Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Is America jeopardizing its ESL industry?

In my earlier post on America's advantage in the ESL industry, I noted that current trends may be diminishing that advantage. Some students from mainland China, for example, have mastered English so well that they can come over here and teach ESL in Chinatown. But one of these trends is entirely homegrown: the rise of the Common Core Standards and the way in which we are interpreting them vis a vis ESL instruction.

The Powers that Be in American education, citing specific high-level, one-size-fits-all Common Core Standards for English and Language Arts that apply to native English speakers and English Language learners alike--for example, the requirement that first graders write "opinion pieces"--are now arguing that we need to integrate ESL teaching into the regular classrooms rather than pulling students out for special instruction in vocabulary and grammar. A recent article in Edweek, for example, cites Aída Walqui, the director of teacher professional development for WestEd, a San Francisco-based research group, as stating that:

ESL teachers themselves, as well as their content-area peers, need to reconceptualize what language is and evolve from their concentrated focus on vocabulary and grammar or on how to make a request or express a hypothesis.
"Students are too often engaged in the production of sentences with vocabulary they have learned," Ms. Walqui said. "But a sentence is an isolated unit of language that would never really count as deep engagement with academic work, which is what the common core is all about."
In another article from the same issue, Ms. Walqui elaborates:
"As soon as you put an emphasis on the language, then people start teaching grammar. The language gets chopped into pieces, and students don't engage in it in a discourse form."
This article also cites Guadalupe Valdés, "an education professor at Stanford University who studies second-language acquisition" and believes "that language is not a set of structures that must be learned in a linear fashion":
Because the most common approach to teaching ELLs [English Language Learners] is to sequester them in classrooms with other language-learners and to focus so much on grammar and vocabulary, Ms. Valdés said they don't get enough opportunities to hear and speak what she calls "rich English" with peers and other educators.
One can try to reconceptualize language all one wants to, and, indeed, there's a long tradition in America in both the education and the developmental therapy worlds of ignoring the importance of grammar. But the fact remains that vocabulary and grammar are the building blocks both of language itself and of linguistic mastery. What Walqui calls "isolated units of language, i.e., "sentences," are the linguistic correlates of units of thought. Potentially isolated though all these units are, they also come together to form the backbone of "deep engagement with academic work.” After all, if you don’t understand English vocabulary and English grammar, you can’t read English texts, nor can you express thoughts about them using English vocabulary and English sentences.

Part of the problem in the American education establishment is a failure of imagination. Because so few Americans have ever really attempted to learn any foreign language beyond a superficial elementary level, it's hard for many of us to imagine how much the grammars--word orders, word endings, etc.--of different languages vary from one another, and therefore how little of a foreign language you can comprehend and produce without learning its specific grammar rules. Even fewer of us have experienced what it's like to be a foreign language learner in a foreign school system.

In principle, ESL students can learn English vocabulary and grammar without special pullouts—but only if they experience sufficient immersion. Those who end up in ESL classes often do so because they aren’t getting enough immersion opportunities—perhaps because they choose to do most of their socializing with fellow immigrants who share their language; perhaps because their native-English speaking classmates fail to fully include them in their social interactions—or, worse, are deliberately exclusive and nasty.

When it comes to this kind of English Language Learner, the Common Core Standards for English and Language Arts are totally unrealistic. Making them the instructional goal for ELLs will backfire in at least two directions. If our ESL programs are to succeed in teaching English to non-native English speakers, then, absent full immersion, the next best thing is direct, intensive, and systematic instruction in vocabulary and grammar. If America’s ESL industry decides to abandon these things even more than it already has, we may see even more people coming over from other countries to do the job for us.

No comments: