Big Ideas in Literacy
Language is a form of thought, a mediator of thought, and a tool for enhancing thought (Marzano, 2011). Words are repeated over and over not only to master pronunciation, but also to solidify understanding of the concepts behind words. Language also helps process thinking when considering options, weighing pros and cons, or otherwise evaluating the world through language; finally, expanded knowledge and use of words enables thinking to grow. There are three primary concerns for teachers regarding language study in English:
- All students need to learn academic language, defined by Zwiers (2014) as the set of words, grammar, and discourse strategies used to decode and encode complex ideas, higher-order thinking processes, and abstract concepts. Academic language in English class can include literary terms (used in literary and nonliterary contexts), morphology concepts, and terms that describe language, common metaphors, folkloric expressions, and English etymology. This may also include allusions to other text and idioms (which can be especially challenging for English language learners (ELLs)). Most students do not acquire academic language naturally but instead learn it as a result of instruction in school (Gee, 1989). Teaching academic language in English studies, especially to ELLs and speakers of nonstandard dialects of English, while maintaining an appreciation for language diversity helps motivate an appreciation for language generally, which becomes necessary in the study of diverse works of literature, drama, and poetry. Rich, holistic, contextual, and explicit language instruction strategies that are helpful for all students, especially with regard to academic vocabulary, are also helpful for ELLs; however, ELLs often need much more instruction and ideally sooner (Taff, Blachowicz, & Fisher, 2009).
- Students whose first language is not English need to hear a variety of native speakers of English, and speakers who are accomplished academic English speakers, speak as often as possible. They also need ample opportunity to speak English as often as possible. However, they need more than conversational English: they need academic language with complex vocabulary and discipline-based concepts (Wong-Filmore, 2000). They need to understand rhetorical structures as well. It is also true that many ELLs are uncomfortable with speaking in large classrooms. Because they are afraid they will make mistakes, the best way to get them comfortable with speaking is to use small groups (Nystrand, 2006). In such cases, it helps to be creative in manufacturing opportunities and structures for conversation. For example, students can perhaps talk over Skype or a cell phone. Negative correction is antithetical to learning a new language. Correction should happen in activities like contrastive analysis, which will be explained in the writing strategies section.
- Students also need to see that their home languages are valued in English classrooms as resources that can support their learning. At the same time they are developing their English language skills, they need opportunities to use their other language repertoires as tools for developing academic literacies. For example, they can be encouraged to talk with others who share their language backgrounds about what they are thinking, reading, and writing. When composing texts in the English language, they can draw on their knowledge of how different languages work to represent an idea in their writing in an original way.
Reflect: What reading, writing, and speaking practices did you experience at home when you were a high school or middle school student? How did those practices help or hinder your progress in English class?