English as easily as their elementary-aged brothers and sisters. They will need guidance and support beyond what six-year-olds need. It's my job to provide them with a nurturing and supportive environment. While the book does acknowledge that, were I to focus as intensely on vocabulary as the authors, I'd have little time to focus on what really concerns my kids.

Now I'm not against vocabulary. I love words, or I wouldn't be in the business of teaching English (let alone writing this blog). There is, though, a natural progression. I am not merely a provider of language. I am a salesperson, impressing upon my kids the joy of English, tricking them into loving it by hook or by crook. My hope is, that by doing so, I will get them motivated to not only learn what I offer, but also to go above and beyond on their own.

Of course that's easier said than done. Affect is a huge factor in language acquisition, one I've seen mentioned absolutely nowhere in the text. I've got a few kids who are not going to get it this year. Some of them are trying, and it's somehow beyond them. These kids will pick it up with time, usually in the second year. A few students absolutely hate being here. They were dragged here against their will, and it's very hard to get them to focus. Were I to take an extraordinary and almost exclusive focus on academic vocabulary, I would lose not only all of these kids, but a good amount of my other beginners too.

I remember how I learned to read. I was thrilled when I cracked the code, sometime in first grade, with the help of my mom. I went from there to comic books. From there I went to reading the paperbacks my mom left around the house. My ELLs may or may not live in print-rich households, but that doesn't preclude my giving them materials that will provoke their curiosity and enthusiasm. A topic this book hangs on is how animals survive. A topic that my ELLs may relate to more readily is how newcomers adjust, and there is a huge body of literature addressing that, here in our nation of immigrants.

Of course, a lot of that literature is fiction, given short shrift in this book, something to be used only as a secondary source, if at all. One thing all societies have in common is storytelling. It fascinates us. It fascinates me. I'd rather read a mystery novel any day of the week than a textbook. However, reading all those mystery novels is exactly what makes me better-suited to read the textbook than a whole lot of high-school and college students. I'm a reader. If we can create more readers, their vocabulary ability will expand with their reading. All due respect, we learn words better by seeing them in use than memorizing them from a list. Language is a tool to communicate, not a tedious chore to dread and be complied with.

There is something seriously amiss with the people who are leading our educational philosophy. We need to begin steering our students away from tedium and toward joy. Our students are not automatons to be programmed. In fact, not all of our students need to go to college. We need people to work trades, and if that's what they're good at, if that's what they want to do, if that's what makes them happy, we should help them get there.

Every year all the smart academics know everything. The following year they're all proven wrong and we're asked to disregard all the panaceas that were Last Year's Model. The geniuses in Albany have done an enormous disservice to the ELLs I serve. Everyone must be college and career ready, which actually means everyone must be college ready. No one needs to build a house, fix a car, or style your hair. No one needs to make music, or art, or theater. Also, there's no such thing as writer's voice, and nothing as trivial as art ought to be ascribed to writing, ever.

No, we all need to sit around and learn big words, because we all aspire to write prose as ponderous as that in the textbooks by which the geniuses in Albany set their Rolexes.
blog comments powered by Disqus