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FINALLY! On the Radar!

Have you noticed the growing interest among content teachers (sometimes labeled ‘gen ed teachers’) in providing good content instruction for English Learners? No matter the multitude of problems and issues associated with the various iterations of NCLB, it has certainly raised awareness among educators. With our climate of increased accountability, ELs are finally on the radar screens of curriculum directors and school administrators!

At our November 2011 NNETESOL conference, we were delighted to see strong attendance at a conference strand devoted to the explicit instruction of academic English in K-12 content classrooms, by content teachers. It used to be that we ESL teachers had to wheedle and coax our way into classrooms and into collaborations with our content colleagues, so we could ‘peddle our wares’ and offer the kind of assistance that we knew could make their jobs simpler and their teaching of ELs more successful. Although that is still too often the case, the climate is changing. The adoption of the Common Core Standards, with their focus on developing advanced literacy within each content discipline, and also on increasing the linguistic complexity of texts used, will serve to focus additional attention on academic language, an area in which most content teachers have had little opportunity for training.

This presents us with a wonderful opportunity for collaboration with our non-ESL colleagues. We know that, in the early stages of English acquisition, ELs need simplified language, but once they hit the intermediate stage and beyond, they need regular exposure to and skilled instruction in grade-level academic language, and they need that in all their content areas—as do many of their native speaker classmates! This overlap of needs–and the fact that we can tell our gen ed colleagues that we have strategies that can help most of their students–is an open door for ESL professionals, and I hope we’re thinking about how to take advantage of the opportunity. We’ve done quite a lot of work in that area at Saint Michael’s College (our entire 5-year USDOE grant has been about that) and–after casting about for a theory and methodology that both our Applied Linguistics faculty and our Education Department faculty could use as a common language and common conceptual system–we’ve had great success with the theories and methodology of Systemic Functional Linguistics. Those of you who attended the CREATE strand on academic language at the November 2011 NNETESOL conference got a quick overview, and many of you were interested in more information. I’ve recently come across a great resource to share with you:

  • Fang, Lamme & Pringle (2010). Language and Literacy in Inquiry-Based Science Classrooms, Grades 3-8, published jointly by Corwin Press and the National Science Teachers Association Press.

This book gives enough SFL theory to help readers grasp its power, but moves quickly to a teacher-friendly approach to SFL application, listing many strategies that can have a huge benefit to students with very little expenditure of class time. Don’t be fooled by the title–you can use these in any content area and at any grade level. I recommend it to any of you interested in finding a language and conceptual system you can use with your content colleagues. There is a bit of upfront learning, but not too much, and you’d be able to help your colleagues develop a language focus very quickly. I field-tested some of the strategies in the Fang et al text with some very busy, over-worked Grade 5 content teachers, and they put the strategies to excellent use–and with excellent results–very quickly.

So, check these out, and have fun turning your colleagues on the the nuts and bolts of how language means what it means!

Rita MacDonald
Secretary, NNETESOL
Coordinator, Project CREATE
Applied Linguistics and Education Departments
Saint Michael’s College
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