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Academic vs. Conversational English
English Language Learners don’t always learn academic English at the same rate they learn conversational English. Conversational English helps students meet their immediate social needs. Typically, ELLs hear conversational English nearly everywhere they go. As they take in this style of language, they are more likely to acquire its use. Academic English is typically specialized language requiring explicit instruction. Often, students only hear the language of a science classroom in science class. Typically, academic English is developed over a long period—it carries a specialized vocabulary and the context can be confusing. (Cummins, 1981, 2000, 2008).
To a student talk about science
To a teacher talk about science
Oral and Written Language
One of the fundamental differences between reading and writing is that a speaker can bypass much of the grammar by focusing on meaning (Rivers, 1994). ELLs come with different experiences in oral and written literacy skills. Some come from cultures that emphasize the ability to write, and others come from cultures that emphasize oral communication skills. Be aware that writing in specific genres has specific "rules" of which ELLs may not be aware, and they may need explicit instruction in each area. Often, we give students paper and pencil tests to "Asses" their language skills. Be aware that this may be testing their writing skills rather than their language skills. Some students can demonstrate their language skills through spoken language. Also, students need Comprehensible Input in both oral and written language to improve their skills.
ELLs must have access to informational input that is just beyond their current level of competence. Much like children learning a first language, they need to listen to and be exposed to increasingly more challenging vocabulary and grammar. The linguist Stephen Krashen was instrumental in determining that ELLs need access to new linguistic information (1982, 2003). They must also have opportunities to produce language for meaningful purposes (Swain, 1995).
*Krashen speaking video*
The communicative purpose of language learning suggests we create opportunities for genuine interaction for social and academic English in the classroom. Most meaning is a product of negation, of give and take as interlocutors attempt to communicate. An interactive classroom may include:
Pair work and group work
Authentic language in real-world contexts
Producing language for genuine conversation
Performing classroom tasks that prepare for actual language use
Practice of authentic language through spontaneous conversation
Writing to and for real audiences
ELLs with strong native language skills are more likely to achieve native speaker-like fluency than are those with weak native-language skills (Cummins, 2000; Thomas & Collier, 2002). When students are literate in and aware of the forms and functions of their native language, they are able to translate the concept of language holding meaning, form and function into English. If they are able to conceptualize a language they are familiar with, it will be much easier to do this in a second language.
Safe welcoming classroom environment
A safe, welcoming classroom environment with minimal anxiety about performing in a second language is vital for learning. The “affective filter” is an imaginary barrier which prevents learners from using input which is available tin the environment. “Affect” refers to “motives, needs, attitudes, and emotional states”, etc. A learner who is upset, angry, worried, or bored will filter out input, making it unavailable for acquisition. The filter is “up” when the learner is stressed, self-conscious, or unmotivated. It is “down” when the learner is relaxed and motivated. (Krashen, 2003; Pappamihiel, 2002; Verplaetse & Migliacci, 2008; Lightbown & Spada, 1993).
Form and function
Explicit attention to linguistic form and function is essential to second language learning (Gass, 1997; Schleppegrell, 2004; Swain, 1995). While ELLs will acquire some language by following the patterns they hear, it is helpful to give them explicit direction regarding HOW certain words are used, and their necessary forms. For example, it is helpful for ELLs to know that words like good, very, and delicious are descriptive words (adverbs) and that first person and third person have different corresponding verb types. When students are given this explicit information, they are able to tune into the forms and functions of words when they hear it, and more readily incorporate correct form into their own language patterns.
Fluency vs. Accuracy
ELLs achieve fluency of language use and accuracy of language use at different rates depending on several variables in their language learning experience. Some ELLs are afraid of making mistakes and believe their language production must be perfect—this often keeps them quiet. Others, do not fear errors and have continuous output. Those who are producing language regularly receive more feedback about accuracy, and become both more fluent and accurate more quickly than those who focus on accurate language production. It is important for ELLs to make mistakes in their use of language in order to receive feedback.
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