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Article Analysis Using Standards to Integrate Academic Language into ESL Fluency

I Introduction

People whose first language is not English face a number of problems when they try to learn it, not least of which is understanding and using the proper register when speaking.

This paper critiques the article “Using Standards to Integrate Academic Language into ESL Fluency,” by Beckett. It also briefly explains the concept of “register.” (Please note: This may not be the best possible article, but I’m in San Diego and my resources at this moment are limited to what I can access from home; all libraries and colleges are shut down until further notice.)

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II Register

“Register” can be most easily defined as the way in which people choose to express themselves in a particular situation. For example, someone might say “Yo! How ya doin’?” to a friend but would be more likely to say “Good morning, Mary” or even “Good morning, Ms. Madison” to the boss.

There are three registers of language: formal, consultive and casual. We use the formal register at work and at school; it has “complete sentences and specific word choices.” (Payne, PG). The consultive register is not quite as direct or formal; but the casual register is very different from the others. When we use the casual register, we use a vocabulary of only 400-800 words; we speak in incomplete sentences and phrases; our word choices are not specific and we may supplement our speech with non-verbal communications. This is our choice when we speak to friends.

III Article Analysis

The article discusses the need for developing standards for ESL students, so that they can learn the skills necessary to compete successfully for jobs in a society that is increasingly complex. They need, in other words, to develop a formal register of language that will enable them to use English appropriately.

The article begins with a hypothetical example of an ESL parent insisting that his child not be placed in an ESL classroom, because of his fear that the child will not be taught what he needs to know in order to succeed.

“When registering Jose in the new school, his father was adamant. He wanted Jose in the “ingles” class where he would learn “sciencia” and matematicas,” not how to say how-do-you-do. He was afraid that if Jose were placed in an English as a second language (ESL) class his teacher would ignore important academic concepts such as negative numbers, reports, biographies, democracy, and so forth.” (Beckett, PG).

Clearly, this parent has recognized that traditional ESL classes, which have been largely designed to enable students to “get along” in English, and which have focused on “survival and social fluency” may not truly be equipping the boy for today’s “complex, high-tech demands from industry and commerce.” (Beckett, PG).

The question then becomes how to transition from the merely “functional” ESL curriculum to a more intensive, technical one. In short, “We must begin on day one to integrate ‘academic language’–specific terminology for math, social studies, and science–into the ESL curriculum.” (Beckett, PG). That is, we must enable ESL students to learn to use the formal linguistic register, as opposed to the casual one.

Or, as Beckett says, the focus of education for ESL students should move away from “effective communication” to “academic competence,” emphasizing “literacy development, vocabulary enrichment, critical thinking skills, socials skills, and learning strategies.” (PG). It’s obviously implied in this statement that a student who develops literacy, social skills and the rest will of necessity also be able to communicate effectively and use the appropriate register.

Beckett suggests several ways to accomplish this. First, she suggests linking the ESL standard for Pre-K-12 students to states’ academic standards. By linking the two sets of standards, she says, “educators can ensure that students with limited English proficiency receive consistently high-quality English language and academic instruction.” (PG).

Beckett points out that in pre-K-12 classrooms, teachers are “provided” with skill lists to help them develop their curricula. No such guidance is currently provided to teachers who are dealing with “limited English proficient” (LEP) students. This gap can be filled by the “TESOL” standards, which have three broad goals for all LEP students: they will learn to use English in social settings; they will learn to use English to “achieve academically in all content areas” and they will learn to use English in “socially and culturally appropriate ways.” (Beckett, PG). (This last point again takes us back to the idea of the formal and casual registers we use when we speak.)

After setting out the ideas, Beckett suggests ways of implementing them. To help students learn to use English in social settings, she suggests eliminating rows of desks and instead of using round tables or informal pairings to create a more social environment. She further suggests that teachers provide opportunities for students to use English in social interactions outside the classroom; one such opportunity might be for students and teachers to eat together at around cafeteria tables. Off-campus lunches can also be arranged, and students can continue to use English in this social setting. These informal, social arrangements are good places for students to begin discussing academic concepts.

The teacher should

“[G]uide communication by giving descriptive and problem-solving tasks to cooperative student groups that rely on positive interdependence. Interacting with others in a positive way will help to make the classroom a comfortable, friendly place where LEP students will feel safe in using their newly acquired English language skills and help them see that there are personal rewards for communicating in English.” (Beckett, PG).

The idea is obviously to integrate technical subjects into a social conversation, thus helping ESL students get used to thinking and speaking about technical subjects as well as social ones. Having an informal conversation about a physics problem would allow ESL students to use their English both socially and in a content-oriented way.

Her next suggestion is to “use English to achieve academically in all content areas.” (PG). Teachers can achieve this by making classrooms “language-rich” by doing such things as “modeling note-taking” using overhead transparency; providing a skeleton outline with keywords and phrases in advance of the lesson; and physically labelling classroom objects with signs in English.

Her last suggestion speaks directly to the idea of language registers. She suggests that students use English
“…in socially and culturally appropriate ways. Teach socially and culturally appropriate language by using a variety of language registers–for example, formal, idiomatic, and common slang terms and phrases–when in the classroom. Students with limited English proficiency need to identify and know when to choose the appropriate register according to audience, purpose, and setting.” (Beckett, PG).

She reminds her readers that the language ESL students hear every day is not the language that they will encounter on the standards tests, and that it is vital they recognize the formal register—and use it appropriately.

She concludes her article with a discussion of the need for English language standards, which touches on such things as the high drop-out rate for ESL students; and the difficulty such students face at higher levels and in society if they remain focused on developing competence in English only in social situations and do not expand their abilities to much more complex and technical areas of linguistic expertise.

I find her suggestions to be sound and reasonable, but somewhat limited. Although I’m not an educator, I think that there must be more ways of encouraging students to learn appropriate language registers than the simple goals Beckett delineates here. Replacing desks with round tables, for example, is a good start, but creating an informal and supportive atmosphere with this technique is only a start. I’d like to have seen her develop her ideas with more specificity.

It’s obvious that she has taken the interest of ESL learners into account; indeed, her entire premise is that the system as it is currently constituted is failing these students.

I do think she’s failed to address the problems faced by ESL students from disadvantaged economic backgrounds, since these are the children who will probably find themselves at schools with sparse resources; she doesn’t address that issue at all, and it’s a significant problem. As the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, funding for poorer schools continues to decrease. She has nothing to say about the poorest of our students.

IV Conclusion

Overall, I think the article is a good start, but nothing more. Beckett has certainly identified an area that has been largely neglected, but her suggestions are simplistic and don’t go far enough.

V References

Beckett, E. Carol & Perry Kay Haley. “Using Standards to Integrate Academic Language into ESL Fluency.” The Clearing House, Nov 2000: 102+. Retrieved 28 Oct 2003 from The Gale Group, San Diego Public Library, San Diego, CA: http://web2.infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/infomark/722/647/42358727w2/purl=rc1_ITOF_0_A66935017&dyn=9!xrn_73_0_A66935017?sw_aep=sddp_main

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Payne, R. A Framework for Understanding Poverty. Highlands, TX: Aha! Process, Inc., 2001. [On-line]. 28 Oct 2003. http://www.extension.psu.edu/workforce/Materials/Bridges/LangCommStructure.pdf