English Learners 101 is a series of articles about how to support English learners with appropriate academic content instruction. Between 2004 and 2008 I served as the English Language Development Support Teacher at an extremely diverse elementary school in the San Francisco Bay Area. During this time I also completed a significant review of research and literature on how to best support science instruction in the classroom. While my literature review investigated English learners and science instruction, most of the instructional strategies and information are relevant to anyone teaching academic content to English learners.
While there is a need for continued research and discussion in order to come to a wider consensus about what constitutes academic English, it is generally understood to be a significant factor in the academic achievement of English learners. The fact that English learners often lack meaningful learning contexts and connections burdens these students when they attempt to learn academic English.
Academic English is generally thought to be different from standard or social English language. It is comprised of a broad range of language skills such as discipline-specific vocabulary and language functions. Common words or phrases that have specialized meaning in academic disciplines are considered discipline-specific vocabulary. For example, words such as power or table have a specific meaning in mathematics that differs from the common definition. Analyzing, classifying, defending a position, or giving oral presentations are discipline-specific language functions considered to be academic English.
Because Cummins (1996) considers academic English to be decontextualized and much more cognitively demanding than conversational English, he elaborates on the difference between the two types of language. Cummins originally made this distinction by labeling social language skills as basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) and academic language skills as cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). Over time, Cummins revised and expanded his understanding of BICS and CALP into a framework that better differentiates between the “cognitive and contextual demands made by particular forms of communication” (p. 57).
Cummins’ framework is consolidated into the relationship between two continuums: cognitive demand and contextual support. The first continuum considers how context eases or confounds comprehension. For example, if a person is in a communicative situation in which content is supported with visual information, such as pictures or non-verbal cues, it is said to be “context embedded.” However, if a person must rely solely on the words and their meaning in order to understand, it is said to be “context reduced” (p. 58).
Figure 1. Contextual Support Continuum.
The other continuum in this framework considers how cognitively demanding a particular communicative situation is. For example, a conversation with a friend may be “cognitively undemanding,” while writing an essay may be “cognitively demanding” (Cummins, 1996, p.58).
Figure 2. Cognitive Involvement Continuum.
When the two continuums are integrated, four quadrants become apparent.
Figure 3. Cummins’ Quadrant for Communicative Activities.
Quadrant A is a communicative task or situation where cognition is undemanding and context is very supportive of comprehension. The social-interpersonal language that Cummins originally labeled as BICS fits into Quadrant A. In contrast, academic English is decontextualized, as a person has little more than the words themselves (written or oral) to gain understanding of what is being communicated. The difficulty in comprehending academic language and the fact that it is often cognitively demanding place it in Quadrant D. Quadrant B activities are ones in which context supports a cognitively demanding task such as convincing someone to believe your point of view. Quadrant C represents a linguistic task which is neither supported by context nor cognitively demanding. Memorizing vocabulary words for a worksheet without understanding them would represent a Quadrant C task.
Despite the existence of different views of academic English, a consensus has been reached that it is a key to success in school. As such, educators need to be aware of and teach vocabulary and discourse-patterns specific to each discipline and build comprehension through multiple ways (i.e. pictures, realia, diagrams, hands-on experiences).
Resources and References
The ideas and information contained in this article come from the following resources:
Cummins, J. (1996). Negotiating identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society. Ontario, CA: California Association for Bilingual Education.
Dobb, F. (2004). Essential elements of effective science instruction for English learners (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: California Science Project.
Hamayan, E. V., & Perlman, R. (1990). Helping minority students after they exit from bilingual/esl programs: A handbook for teachers. NCELA Program Information Guide Series, 1.
Parsons, S., Matson, J. O., & Quintanar, R. (2002). Making sense of literacy through science (lts): A model for professional development. San Jose State University. Electronic Journal of Literacy Through Science, 1 (2).
Solomon, J., & Rhodes, N. C., (1995). Conceptualizing academic language. Washington, DC: National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning. Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, DC.
Wong-Fillmore, L., & Snow, C. E. (2000). What teachers need to know about language. This paper was prepared for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Research and Improvement. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
CC licensed photos on this post by Wonderlane.