education

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Factors that can affect ELL students acquisition

After spending the summer learning about the many different factors that can affect ELL student’s acquisition of a second language, I was interested in finding out how these factors, such as: psychological factors (motivation, attitude, anxiety), input, and interaction (interactional opportunities, length of residence, amount of L1 and L2) etc, influence teaching English literature to ELL students. I also wished to explore practical ways that I, as a current ELL teacher can better reach my students in teaching reading comprehension. It is obvious that in any type of second language acquisition situation, one of the significant difficulties facing the non-native students would be reading. “Those who experience difficulties in the development of such skills do not do as well as other students in content area classes, have lower self-esteem, are more likely to pose discipline problems in school, and are less likely to graduate from high school (Shanahan &Barr, 1995)” (Li 50). This statement drives home the importance of teaching reading skills as well as providing multiple opportunities for both academic and pleasure reading.

With America’s demographics so heavily comprised of non-native speakers it is increasingly crucial for all teachers to have some background knowledge about working with learners who are limited in English proficiency (LEP).

“There are currently more than 180 different language groups represented by the students in America’s schools. Students who speak English as a second language (ESL) constitute a significant percentage of the nation’s school population: schools currently provide programs for nearly 3 million ESL students, and it is estimated that this population is growing two and half times faster than that of native English speaking students”(Shore 30).

When beginning to teach literacy, especially with second language learners, it is important to keep in mind some of the “lessons that research” has taught us, and that Susan Watts-Taffe and Diane M. Truscot mention in their article, “Focus on research: Using what we know about language and literacy development for ESL students in mainstream classroom”:

The four macro-skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking) develop in an integrated manner (Au, 1998);

Language and thought are socially constructed (Vgotsky, 1987);

Language learning proceeds best when children use language for meaningful purposes (Au, 1998);

What constitutes meaningful language use is influenced by an individual’s prior experience, culture, motivation, and goals (Delpit, 1995);

Language learning proceeds best when children are encouraged to take risks, experiment, and make mistakes (Wells, 1986) and

Modeling and scaffolding are critical to successful language learning (Roehler & Cantlon, 1997; Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976).

By keeping these principles in mind, while working with both native and non-native speakers, teachers are better equipped to approach literacy teaching because they have a better understanding of the many processes and factors that are working beneath the surface to influence our students’ progress, successes, and failures. In addition to the before-mentioned principles, teachers must also keep in mind the specific nature of reading comprehension; in other forms of language proficiency, students are able to rely on body language and gestures in addition to spoken language. One is able to communicate, understand and be understood even with minimum knowledge of grammatical structures and vocabulary, in part because the interaction takes place between at least two people who are able to engage in a communicative exchange. However, in reading, students’ survival skills in other areas of communication do not aid them in discerning the meaning behind a text as well. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that teachers pass on the skills needed to be able to explore, break-down, and understand a text on multiple levels, and across various genres.

The Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) skills threshold claims that that second language learners acquire everyday language in a relatively short period of time-around two years (Cummins). However, to acquire the academic language needed to be successful in school takes roughly 5 to 11 years. “The large span in years that it takes to develop academic language primarily reflects the varying degrees of academic preparation and literacy skills students bring with them to secondary school in their new country”(Ernest-Slavit et al 117). This means that while an ELL student may appear to be proficient when conversing in social situations with peers, or even in the classroom, teachers should not assume that these students are fluent.

In light of this information, the amount of learning that ELL students need to internalize is much greater than native speakers. Yet, “Given the interconnectedness of language development and cognitive development, research in the area of ESL education suggests that […] English-language learning should take place in conjunction with the learning of academic content”(Watts-Taffe 260). This means that not only are ELL students at the secondary level responsible for learning a years worth of information in different content areas, but in addition to this information ELL students must also progress in language proficiency, that is a lot of knowledge and pressure on ESL learners. It is also important to remember that no learner is alike, so every learner is going to enter into the academic arena with different strengths and weakness, different levels of previous knowledge towards English or the L2, as well as varying levels of knowledge towards the content areas. A student’s background can either help him/her in their second language acquisition or hinder, depending on how close their L1 is to their L2, the amount of previous schooling they have had, their motivation, and support from parents and teachers to name only a few. However, in spite of the many different factors that needs to be taken into consideration when working with ELL students, there are some specific strategies that teachers can use to aid in teaching literacy skills.

“Much of knowledge students have about” the four macro skills “in their native languages can and will transfer to English, making the task of learning English that much easier” (Watts-Taffe 260). Therefore, it is critical that teachers activate prior knowledge that students already possess, concerning these skills, as well as different content areas. For example, a teacher can activate student’s prior knowledge about a certain time period or event by asking questions and having students share experiences individually, in groups, or as a class before reading a new text. Not only that, but teachers can also activate prior learned skills such as: “emergent reading skills, knowledge of text structure, prediction, setting purposes for reading and writing, comprehension strategies, and reader self confidence”(260).

Using the students’ previous knowledge as a foundation to begin literacy instruction, teachers can build onto students’ existing knowledge through scaffolding. “Students can then use the previous activities as a framework to add to their list of Discourses (including vocabulary and other language features) as they read the novel” (Alford 240). Previewing a novel by asking questions and relating a reading passage to something that is already familiar to students is also an effective strategy to use with ELL students according to Mary J. Drucker’s article, “What reading teachers should know about ESL learners” (23). By providing as much preparation prior to reading as possible, teachers can offer what Krashen referred to as “comprehensible input”.

Another strategy to employ is to model reading for your students. Reading aloud to them illustrates good examples of: reading skills, correct pauses, and pronunciation. Pairing students with a more proficient reader is also extremely beneficial because the “skilled reader demonstrates appropriate reading rate, inflection, and pausing for the less skilled reader” (Li 51). Teachers may work one-on-one with a student, or pair them up with parents, or fellow students. “For ESL students who have limited English proficiency, paired reading has a number of advantages over traditional classroom reading instruction” (59). As discussed this summer, anxiety and self-confidence can influence a ELL student’s affective filter, however Li suggests that paired reading will not only reduce anxiety because students will no longer have to worry about making mistakes in front of a large class, but will also lessen the pressure associated with working within a large group, and the learner can focus more on the task at hand and practice their L2 (59-60).

The methods used to teach literacy skills is important, but so is choosing culturally relevant and diverse texts for your students. “Schema theory holds that comprehending a text involves an interaction between the reader’s background knowledge and the text itself (Carrell & Eisterhold, 1983)” (Drucker 25). Therefore it is important to realize the value in teaching students how to comprehend a text, not just to linguistically understand it. Students are going to be able to relate to texts that deal with issues and topics that are similar to their own culture. Multiple researchers have found that “[…] children had better reading comprehension and reading efficiency with texts that were culturally familiar”. Therefore teachers should strive to chose texts that will “match the cultural schemata and background knowledge” of their students (25). Finally:

“The environment in which ELLs study and learn is at least as important as the methods, strategies, and approaches you may choose to employ. Using a culturally relevant teaching approach means that students’ second language can be viewed as an additive to the classroom environment, rather than as a deficit that needs to be remedied”(28).

Teaching ELL students that their home language or their L1 is a positive thing is very important because the message we send to our students of how we view them affects their self-confidence, anxiety levels, motivation, and attitude towards not only the classroom and learning, but possibly toward American culture in general.

In closing, while “multilingual classrooms offer rich opportunities to extend and expand” our knowledge of literacy development, we need to “ensure that ESL students receive the same opportunities for linguistic and cognitive growth as do native English-speaking students”(Watts-Taff). By scaffolding while teaching literacy skills, providing multiple examples of modeling, and encouraging learners to work together in paired reading, teachers can help to ensure that ELL students receive as much helpful instruction and guidance as possible in learning reading comprehension and other literacy skills.


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