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Literature Programs Address Challenges In Promoting Second Language Acquisition

Current legislation obligates the American public school system to provide quality education for all students regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, and disability. The societal and legislative shift in how educators teach second language learner students (ELL) is rooted in the civil rights movement. In 2004, 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, the American Civil Liberties Union announced the Williams v. California ruling (Carrison & Ernst-Slavit, 2005). The courts expanded on the 1974 Supreme Court decision Lau v. Nichols (Jimenez, b) and determined the state of California failed to meet its constitutional obligation to provide ELL students with adequate instructional materials (Carrison & Ernst-Slavit, 2005). Debates continue; if the education system is to be viable a cost effective educational system and an environment dedicated to creating jobs for all individuals within the society is a necessary goal.

Although the past two decades mark an increase in research addressing issues faced while working with ELL students, promoting second language acquisition and demonstrating state standard student achievement while maintaining already existing educational programs continues to challenge the public school system. These challenges will be addressed throughout the paper and strategies to meet them offered. Research indicates incorporating literature programs into classroom instruction offers a tangible and successful strategy to address challenges in promoting second language acquisition and demonstrating adequate academic achievement.

Literature and Language Acquisition


Learning a second language involves the most complex set of skills one could ever seek to acquire. According to Bongaerts and Poulisse (1989) the language learning process involves the combination of practicing, focusing, observing, redirecting, and correcting and not everyone has an equal amount of ability to master these skills. Bi-lingual literature provides a cost effective way to provide content instruction in both an ELL student’s first language (L1) and second language (L2) language (Ernst-Slavit, Moore, & Maloney, 2002). A second challenge is mastering a language like any other complex set of skills such as mastering a sport or playing a musical instrument requires an enormous investment of time. Students who work on language skills outside of the classroom through reading programs progress at a faster rate (Carrison & Ernst-Slavit, 2005). Thirdly learning a second language requires effort; thus, internal motivation becomes a factor. As students become motivated to read language skills increase (National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition, 2002).

A fourth challenge involves the relationship between academic and conversational language. What Cummins referred to as Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) is different from Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS). Reading increases vocabulary (Martinez, 2000). A fifth challenge involves students requiring individualized instruction. The use of literature circles enables educators to individualize instruction (Lyman & Foyle, 1988). A sixth is the English language involves many idioms. One effective way to learn them is through literature books (Carrison & Ernst-Slavit, 2005). Lastly, students filter our learning when placed in uncomfortable learning atmospheres. Krashen’s low affective filter theory claims students filter when nervous (Jimenez, 2008b). The use of literature circles facilitates comfortable learning environments for ELL students (Martinez, 2000).

Accountability involved in student language acquisition

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) reform spotlights the ELL population. Most schools have increased the amount of English instruction and educators incorporate researched based practices such as differentiated instruction and cooperative learning to improve instructional quality (Wenning, Herdman, Smith, McMahon, & Washington, 2003). NCLB annual accountability forces educators to acknowledge ELL students first become proficient in BICS. Yet, it is CALP ensuring access to curriculum content. Most data reviewers do not consider state standardized tests assess through only academic language (Sunderman & James, 2005). NCLB’s required measurement does not focus on student progress over time; however, measurement over time is critical for ELL students (Clewell, Clemencia, & Murray, 2007). Thus, educators must use effective strategies to accelerate language acquisition, especially if a student lacks strong native language cognitive development.

Students lacking strong native cognitive development will have both their L1 underdeveloped and their L2 underdeveloped. With these ELL students, time and student motivation become critical factors in language acquisition because, according to NCLB public school systems must develop systematic supports for the ELL students to meet the constitutional guarantees of equal access to quality education in the new age of accountability expectations. School sites must have all students meet expected proficiency levels in Mathematics and English Language arts (ELA) assessments by 2014 (Sunderman & James, 2005). Data reveals a growing achievement gap between native “majority” English speakers and students and ELL students.

Literature supports current theoretical framework

To maximize ELL learning outcomes, interactive and authentic approaches to academic skills are incorporated into classrooms throughout the country. Approximately 20 years ago researchers Cummins and Krashen developed a theoretical framework for ELL instruction which emphasizes a natural language acquisition approach (Jimenez, 2008a). Their work continues to be the most influential framework for ELL instruction.

According to Cummins, investing in the development of multiple strategies for language acquisition is essential in today’s public school system (Meng, 2005).According to Brabham (2000) literature groups and incorporating picture books into class instruction supports language acquisition because speaking activates reading abilities and reading activities activate speaking abilities. Literature groups are selected by class educators. Selection supports sensitivity to confidence levels not just in reading but communication, and emotional intelligence skills. This creates a comfortable atmosphere that is critical in language acquisition. During direct small group instruction, an adequate wait time can be provided to monitor student progress.

To maximize learning outcomes, interactive and authentic approaches to literature skills are incorporated in each lesson. Instructional strategies include: bilingual pairs/groups, opportunities to use and learn reading concepts in two languages. In addition to visual cues, computer software programs allowing students to read content in L1 or L2 can be used.Pedagogical practices can be easily incorporated into literature groups. These include (a) building upon background knowledge (b) front loading of vocabulary and language functions (c) incorporating thinking maps or graphic organizers into assignments. Graphic organizers are used to work with cognates in groups too. Think alouds are a wonderful strategy and can be used to verbalize the relationship between concepts (Noyes, 2008a). These are just a few examples of how ELL students’ academic and language needs can be addressed in literature groups.


Language Acquisition Benefits for ELL students

Small learning communities such as literature circles are a successful teaching strategy which benefits ELL students by accelerating language (Cockrell, Caplow & Donaldson, 2000). Creating comfortable learning atmospheres is crucial because Krashen’s low affective filter theory claims individuals filter content when nervous (Jimenez, 2008a). Benefits stem from teachers knowing their students and organizing groups according to language proficiency, academic achievement and personality. One language acquisition benefit is teaching to and receiving instructional support from peers fosters an atmosphere of acceptance and comfort while encouraging exploration of different learning styles (Bongaerts, & Poulisse, 1989). A second involves a decrease in academic pressure; providing alternative group assessments immediately shifts student focus from the end result to the learning process (Jimenez, 2008b). A third involves the use of pictures or relia. This assists with students increasing cognitive language skills. This in turn helps them during their state assessments.

Literature groups provide the opportunities for students to enhance language learning and competence as reflected in the group members’ listening, reading, writing, and speaking skills in the L1 and L2 language. Literature circles encourage peer assistance. Teaching concepts to peers helps develop oral communication skills. This is important while increasing students’ academic language in L2 (Noyes, 2008b). Lastly, working in small literature groups assists with language information exchange using academic knowledge, specific grammar rules, and content specific vocabulary (Meng, 2005).

Literature groups or book discussion groups are two strategies used in teaching reading and recall. For students involved in literature circles stories become real as they actively engage with peers and they discuss the text (Fuchs, Fuchs, Mathes & Simmons, 1997). As previously mentioned when ELL students find themselves in small, non-threatening learning groups learning begins. Safe literature circle environments potentially provide opportunities for ELL students to share their own opinions, insights and cultural stories. This creates the potential to foster cognitive development and develop strong literacy skills. In addition to these positive benefits, the different student responses and perspectives give reluctant ELL students or ELL students with less language experience many different models for talking about, interpreting, and sharing literature (Clewell, Clemencia, & Murray, 2007).

Socialization Benefits for ELL students

Socialization plays an important role in our society. ELL students will enter our communities with or without a high school degree. Literature circles encourage peer modeling for groups have the potential to foster an atmosphere of student respect and ability which accelerates the learning process. Thus, literature circles offer significant student support by creating meaning with peers while developing English literacy. This is why groups are not randomly selected and group guidelines taught. In addition to this, a standard rule of behavior during cooperative learning activities includes no put-downs.

According to Slavin (2003) Cumminsadvocated while working with ELL students from diverse countries and cultures, educators must build an effective learning environment. Attention given to the students’ L1 by incorporating culturally responsive teaching into instruction through literature exposes non English language learners and fosters and inclusive environment. In addition to this, giving attention to promoting students’ English acquisition and recognizing its role in their lives outside of school is encouraged.

Being selective about student participation supports sensitivity to confidence levels not just in academic content but communication skills. Communication skills are essential in socialization (Cockrell, Caplow, & Donaldson, 2000). Thus, academic and social skills are addressed in groups. For example, in our culture active listening begins with making eye contact and not talking but engaging our ears. This is not necessary the case in other cultures. Again this is also critical for comfortable atmospheres are critical in language acquisition.

Cultural Benefits for ELL students

For students to progress to higher education and create social change, support for students living in a culturally, ethnically and linguistically diverse community is essential. Attention is encouraged to promote students to acquire English and recognize its role in their lives outside of school while respecting the role their L1 language plays. Including multicultural literature into literature groups fosters positive race relations, increase student retention, and enhance student satisfaction with their learning experience. The analysis and group discussions centered on reading passages in many cultures offers ELL students the opportunity to explore social and cultural issues about the world around them

Creating cultural diverse leaning communities will benefit not only individuals but the community at large (Fuchs, Mathes, & Simmons, 1997). Students will learn not only the customs of this country but native English speakers will learn about other cultures. Knowledge is the key to understanding diversity and embracing difference (Jimenez, 2008b).

Academic Benefits for ELL students

According to National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (2002) if ELL students do not quickly acquire English they are more inclined to fall behind their English-speaking peers and as a result not fully participate in society. Visual representations make text meaningful. Teachers strategically select literature for groups aligned with academic standards and to promote cultural diversity. Thus, there is always a structured purpose and objective. The lesson plans and learning objectives will then always include specific goals and criteria for literature assessment. The literature group structure allows time for the use of visual cues. Providing visual supports enriches vocabulary presentations and helps students acquire academic language in their L2 language. Literature groups also offer opportunities for ELL students with more language skills to explain or teach concepts to emerging learners. The benefits all ELL students for the best way to master content are to teach it.

In conclusion, selecting literature groups as a way for students to access the curriculum promotes student language acquisition and increases academic achievement, positive race relations, increase student retention, and enhance student satisfaction with their learning experience. Another benefit is literature provides the best attempt for preparing ELL students to be life-long learners and successful citizen ns in a increasing culturally, linguistically, and ethically diverse society. Literature circles offer opportunities to expose students to library resources. All students will eventually exit the public school system so instilling and educational institution resource is a gift to last a life time. Teachers are able to create small literature learning activities such as mixed pair share, mingle and match, round table, roam the room, and head’s together. The possibilities are endless. This is wonderful for as learning becomes the goal of education, students will be stimulated to seek new knowledge (Noyes, 2008b).

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