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Why we all need to be teachers of both language and literacy

Hi everyone

We all need to be teachers of both language and literacy

 The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) is our starting point where on page 16 it says:  

Learning areas and language

Each learning area has its own language or languages. As students discover how to use them, they find they are able to think in different ways, access new areas of knowledge, and see their world from new perspectives. For each area, students need specific help from their teachers as they learn:

• the specialist vocabulary associated with that area;

• how to read and understand its texts;

• how to communicate knowledge and ideas in appropriate ways;

• how to listen and read critically, assessing the value of what they hear and read.

In addition to such help, students who are new learners of English or coming into an English-medium environment for the first time need explicit and extensive teaching of English vocabulary, word forms, sentence and text structures, and language uses.

As language is central to learning and English is the medium for most learning in the New Zealand Curriculum, the importance of literacy in English cannot be overstated.

The NZC requires all teachers to teach both English language and literacy in an explicit way.  I think this becomes increasingly important from year 4 and above as students move from ‘learning to read ‘to ‘reading to learn’ and more abstract concepts are encountered. This is more than providing opportunities to speak, listen, read or write in different curriculum areas or in providing some academic vocabulary words to be learnt. It is about explicitly teaching language within what Pauline Gibbons views as a high challenge, high support classroom, and “Where ELLs are given the kinds of scaffolding and linguistic support that will enable them to engage in learning and be successful learners in terms of both their English language development and the development of their subject knowledge (Gibbons, P.  English language learners academic literacy and thinking, Page 2.) Therefore teachers must understand the language demands of each subject they teach and be able to explicitly teach subject literacy to students and specific language teaching.

 Reflection Questions

I would like you to reflect on these questions as you read the thoughts below.

1.       How are students in your school supported in their development of subject specific literacy and language? Could they be better supported?

2.       If you are a classroom teacher, think of one teaching and learning task you have recently given to your students that fits your definition of intellectual quality. What were students required to do? What support was given to ELL to help them complete this task?

3.       If you are an ESOL teacher is your planning and teaching closely connected to the students mainstream classroom programme? How could you strengthen the relationship?

All the ideas below come from the introduction chapter of Pauline Gibbons bookEnglish language learners academic literacy and thinking, published in 2009.

According to Gibbons (p. 11) the argument for integrating ELL as far as possible within the context of mainstream teaching include the following –

·         Using a new language to learn about other things is an effective way of developing a second language. The subjects of the curriculum provide authentic contexts for meaningful language use and authentic purposes for using written and spoken language.

·         The development of academic language takes far longer (5-7 years) than the development of informal conversational language (2 years).  ELLs are catching-up in English with a moving target. Concurrent teaching and learning of both subject content and language responds to this time lag and allows ELLs to go on learning subject content as they develop their English.

·         Instruction in language alone- cannot usually address the subject-specific nature of academic language, because language-only classrooms are isolated from the very contexts that provide meaningful situations for subject-specific language use.  Neither can we expect English language specialist teachers to have specialist disciplinary knowledge of the various curriculum subjects.  (Note there does remain a place for withdrawal classes at some times, especially for recently arrived students.)

·         Language and content cannot be separated: concepts and knowledge on the one hand, and subject-specific language, literacy, and vocabulary on the other, are interdependent.  Language learning and subject learning therefore can be mutually supportive of each other and provide for the natural “recycling” of language and concepts so important for ELLs.

·         Integrating language and content also allows for English language support to be offered in an ongoing way through school. The need for English language support extends far beyond the initial years of an ELLs commencement of school, an integrated program at a whole-school level allows for more extensive and long-term support especially at critical times.

Classrooms where authentic intellectual, high quality learning takes place display three criteria:

a)      Construction of knowledge founded upon the students prior knowledge and where it requires students to summarise and synthesis information from a range of sources and then use it in a new context or in a different mode to construct something original.

b)      Disciplined inquiry - the development of in-depth understanding rather than superficial awareness of often unrelated items of knowledge. The _expression_ of one’s  ideas and findings through an elaborated and extended communication- for example, through extended dialogues, expositions, narratives, explanations, and a range of electronic forms.   

c)       Value beyond school- make learning both relevant to and related to the real world.

They usually involve higher-order thinking, deep knowledge and understanding and substantive conversation.

 “A sociocultural approach to learning recognises that with assistance, learners can reach beyond what they can reach unaided, participate in new situations, and take on new roles through situated help or scaffolding.” (Page 15)  

Scaffolding has three major characteristics:

·         It is temporary help that assists a learner to move toward new concepts, levels of understanding, a new language.

·         It enables a learner to know how to do something so that they will be better able to complete similar tasks alone.

·         It is future orientated: in Vygotsky’s words, what a learner can do with support today, he or she will be able to do alone tomorrow.

We learn and develop new ideas through collaborative talk. Vygotsky argues that this external dialogue with others is gradually internalized and becomes “inner speech” creating our personal resources for thinking. Therefore for learning we want high challenge tasks (tasks we cannot do unaided) accompanied by high support (the scaffolding that enables us to complete these tasks successfully).

 I would love to hear your thoughts and comments. Also please continue to ask your questions and share as a community .

 Have a wonderful week.

 Janet McQueen