The Penny

Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.

[Friday, October 2, 2009]

Acquisition of English as a Second Language

This is a textbook chapter written by Jim Cummins. His work on language learning has applications to ESL, deaf education, and even to language disorders and normal language/literacy development. Love him.

Cummins, J. (1994). The acquisition of English as a second language. In Spangenberg-Urbschat, K. & Pritchard, R. (Eds.) Kids come in all languages: Reading instruction for ESL students (pp. 36-62). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Why do some children develop proficiency in a second language easily and others struggle? And what exactly does proficiency mean? How long should we expect for children to reach different levels of proficiency in English as a second language. What influences the rate of English acquisition and how far children can go in their English learning?

There are two kinds of English proficiency: conversational language and academic language. People assume that these two are closely related, but they are not. Academic language is more cognitively demanding. That means it requires more brain power. There are two continua (that would be "continuums") that combine, and it's best shown in a chart. So here you go.

I like this chart, because it has examples. So left to right you have cognitive undemanding (easier) to cognitively demanding (harder). Top to bottom you have context embedded (easier) to context reduced (harder). Context embedded means that you have clues to the meaning of the words right in the situation. Most conversations at home are context embedded. Vocabulary is predictable. Concepts are familiar. Most instruction at school is context reduced, although there certainly is a push toward more context embedded instruction (more visuals, especially). When the context is reduced, the child has to figure out what the teacher is saying based on language alone. I hope this makes sense.

Language in the home (conversational language) is usually in square A of the chart, sometimes square C, less often squares B or D. Language at school (academic language) is usually in square D of the chart, sometimes square B. It is rarely in squares C or A. You can see Cummins' point, that conversational language and academic language are different, even if both are English.

When a child begins learning a second language, where do they start on this chart? You guessed it: square A. It's not that the child deliberately decides to start in square A. It's just easier to develop that kind of language, since it's not cognitively demanding and has plenty of context clues to help construct meaning from language. When a child is able to have a conversation in English, should we assume that they can comprehend classroom instruction in English? Let's check the chart... nope.

Cummins invented vocabulary to describe this. Basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) is achieved first. Cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) comes later. But how much later?

It takes two years or less to develop BICS. It takes five to seven years to develop CALP. While the child is learning English, their native English-speaking peers are learning through English. If an ESL child is in an immersion setting (in an English-speaking classroom), he will remain behind the native speakers for many years. By the time he attains CALP, those native speakers have already learned more than he has. So he has to catch up. In large scale studies, it took an average of seven years to catch up. We all know what an average means, right? A lot of the kids took longer than seven years.

Stopping ESL support when the child gains BICS in English is dangerous. It might seriously harm the child's academic development, especially if the child is in a very "square D" classroom.

Now, what makes a difference in the rate of second language acquisition?
-Quantity of language exposure (length of time, how much the child is paying attention)
-Quality of language exposure
-Child's age
-Cognitive abilities
-L1 literacy (literacy skills in the first language)
-Personal confidence (are they willing to put themselves out there and be brave, trying to communicate in the second language?)

Alright, so let's talk application to deaf language/literacy development. My concern is "quality of language exposure." Hearing aids and cochlear implants provide poor exposure to spoken language. If the child is in a literacy-poor home environment, English print exposure may also be poor. Classrooms for deaf children MUST have plenty of English print exposure. This is totally accessible to all children with normal vision. "Cognitive abilities" is another factor that concerns me with deaf children. So many deaf children do not begin developing their cognitive abilities at birth, as hearing children do. This is because they do not have comprehensible language input until their hearing loss is identified and they either receive a cochlear implant or receive ASL exposure. Language exposure during infancy is the way to develop cognition. "L1 literacy" is obviously a huge concern, if a child receives poor signed input for several years before entering school. This reminds me of the Strong & Prinz (1997) study, which examined the relationship between ASL and English skills.

Now let's talk application to hearing literacy development. Some children struggle with reading in kindergarten (I don't know about your school district, but our kids read in kindergarten), and it suddenly clicks in a year or two later. My brother was one of those children. Could this be because the child hasn't yet developed CALP? After all, it takes five to seven years to develop CALP for ESL kids... is there evidence that it develops sooner in the native language? Just a thought.


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