Born Without Limits: Nurturing the Development of English Language
Proficiency in Learners Whose Primary Language is Engli...
To understand language, we need to
consider language abilities (Verhoeven
& Vermeer, 2006). Language abilities
are observa...
other than English (e.g., Spanish,
French) (Proctor et al, 2005). However,
there is also a need to refocus our
efforts on ...
appropriate for communicating their
understanding of complex subjects
(Beach, Thein, & Webb, 2012). By
attending to socio-...
Sources
Beach, R., Thein, A.H., & Webb, A. (2012). Teaching to Exceed the English Language Arts
Common Core State Standard...
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Born Without Limits: Nurturing the Development of English Language Proficiency in Learners Whose Primary Language is English

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A call to move beyond traditional conceptions of language as a preconceived set of grammar rules in an effort to support academic English language proficiency in students whose primary (L1) language is English

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Born Without Limits: Nurturing the Development of English Language Proficiency in Learners Whose Primary Language is English

  1. 1. Born Without Limits: Nurturing the Development of English Language Proficiency in Learners Whose Primary Language is English Conventional Wisdom The leading theory of language is rooted in the belief that the human brain operates like a computer. A computer is a ‘smart machine’ that can store and retrieve information at lightning speeds, sort and assemble information to make to make it easier to understand, create images that mimic works of art, and grow branches or networks exponentially, almost infinitely. It operates using a pre- programmed system of codes much like the signs and symbols of our own language. Impressive, indeed! But the computer did not invent itself. It is a product of mankind’s inventiveness and thereby created with mankind’s inherent flaws. Noam Chomsky defines language as an abstract system of grammar principles and rules programmed in our genes (Payne and Barbera, 2010). At the International Congress of Linguists in Geneva, the world-renowned scholar asserted his belief in the theory that “languages are derived from some fixed, internal knowledge that determines everything.” (Chomsky, 2013). Could he be wrong? A Shift in Focus Evidence is emerging that paints a very different picture. Traditional views of language have done little more than serve to answer the question What is language? while modern views are providing new insights by acting in service to the question Why is language?.
  2. 2. To understand language, we need to consider language abilities (Verhoeven & Vermeer, 2006). Language abilities are observable (and to some extent measureable) expressions of human language. Linguists categorize language into four (4) primary ability levels: phonological (discrimination and production of sounds), lexical (understanding and production of words), syntactical (understanding and production of sentences), and text (understanding and production of spoken and written discourse). In recent years, instruction has focused on the improvement and mastery of such ability levels through the development, implementation, and evaluation of curricula and teaching practices designed to support language learning. This has served beneficial because it has provided us an opportunity to focus our efforts on improving at least the obvious and observable facets of language. It has also served to demystify language instruction for novice literacy professionals and content-area teachers who aim to improve the English language proficiency levels of learners. The downside is that many have come to know, understand, and teach literacy through a narrow lens which limits the effectiveness of English language instruction. You are What You Speak There is more to language than the assembling and understanding of words and sentences. To teach language effectively, we must also consider the socio-cultural aspects of language which can accelerate or slow English language learning. Much of the research on language acquisition has focused on learners whose primary language is one
  3. 3. other than English (e.g., Spanish, French) (Proctor et al, 2005). However, there is also a need to refocus our efforts on learners whose primary language is English but who lack the skills necessary to demonstrate proficiency in the English language. Learners who lack the skills necessary to read, speak, and write with skill are often marginalized. In other words, they are excluded from participation in classroom and workplace activities that are creative, engaging, and require critical and higher-order thinking skills even though such involvement can actually spur English language learning. Students with limited English language proficiency benefit from the same kinds of experiences that have been proven to foster second-language learning acquisition. In order to improve upon this kind of learning in the classroom, it is important that we recognize that students who struggle with English language proficiency (much like students who are second-language learners) bring a diverse set of knowledge and skills to school. Their language abilities should never be labeled a form of broken English, nor should their knowledge and experiences be ignored or undervalued. Learners who attribute positive feelings to the norms and customs of their primary language are better equipped to cross the bridge to learning a second language. Conversely, learners who feel that their customs, which include the production of their primary language, are deficient and are constantly undermined in the presence of their peers are less likely to learn to understand, speak, and write using academic language with ease. Language as a Tool for Learning English language proficiency is important not only for learning to speak with proficiency but for learning how to comprehend advanced subject matter and how to write using tools “English language proficiency is important not only for learning to speak with proficiency but for learning how to comprehend advanced subject matter…”
  4. 4. appropriate for communicating their understanding of complex subjects (Beach, Thein, & Webb, 2012). By attending to socio-cultural elements, in addition to important structural elements of language, learners are provided greater access to academic English (Goldenberg, 2008). This happens through extracting meaning, explaining meaning (written/orally), and engaging in meaning-making through discussion in both the primary (L1) and secondary (L2) language with attention to the unique aspects of language the learner brings with them to school (Goldenberg, 2008). Such practices also foster the learning of new, popular, critical literacies that seem to characterize the workplace today (Beach, Thein, & Webb, 2012). Facingthe Change For centuries, Aristotle’s longstanding conception of language as sound with meaning was the leading thought and, were it not for thinkers willing to challenge such a belief system or for the ingenuity of man who would learn to communicate without sound, it probably would have prevailed. Despite advances in modern science and technology, we are constrained still by the complexities that language systems bring as well as basic aspects of language fundamentals such as phonological, lexical, syntactic, and text abilities. Thanks to the progress that mankind continues to make, we are boldly confronting brand new challenges and new questions are emerging, forcing us to revisit and rethink theories such as Universal Grammar in an effort to make more expansive a love of literacy-learning for ALL. Instructional scaffolds for students lacking English language proficiency include (but are not limited to)  pointing out similarities and differences between the L1 and academic English in a non-threatening manner;  a focus on the possibilities using the English language as opposed to an emphasis on the limits; encourage students to experiment with different ways to express ideas and communicate information in an effort to improve their academic reading, speaking, and writing skill-levels;  teaching students to expect (and anticipate) new words in texts (Hiebert, 2014);  teaching networks of similar-meaning words/phrases/concepts in groups or clusters (Hiebert, 2014);  Peter Elbow Strategy/Value of Response Groups (Pearson Education Webinar, 2014);  opportunities for students to write and read works in their own voice (or the voice of someone else);  valuing the diverse literacy practices/experiences/knowledge-levels that learners bring to school.
  5. 5. Sources Beach, R., Thein, A.H., & Webb, A. (2012). Teaching to Exceed the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards: A Literacy Practices Approach for 6-12 Classrooms. New York, NY: Routledge. Chomsky, Noam. (July 2013). Video. What is Language and Why Does it Matter?. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDc34AXWIls. Goldenberg, C. (2008). Teaching English Language Learners: What the research does—and does not—say. American Educator, 32(2), 8 – 23, 42 – 44. Hiebert, Elfrieda. (March 2014). A Generative Vocabulary. Retrieved from www.TextProject.org. Payne, Michael and Jessica Rae Barbera (eds). A Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory: Second Edition. Blackwell Publishing, 2010. Blackwell Reference Online. 25 March 2014 http://www.blackwellreference.com/public/book.html?id=g9781405168908_9781405168908 Pearson Education. (March 2014). Webinar. Voices from the Field: Writing Teachers Discuss Writing in the Common Core Curriculum. Retrieved from www.Commoncore.PearsonEd.com. Proctor, C.P., Carlo, M., August, D., & Snow, C.E. (2005). Native Spanish-speaking children reading in English: Toward a model of comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(1), 246 – 256. Verhoeven, L. (1987). Ethnic minority children acquiring literacy. Berlin: Mouton/DeGruyter. Verhoeven, L., & Vermeer, A. (2006). Sociocultural variation in literacy achievement. British Journal of Educational Studies, 54, 189 – 211. © Dessalines Floyd (March 2014)

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