Thursday, October 1, 2015

Downplaying vocabulary and grammar, II

Since when does English as a Second Language instruction encompass everything but what's specific to the English Language?

In an article from last week's Education Week author Mary Ann Zehr makes the following observations:

-"English-learners need models of writing and instruction in specific genres." In particular they need to learn about the differences between "an argumentative essay, a personal narrative, and a research paper" and how to "back up their claims with facts or examples and to address counterarguments."

-"ELLs need to talk first and write later." Does this mean they should master conversational English before moving on to written compositions--the traditional sequence in foreign language instruction? No, rather, this is all about process: "it’s more effective to have students talk about a topic before they write about it."

Don't these principles apply to all students, native speakers included? Shouldn't ESL instructors be teaching kids conventions to specific to the English language rather than principles and strategies that are independent of particular languages? (I'm pretty sure, for example, that claims made in Spanish or Finnish should also backed up with facts or examples.)

If the students--as is the case with Zehr's students--are in designated ELL classes, aren't their learning priorities English grammar and vocabulary? After all, you can't write a decent argumentative essay in English if you don't know phrases like "even though," "on the other hand," and "counter-argument," along with whatever vocabulary is specific to your topic. Nor can you write a decent argument in English if you don't know the English rules for forming conditional sentences ("If X is true, then Y is true"), counterfactual sentences ("If X were true, then Y would be true") and a host of other complex structures.

Now, perhaps some of Zehr's students already have a decent English vocabulary and a host of complex English structures in their repertoires. But if so, shouldn't they have already placed out of Zehr's classes?

If Zehr's above proposals reasonably apply to all writers--once they're linguistically ready for the given writing assignment, that is--the rest of Zehr's proposals are highly questionable, again regardless of native speaker status. "Students benefit from meeting authors";  "If teenagers feel they have something to say, their writing will be much more interesting and developed"; "Teenagers are more likely to invest in writing if it’s for an authentic audience";  "Teens are more likely to complete writing assignments and write well if they see themselves as writers." All this is mushy motivational stuff--akin to introducing science students to real scientists/mathematicians and getting them to see themselves as scientists/mathematicians.

Without the basics, whether of how to put words in the correct order with the correct endings attached, or of how to structure sentences so that one flows clearly into the next, how much you have to say and how motivated you are to say it will only get you so far.

And isn't the motivation to write a function, not just of whether you've met authors and feel you have something to say and have an "authentic" audience and see yourself as a writer and, but, perhaps most importantly of all, how easily the words come to you and how fluently you can assemble them into sentences?

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