Building Confidence for English Learners
At Gould, many of our international students have come to the United States to improve their English in preparation for enrollment at an American university. One of the many challenges for English learners coming to the United States for high school is developing their academic literacy so that it matches that of their American peers.
There is a consistent and pervasive misconception that the most effective way for English learners to achieve desired proficiency levels is through complete immersion and corrective teaching. Grammatical and syntactical mistakes are focused upon in hopes of teaching English learners to not make similar errors in the future. However, these types of strategies ignore the two connected facts that many English learners are not only learning English, they are learning both academic literacy and adolescent social literacy not just for the first time, but in new language.
English Learners at Gould
At Gould, we teach a population of English learners from a variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Their learning differences from domestic students are many, both in the sense of English academic literacy and in how their primary language and/or English proficiency affect their ability to succeed academically in an American high school like Gould. These cultural and linguistic differences, as well as students’ academic histories, impact their development; there is little-to-no consistency of experience for English learners at Gould as there are for our domestic students. They come from various backgrounds, both socio-economically and educationally depending on where they are from, as well as their family histories and relationships with education.
In Gould’s English Studies Program, we have taken these differences into account and designed a curriculum aimed at preparing our international students to succeed at the college level as English learners. This means a focus on self-reflection and American academic and cultural understanding. Many of our students are unaware that going to college in the United States will consist of regularly assigned reflective writing and peer group discussion–skills they have not necessarily practiced in their home countries’ educational systems.
Stress-Free Learning Environment
In the English Studies Program, Nancy Barstow and I work with our students in a learning environment where they do not need to worry about their processing time in English being slower than their American classmates. They are able to speak up in class without being thought of as ignorant of American culture or having to worry about making a grammatical or vocabulary mistake. Students are encouraged to participate frequently in ESP classes in class discussions, on their blogs, and with interactive reading assignments. In fact, students present weekly on assigned readings and lead a class discussion or activity related to that reading for 25-30 minutes. Everyone is required to participate and they do, especially with the understanding that it will be their turn to present at some point.
BICS & CALP
Jim Cummins, an expert in the field of bilingual education, argues that basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) can develop to a high level of proficiency in as little as 1-2 years. In my experience, this is true even in non-immersive environments, such as cities in central China. For English learners in an immersive environment such as Gould, this can occur in even less time. However, Cummins argues that CALP (cognitive academic language proficiency) takes 5-7 years to develop. In the English Studies Program, we focus on improving American-style “CALP” in the sense that our students are learning to use academic strategies and skills which they are generally not expected to have developed before arriving in the United States.
By working within a curriculum that focuses on filling in the gaps of CALP, and does not penalize English learners for neglecting to already be academically proficient at the same level as their American peers, our students are encouraged to open up in English Studies classes and, hopefully, feel more comfortable and confident doing so in their other classes and beyond.