Content Based English as a Second Language

This article is written by Nancy S. Dunetz, Ed.D., a founding teacher of The International High School at LaGuardia Community College, who now mentors and coaches at a variety of Internationals.

Language is a medium for communicating, for learning, for thinking. When youngsters are taught a second language without purpose, it is unlikely that the language will be learned very well.

Students need to be able to do more than greet people, negotiate their way through the supermarket, write and produce skits, and leave messages on answering machines. The cognitive/linguistic demands on students include analyzing data, making inferences, comparing and contrasting, predicting, drawing conclusions, and all the other linguistic tasks we require of mainstream students in content classes. Without the opportunity to engage in these tasks, students cannot develop the skills.

There are two types of language we need to address in teaching English: academic English and social English. Social English can develop informally through interaction with native speakers, and formally in a classroom setting. Academic English, however, must be developed in a classroom setting. The vocabulary, sentence structure, and style of academic English differ markedly from social English.

Often teachers of limited English proficient students use content areas (academic subjects such as social studies, science, mathematics) as a context for teaching language. Their lessons are organized around the linguistic points that are being taught, while the content is a vehicle for focusing on those linguistic points. The content is almost inconsequential. With such an approach, students don’t progress much beyond naming things or stating facts.

Content (data, concepts, ideas) exists apart from language, but language does not exist apart from content. Furthermore, language is more readily remembered when it has meaning and when it is in context. Content based English as a second language instruction means that language is an outgrowth of content – that by experiencing and learning new concepts, students extend their language base. Philosophically, it follows the idea that comprehension precedes language.

How then will students internalize the structure, syntax, and phonology of their new language? An experience-based curriculum, which enables the students to understand the concepts they are dealing with, will firmly support their English language acquisition. In the process of engaging in experiences and project development, they will be practicing structures that teachers and other students model. They will create and investigate hypotheses about how their new language functions. From time to time teachers might make brief explanations about the grammar of the new language. But, this is for the purpose of helping the students refine their language as opposed to using grammar to teach the language.

What English as a second language teachers can learn from good content teachers is to focus on concepts that are abstract and transcend curriculum areas, concepts such as power, control, and interdependence. For example, the concept of interdependence can be demonstrated by content examples about people in groups (governments, societies, teams, classes in school), about ecological phenomena (food chains, pollination), about mathematical principles. As the concept is examined in its multiple contexts, the students’ understandings are broadened to enable them to apply knowledge to new situations, thus engaging them in higher order thinking skills. Teachers shouldn’t use the vocabulary only to name a phenomenon, but to point out how the word varies across disciplines, and how the word is related to other words (How does “in” change the meaning of dependence? What about interdependence?)

Content teachers, on the other hand, can learn a great deal from English as a second language teachers. English as a second language teachers are masters at making information concrete. They know how to present material step by step. They know how to start at the beginning. Many teachers do not do this, because to them the beginning is where their preconceived curriculum begins, regardless of the group of students they have before them. When they take the time to discover where their students are, they often find they have to redefine the beginning. They have to start before the beginning.

Given the large population of immigrants in the United States, and the high degree of expertise that has developed over the past decades in educating them, school systems can no longer ignore the basic educational needs of English as a second language learners in their mainstream classes, placing the onus on the students to figure out the coursework on their own. Schools can no longer leave the job of developing the students’ English competence exclusively to English as a second language experts. Likewise, English as a second language teachers can no longer focus solely on English language development isolated from academic coursework.

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