This paper explores three published articles by experts in the field of language acquisition. These articles discuss ways in which English language learners (ELL) begin to develop language skills through strategies, knowledge of their primary language (L1), and observation of behaviors and interactions with others. They differ in that Jim Cummins (1994) details how a high proficiency in L1 literacy skills can aid in the development of secondary language skills (L2). Home language and prior schooling can positively or negatively affect second language acquisition. Krashen's article in 1991 analyzed how ELL use social and behavioral cues as well as reading texts and exposure to feedback shapes the language acquisition of an ELL. Lastly, Rebecca Oxford (1994) revealed the role of strategies in the success of ELL. She discussed how students who look for meaning in what they do and are guided by a path of learning have a higher rate of achievement and the role of the teacher in providing comprehensible strategies. The ideas of all three authors play a strong role in the language acquisition of ELL.
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Keywords: English language learner, primary language, secondary language
A Review of Expert Opinions on Points of Language Acquisition
Numerous articles have been published on theories of language acquisition as they relate to ELL. The process of acquiring foreign language skills is different for everyone and can be affected by several factors such as the role of language in the home, primary language proficiency, practicing social language while interacting with others, and willingness to learn. Language also develops at different rates. Social and conversational language is acquired before academic language, and how a student works towards acquisition affects their progress as well. Reading texts and incorporating strategies and instructional techniques can increase comprehension. ELL also learn by feedback and reactions from others. Universal facial expressions are indications of correct behavior and speech, and syntactical errors are usually corrected by listening to others. The more visual, auditory, and hands on exposure students receive the more effective instruction will be because they are more likely to transfer previous knowledge and experiences.
Knowledge, Power, Identify in Teaching English as a Second Language
In 1994, Jim Cummins published the article Knowledge, Power, and Identify in Teaching English as a Second Language, including an array of theories related to the significance the of the presence of primary language skills (L1) in developing second language skills (L2). Cummins (1994) states, "the development of home language literacy skills by students entails no negative consequences for their overall academic or cognitive growth, and in some situations, there may be significant educational benefits." Students who have strong L1 literacy skills are usually able to transfer knowledge from one language to the next through the use of common background knowledge, supporting pictures, and familiar cognates. If a student's parents have a high degree of L1 proficiency and can work with their child in that language, the student can then make connections to that material in the classroom. In David Noyes's (n.d.) lecture video for Interactive Learning and Text Adaptation for English Learners, he demonstrated this theory by conducting a mini lesson on natural disasters in Spanish. As an English-speaking observer of this lesson, I was able to understand his information through the use of pictures of various natural disasters, repetition of key vocabulary words, body movements, and attention to familiar cognates. When he showed an example of a lesson utilizing realia, the transfer of knowledge was apparent. However, as he changed his model from an object to a colored picture, to a black and white picture, to a word, there was evidence of the theory of language interdependence. Cummins (1994) continues in the article, Knowledge, Power, and Identify in Teaching English as a Second Language, with the idea that "there is considerable evidence of interdependence of literacy skills across languages such that the better developed children's L1 conceptual foundation, the more likely they are to develop similarly high levels of conceptual ability in L2." Teachers should be aware of their students' L1 proficiency as they enter the classroom as this information should shape how their instruction in planned and delivered. Schools usually have a data or ELL specialist that provides teachers with this information so they can use it for planning purposes. Teacher's can maximize the success of their students if they build on their L1 skills, and utilize the students' experiences to foster their understanding of the new material. This notion of L1/L2 interdependence can open many doors for parents of ELL as well. They can facilitate their child's learning in their L1 and aid in strengthening their overall language skills. Teachers can reinforce this idea by integrating L1 vocabulary words into lessons, encouraging discussion in both L1 and L2, and inviting students to share about their culture with the class. This idea of a bilingual classroom is supported by Cummins (1994), "bilingual programs are positive because they reinforce cultural identity and have a greater likelihood of parent involvement." Students tend to be more successful when they are comfortable in their environment and have what Krashen (1988) referred to as a low affective filter, or decreased anxiety about performing in class due to a difference in language. When students' L1 is respected by the school and teachers through bilingual activities and programs, parents often feel more comfortable coming to the school and working as a partner with the teacher.
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In Knowledge, Power, and Identify in Teaching English as a Second Language Cummins (1994) quoted research studies that suggest that "different time periods are required for students to attain peer-appropriate levels in conversational skills in English compared to academic skills." This theory by Cummins was also touched on by Elizabeth Jimenez (n.d.) in the video, Introduction to Teaching English Language Learners and Foundations of Language Acquisition. Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) umbrella the social language skills that people begin to develop when first exposed to a new language. This type of language is conversational including words that are used on a daily basis that are supported by body language, facial expressions, and interacting with one another. Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) refers to the second type of language students will be exposed to, academic language. CALP is not spoken on a daily basis, it refers to skills and concepts to be learned, and students are not often exposed to it before attending school. BICS generally take 2-3 years for an ELL to acquire because of its frequent use versus CALP which can take 5-7 years before proficiency is reached due to its conceptual nature. All of these ideas discussed by Cummins (1994) in Knowledge, Power, and Identify in Teaching English as a Second Language, effect language acquisition for ELL and should be considered when planning instruction and assessment for a teacher working within this environment.
The Input Hypothesis: An Update
In 1991, Stephen Krashen published The Input Hypothesis, that discussed ways in which ELL acquire language through interacting with stimuli in their environment. Krashen (1991) believes "we acquire languages by understanding messages, that comprehensible input (CI) is the essential environmental ingredient in language acquisition." Comprehensible input referring to "students being able to understand the essence of what is being said or presented to them" (www.teachervision.com). Teachers can maximize this comprehensible input by incorporating body language, gestures, and pointing when they are giving directions or talking to the students. ELL are looking for these clues to maximize their input or understanding. By capitalizing on universal facial expressions, planning context embedded lessons that are rich with graphics, sounds, and video clips, and providing alternate resources such as audio taping and leveled reading texts teachers create an interactive learning environment that increases the comprehensible input for an ELL (Noyse, n.d.).
A scaffold of the Input Hypothesis is the Reading Hypothesis coined by Krashen (1991). In short, the Reading Hypothesis states "comprehensible input in the form of reading also stimulates language acquisitions." Simple texts with detailed illustrations begin to build meaning for ELL early on in the learning process. Pictures that match words enhance comprehension through connections. Reading aloud also helps build oral language fluency and comfort with how the English language is spoken. When students can build meaning from a text it is a powerful learning tool. Illustrated works help students make connections to their lives and community as they begin to understand the meanings of the words. Schools that service ELL often utilize whole language literacy resources to create a world of vocabulary, discussion, and text immersion. Exposure to language through text can also reinforce both social and academic vocabulary. The more frequently a student hears a words used in context the more likely they are to remember its meaning.
Within the Input Hypothesis, Krashen (1991) discussed the Output Plus Correction Hypothesis as another theory that could affect language acquisition. According to Krashen, "we acquire language by trying out new rules or items in production. If we receive negative feedback, we alter our hypothesis about what the rule is or what new vocabulary words mean, or how it is spelled." Basically, we assimilate based on the behaviors we observe while interacting with others in our schools and community. Initially, ELL may not be aware of social or cultural rules such as proximity; appropriate greetings between sexes, and in-school behavior. As they engage in behaviors that are familiar to them and they see how others react, their behavior is reinforced or rejected. When a behavior is rejected a new method is sought out through observation of others or a secondary attempt. Through this testing of rules ELL develop social skills unique to the secondary culture, and they learn how to fit in.
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Language Learning Strategies: An Update
Rebecca Oxford, discussed strategies used by ELL to understand language and how the use of these strategies impacts acquisition in her 1994 article, Language Learning Strategies. She states, "good L2 learners are willing and accurate guessers, have a strong drive to communicate, are often uninhibited; are willing to make mistakes, take advantage of all practice opportunities, and pay attention to meaning." When students are invested in their learning and relish opportunities to grow they are more like to achieve and become successful. Teachers can lay the groundwork for this by creating a classroom environment that is safe and open, welcomes mistakes and learns from them, and provides students with the strategies they need to do this well. If teachers can lower the students' affective filter they will feel more secure about being active participators. "The use of appropriate language learning strategies often results in improved proficiency or achievement in specific skill areas," as stated by Oxford (1991). It is essential that teachers working with ELL are trained on what these strategies are and how to use them effectively to build comprehension. Strategies such as Think Alouds and Think, Pair, Share are great ways to give students a chance to sort out their opinions in their head, then hear how the teacher models a response or observe how a classmate would respond. Students have a chance to listen and speak and gain ideas from others. Having these discussions in L1 and L2 is another language learning strategy that models for students how language is manipulated for a variety of purposes. Role playing, experimenting, or building models to support complex concepts are a few other language learning strategies teachers can use to improve proficiency and achievement in skill areas. Students benefit from hands-on learning while they gain knowledge by doing and experiencing rather than simply seeing and hearing. Students should be taught how to attack a text to increase their comprehension of its lessons through researched-based reading strategies. Beginning by surveying a text looking for bold vocabulary words, reading captions, and skimming pictures can prepare students for what is to come in the chapter. Students should also learn the benefit of making predictions and creating their own questions to try and answer through the reading to narrow their focus of the topic. According to Oxford (1994) the tailored use of learning strategies continues to raise achievement in the ELL who utilize them. Therefore, a strong foundation in implementing them is essential for the development of language acquisition in English language learners.