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Getting Started with English Language Learners

by Judie Haynes

Table of Contents

Chapter 2. How Students Acquire Social and Academic Language

Some of the most pressing and frequent questions administrators, board members, and classroom teachers ask are “How long should it take a newcomer to learn English?” and “What kinds of programs help ELLs acquire English quickly?” In this chapter, we explore the answers to these questions, analyze the essential theories in second-language acquisition, and examine the differences between social and academic English.

As you read the statements below, decide whether you think they are true or false.

□ English language learners need one to three years to master social language in the classroom.

□ Students don't always acquire social language naturally in informal contexts. They may need to be taught how to communicate appropriately in social situations.

□ Although English language learners may speak English on the playground, this does not mean they have mastered the academic and cognitive language of the classroom.

□ Learning academic subjects in their native language helps ELLs learn English.

□ Parents of English language learners should be encouraged to speak their primary language at home.

□ Students who have strong literacy skills in their native language will learn English faster.

□ Students need more than two to three years in bilingual or ESL classes to succeed in school.

Social Language and the English Language Learner

True or False?English language learners need one to three years to master social language in the classroom.TRUE.

Social language is the language of the playground. Researcher Jim Cummins calls this language Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills or BICS (Cummins, 1981, 1996). Newcomers use BICS to function socially in hallways, classrooms, school buses, and playgrounds. Cummins's research shows that it takes one to three years for English language learners to reach the social language level of their peers.

The context of social language is embedded. For example, if a student wants a drink of water, he can ask for it by making a drinking motion and saying the word water. Newcomers have support for BICS because they can use gestures, objects, and pictures to help make the information comprehensible. English language learners who are in the beginning stages are able to handle the following tasks:

  • Produce survival vocabulary such as the words for water or bathroom.
  • Follow simple directions that are accompanied by gestures such as “Point to the door” or “Walk to the chair.”
  • Engage in one-to-one social conversation using gestures.
  • Answer low-level questions such as “Is an elephant large or small?” or “What color is the chair?”
  • Participate effectively in hands-on classes such as art and physical education.
  • Play uncomplicated games, particularly games that they play well in their native language, such as checkers, chess, or backgammon.
  • Produce simple drawings, charts, and graphs.

Context-Reduced Social Language Activities

As we learned in the previous section, social interactions are usually context embedded. These interactions occur in meaningful social settings and most likely they are not cognitively demanding. As your newcomers' listening and oral language skills start to develop, they will be able to add more challenging activities to their repertoire and the context and social cues for these interactions will be reduced. Some context-reduced social language activities include the following:

  • Holding predictable conversations with teachers and peers. For example, the student might tell the teacher during a math lesson, “I don't understand.” The teacher can demonstrate the math concept using manipulatives and drawings to help the student comprehend.
  • Decoding simple reading passages. ELLs will be able to sound out words, but they may not comprehend what they are reading.
  • Copying words and sentences from the board.
  • Reading a weekly school schedule or a homework assignment.
  • Listening to and understanding a simple story.
  • Responding to and writing answers for short informational questions. For example, for a history unit on the Pilgrims, a teacher can test literal comprehension by asking, “What was name of the Pilgrims' ship?
  • Executing answers to questions about a chart or map, such as “Find Mexico on the map and label it.”
  • Understanding and communicating knowledge about math facts. At this stage, however, students will not be ready to learn difficult math concepts.
  • Interacting socially with classmates. English language learners should be able to ask for help with their schoolwork or understand a teacher's instructions for a game.
Newcomers will be able to participate in context-reduced activities during their content-area classes as well. These activities include science experiments, content-related craft projects, and language arts assignments involving drawings, bookmarks, book covers, and dioramas.

How Do Students Acquire Social Language?

True or False?Students don't always acquire social language naturally in informal contexts. They may need to be taught how to communicate appropriately in social situations. TRUE.

Does social language need to be taught and practiced or do students pick it up automatically on the playground or in the lunchroom? English language learners may need to be specifically taught interpersonal skills such as how to greet people, give and receive compliments, apologize, and make polite requests. They also need to understand nonverbal language and the use of personal space. The goal of Standard 1 of the 2006 PreK–12 English language proficiency standards is for ELLs to learn to communicate in English for social and instructional purposes during the school day. This goal is important because many ELLs need to learn the appropriate voice tones, volume, and language for different school settings. For example, some ELLs speak to a teacher in the same way that they talk to a peer, such as Min Ki in the next example.

→ Min Ki is a beginning ELL from Korea. Although his English is quite limited, Min Ki is adept at picking up expressions on the playground. During recess one day he learned to say “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Whenever Ms. Chen, his classroom teacher, gave directions, Min Ki would reply, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” The teacher finally had to ask an adult volunteer to explain to him that this is inappropriate language for a child to use with an adult. In this setting, an adult had to teach Min Ki that there is a difference between language used with an adult and language used with friends on the playground.

Another example of improper language in the classroom is swearing. ELLs may pick up inappropriate language on the playground and may not realize why this language is not suitable in the classroom. In the next example, Vadim's teacher tries to convey the seriousness of his inappropriate language.

→ Vadim, a 4th grade student from Russia, used an X-rated expression in the classroom. The teacher was understandably distressed and made Vadim write an apology letter for homework. The teacher became even more upset when Vadim's parents did not take the infraction seriously. What the teacher did not know, however, was that Vadim's parents were not appalled because swearing does not have the same shock value in a person's second language as it does in a person's first language.

Many newcomers in middle school and high school say that they are learning academic language but have few opportunities to practice social language. Most of their social interactions are with students with the same native language background. In the next example, we look at Carmen and Diego and their social language skills.

→ Carmen is an English language learner from the Dominican Republic who attends a suburban middle school. She is a very good student who works hard and has quickly acquired academic English; however, she socializes only with classmates who speak Spanish. Her social language in English is slow and hesitant. She has difficulty initiating a conversation in English. Her Brazilian classmate Diego, on the other hand, is athletic and plays soccer with the boys from his class. Because Diego interacts with many English-speaking teammates, his social English is quite fluent.
Social language comes easier to students who have real reasons to speak with their classmates. Organized school activities such as sports teams, band, or chorus can expose ELLs to social English.

Role playing, teacher modeling, peer modeling, and videos are all good tools for teaching ELLs social skills. Teachers can encourage newcomers to observe their peers as models of correct behavior. Teachers should set expectations for these behaviors by using real incidents that come up in the class such as having students practice saying good morning and good-bye to their teachers and classmates. In the next example, Mrs. Arena teaches her students simple language for social interactions.

→ Mrs. Arena is a kindergarten teacher who stands at her classroom door at the end of the day. She shakes hands and says good-bye to students as they leave. She uses each child's name and intersperses her farewells with comments. A typical exchange might be:
“Good-bye, Juan. Have fun at the park,” Mrs. Arena says.
“Good-bye, Mrs. Arena,” replies Juan. “See you tomorrow.”
Mrs. Arena makes an everyday classroom routine a valuable lesson in social interaction and small talk. As students leave the playground after school, they say good-bye to each other using the same farewells modeled earlier by the teacher.

Evaluating the Silent Period

How does a teacher know when a child is ready to speak? When should an ELL be encouraged to participate in the standard social language of the classroom?

Mi Yeon is a Korean student who has been in the United States for 18 months. Although she is progressing in her academic work, she barely speaks to her teachers. Even when prompted, she will not say good morning or good-bye to them when she enters and leaves the classroom. One of her teachers, Mrs. Burns-Paterson, has not forced the issue because she knows about the silent period and does not want to traumatize Mi Yeon. Let's take a look at how Mrs. Burns-Paterson helps guide Mi Yeon through the silent period.

→ Mrs. Burns-Paterson decided to set realistic expectations for routine social exchanges in the classroom. She didn't want to single Mi Yeon out, so she gradually added lessons in social language for the whole class. She began by explaining that when they entered the classroom each day, everyone was going to say hello or good morning to the teacher and to the students who sat at their table. She asked several children to act out the greeting. After a week, Mi Yeon successfully participated in this activity.
To further help shy students like Mi Yeon, Ms. Burns-Paterson had her students practice giving compliments. The comments had to be positive and could not be about a classmate's appearance. Students brainstormed a list of compliments they could give each other, such as “I like the way you drew that dinosaur” or “Your handwriting is so neat” or “Your story was interesting. I liked the part where you chased the dog.”

We have seen how social language is informally acquired through interactions in classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, and on school buses. Although some social language needs to be modeled and reinforced by the teacher and native English speakers, other social interactions can be picked up by frequent interactions.

Understanding How Students Acquire Academic Language

True or False?Although English language learners may speak English on the playground, this does not mean they have mastered the academic and cognitive language of the classroom.TRUE.

Teachers and administrators may decide to move students who have social communication skills out of language support services because they sound like native English speakers. ELLs who speak English well in social situations, however, are not necessarily prepared for academic tasks in the classroom. It is crucial for educators to understand the difference between BICS and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP).

CALP includes language for formal academic learning and for written texts in content areas such as English literature, math, science, and social studies. CALP skills also encompass reading, writing, and thinking about subject-area content material. Students also use CALP skills to compare, classify, synthesize, evaluate, and infer.

Consider this conversation between Mrs. Perez, an 8th grade history teacher, and Carlota, a student from Mexico.

Mrs. Perez: Why didn't you do your homework, Carlota? You're going to fail this class.
Carlota: I go visit my aunt. She sick. She got something bad with her heart. My uncle drive my mother and me. We bring aunt some food. When I get home, it's too late finish homework.
Carlota's social language is good. She is able to clearly tell Mrs. Perez what happened. Although Carlota makes some errors, they do not impede communication. In contrast, however, Carlota is not doing well in history and her other academic subjects. She has acquired social language, but she still needs help with her academic vocabulary.

Cognitive academic language skills are both abstract and context reduced. Information can be read from a textbook or presented by the teacher with few verbal cues to help students grasp its meaning. Some ELLs struggle to comprehend what they read and have difficulty expressing what they know in writing.

Many students can say all the words in a reading passage and memorize the definitions of vocabulary words but still not comprehend the text. CALP is more than understanding vocabulary and learning academic facts for a test; it also requires students to sharpen their cognitive abilities and learn new concepts.

As students progress in school, teachers are more likely to present material in a lecture format. The content also becomes more cognitively demanding and the vocabulary becomes more specific to each subject area. New ideas and concepts are presented to the students at the same time as the context-reduced language. Textbooks may be written beyond the language level of an English language learner. ELLs may also have limited background knowledge for subjects such as U.S. history. An instructor's teaching style can also affect how English language learners develop CALP skills. Let's compare Carlota's science teacher, Mr. Angelo, with her history teacher, Mrs. Perez.

→ Mrs. Perez gives reading assignments in a textbook that is written above Carlota's English language ability. She presents material by lecturing in front of the classroom. Her tests are not modified for the English language learners in the classroom and she provides very little support for ELLs. On the other hand, Mr. Angelo, Carlota's science teacher, uses simple language to introduce new concepts to his students. He outlines the most important information on the chalkboard. ELLs are given the important vocabulary for the lesson with simple definitions. Students are engaged in group work with partners. To help students prepare for tests, Mr. Angelo gives students a study guide. Needless to say, Carlota's progress in science far exceeds her progress in history.

Connecting Languages

True or False?Learning academic subjects in their native language helps ELLs learn English. TRUE.

Another concept that is generally accepted in the field of second-language acquisition is Cummins's Common Underlying Proficiency (CUP) theory. This model shows the relationship between native language and second language. Cummins says, “Concepts are most readily developed in the first language and, once developed, are accessible through the second language. In other words, what we learn in one language transfers into the new language” (Freeman & Freeman, 1994, p. 176).

This model, often referred to as the “Iceberg Model,” is shown in Figure 2.1 (Cummins, 2000). The model shows two peaks above the waterline. One peak represents a student's social language in the primary language and the other peak represents a student's social language in English. Beneath the waterline is one solid iceberg. One side shows a student's academic language proficiency in the primary language and the other side shows academic language proficiency in English. In the middle you can see where academic proficiency in English and the primary language intersect. The overlapping area is called Common Underlying Proficiency (CUP).

Figure 2.1 The Iceberg Model

Language, power, and pedagogy: Bilingual children in the crossfire

Using a Primary Language at Home

True or False?Parents of English language learners should be encouraged to speak their primary language at home. TRUE.

School administrators and classroom teachers should encourage parents to speak their native language at home. It is much more beneficial for children to hear fluent native language with a rich vocabulary than it is to hear imperfect, halting English. We learned from the Iceberg Model that academic concepts learned in students' primary language will help them acquire English. In the next example, Isobel and her family try to integrate English into their home life.

→ Isobel's family is from Costa Rica. Her parents speak some English and are literate in Spanish. When Isabel's teacher told them that they should speak English at home, her parents became distressed. They tried to speak English with her at the dinner table, but their conversations were stilted. Isobel's parents no longer felt comfortable asking her about her school, classes, and homework in Spanish. They stopped discussing books and the television news with her. Although the family reverted to their native language at the dinner table after a week of hesitant English, Isobel felt ashamed of her native language. She wished her parents spoke English.
What Isobel's teacher and parents did not know was that by reading and discussing stories with her and by encouraging Isobel to share her school experiences in Spanish, they were giving her experiences in their native language. Informal conversations like these are critical for Isobel because they will help her establish values and discuss ideas that she is not ready to learn in English. Eventually, what she learns in Spanish will help promote her English proficiency. The concepts and skills that students learn in one language will transfer to the second language when the learner is ready.

Students who are literate in their native language have many skills to draw on when they learn academic English, even when the writing system is different. It is more difficult to teach a concept if it does not exist in the student's native language. Once students grasp the underlying literacy skills of one language, they can use these same skills to learn another language. For example, 10th graders who are literate in Spanish will understand the underlying process of reading in English. Older students will be able to transfer skills such as scanning, selecting important information, predicting what comes next, and visualizing to enhance comprehension. Younger children who are literate in one language will know that printed words carry meaning, that words can be combined into sentences and paragraphs, and that certain letters stand for certain sounds. Regardless of students' age, a new concept will be difficult to teach if it doesn't exist in the students' native language. Let's take a look at Xiang and her progress in her English class.

→ Xiang is a 6th grade student from China who has been in the United States for three years. Her teacher, Mrs. Rahmin, worries that Xiang does not use articles, plurals, or pronouns. Her verb tenses are usually incorrect. She consistently leaves the s off plural words. Xiang's parents report that she is literate in Mandarin, a Chinese language.
Mrs. Rahmin does not understand that Chinese languages do not have morphological changes to show case, number, and tense. For example, there is no subject-verb agreement and there are no markings at the end of words to denote plurals. There are also no Chinese words that translate into a, an, or the. Because of these differences, it is very difficult for Xiang to master the grammatical features of English that do not exist in Chinese.

How Long Does It Take Students to Learn English?

True or False?Students who have strong literacy skills in their native language will learn English faster. TRUE.

Classroom teachers, administrators, and school board members frequently ask, “How long does it take a student to learn English?” and “How long should students receive language support?” Let's look at the research.

The most comprehensive research available on English language learners was conducted by Thomas and Collier (1997). They studied the language acquisition of 700,000 English language learners in a longitudinal study from 1982 to 1996. They wanted to find out how long it would take for students with no background in English to reach the performance of a native speaker on norm-referenced tests (50th percentile). In addition, they looked at variables such as socioeconomic status, students' first language, programs used to learn English, and the amount of formal schooling in students' primary language.

Thomas and Collier found that the most significant variable in how long it takes for a student to learn English is the amount of formal schooling students receive in their first language.

In one part of the study, Thomas and Collier researched a group of Asian and Hispanic students from an affluent suburban school district. These students received one to three hours of second-language support per day in a well-regarded ESL program. These students generally exited the ESL program in the first two years. All students were at or above grade level in native language literacy. For this group, Thomas and Collier found these results:

  • Students ages 8 to 11 years old with two to three years of native language education took five to seven years to test at grade level in English.
  • Students with little or no formal schooling who arrived in the United States before the age of 8 took 7 to 10 years to reach grade-level norms in English language literacy.
  • Students who were below grade level in their native language also took 7 to 10 years to reach the 50th percentile. Many of these students never reached grade-level norms.
These data held true regardless of the home language, country of origin, or socioeconomic status.

Which Program Works?

True or False?Students need more than two or three years in bilingual or ESL classes to succeed in school. TRUE.

Many ESL educators believe that English language learners who receive a specific ESL service acquire English faster than students in other types of programs. However, research does not support this belief. Thomas and Collier found that English language learners who received all of their schooling in English performed extremely well in kindergarten through 3rd grade, regardless of the type of bilingual or ESL program. These students made dramatic gains in English. However, when they reached the 4th grade and moved through middle school and high school, the performance of students who had been in all-English programs, such as ESL pullouts, fell substantially.

Why did this happen? Native English speakers make an average language gain of 10 months each school year. However, English language learners who had not become literate in their native language, regardless of what that native language was, only made a six- to eight-month gain per school year. As a result, the gap between native English speakers and English language learners in all-English programs widened from the 4th grade through high school (Thomas & Collier, 1997).

Students in two-way bilingual immersion and developmental bilingual programs, however, reach the 50th percentile in both their native language and English by 4th or 5th grade in all subject areas. These students are able to sustain these gains in English, and in some cases they achieve even higher success than native English speakers as they move through their secondary school years.

Bilingual programs are not always more effective than ESL or sheltered content programs. Schools should look beyond a program's label and consider the following:

  • Are the assigned teachers qualified to teach English language learners?
  • Are there sufficient materials for the program?
  • What instructional methods are used?
  • Are students exited into all-English programs too quickly?
Cummins says, “Quick-exit transitional bilingual education is an inferior model based on an inadequate theoretical assumption; this model aspires to monolingualism and does little to address the causes of bilingual students' underachievement” (Freeman & Freeman, 1998).

What does this research mean for school administrators and supervisors? Bilingual programs are not always feasible, especially in school districts where students come from multiple language backgrounds. Your district can build a better program by taking these key steps:

  • Give students more time to develop English language academic skills. Don't rush younger students through language support programs.
  • Provide more support services to underschooled upper elementary and middle school students. Remember that it will take them 7 to 10 years to reach grade-level norms.
  • Encourage parents to maintain their native language at home. Promote after-school and Saturday instruction in a first language. If your school district has enough students, push for a developmental bilingual or two-way immersion program.
  • Provide a sheltered English program. A sheltered English program uses simplified English to present subject-specific material to English language learners. For more information on these programs, see Chapter 7.

* * *

Let's review the major points from this chapter:

  • English language learners need one to three years to master social language skills (BICS) for everyday interactions.
  • Students may need to be taught how to communicate appropriately in social situations.
  • Newcomers who speak English on the playground are not necessarily fluent in the academic and cognitive language of the classroom.
  • Learning academic subjects in their native language helps ELLs learn English.
  • Parents of English language learners should be encouraged to speak their native language at home.
  • Students who have strong literacy skills in their native language will learn English faster.
  • ELLs receiving pullout ESL services do not necessarily make more progress in English than students in dual-language or developmental bilingual programs.
  • Students need more than two to three years in bilingual or ESL classes to succeed in school.
In this chapter, we looked at the differences between acquiring social and academic language. We examined how students acquire first and second languages and we showed how the common underlying proficiency (CUP) helps students acquire a second language. Finally, we discussed how long it takes for students to acquire academic language in various types of programs.


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  • Sharolyn_Lawson 4 years ago

    What? Students needs to be taught how to communicate appropriately in social settings.

    So What? I found this to be very interesting and true not only of ELLs but of many students who do not have "school appropriate" behavior. I did not realize that in Russian cultures swearing was not considered to be inappropriate. I was aware of that some cultures felt looking an authority figure in the eye was considered to be a sign of disrepect and that other cultures felt females were not supposed to voice their opinions. I do think that all students would benefit from instruction in the "school appropriate" way to voice their opinions and participate in the classroom experiences. I especially like the example listed where students practiced giving compliments to each other. I believe when students and teachers look for ways to give positive descriptive compliments it nurtures an environment where students feel comfortable participating in group and class discussions and are willing to take risks while constructing their knowledge. This type of specific content or action oriented compliment reminds me of the descriptive feedback that is an integral part of NC Falcon.

    Then What? I think one thing I might do this year to nurture this type of social interaction is to start a "Compliment Board" where students can post compliments about each other's actions in the classroom. This would tie in neatly with our 3 R's at Enka Middle. (Respect, Responsibility, and Ready)

  • Dawn_Roberts 5 years ago

    We all can memorize definitions....There is so much more than that with understanding and comprehending a country's language. The social cues, personal space, how to tie all this together-it blows me away that some of these ELLs learn a great bit of this so quickly.