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HOW SHOULD ACADEMIC LANGUAGE BE TAUGHT?

Teachers should teach the structural aspects of academic language explicitly to students, and ELs need to concentrate on form, in addition to engaging in communicative language use. Spada & Lightbown (2008) argue that explicit instruction in the structural features of academic English facilitates students’ second language learning in a way that relying solely on meaning- and communication-oriented instruction does not. Similarly, Ellis (1996) contends that advanced proficiency and accuracy in spoken and written production are essential for effective functioning in an academic setting, and that attaining high levels of proficiency requires specific instruction. Research showing the value of explicit instruction on form confirms these assertions (see also Doughty & Williams, 1998; Hinkel & Fotos, 2002).

Norris & Ortega (2000) conducted a meta-analysis of 79 studies that examined the effectiveness of various types of language programs. Despite its limited applicability to K-12 EL education (only 20% of the studies they analyzed involved elementary and secondary students; the rest involved college-age or adult learners), Norris & Ortega’s meta-analysis showed that explicit instruction on language form consistently produced better student results than implicit instruction. Norris & Ortega classified an instructional treatment as explicit when the instructors presented a language form to the students and provided opportunities for them to practice it with many examples. Explicit instruction also involved instructors engaging students in tasks containing many examples of a particular form and then directing students’ attention to it so that students can arrive at the rule by themselves or with the teacher’s guidance. In contrast, instructional treatments were classified as implicit if the teachers did not explain the language form and did not direct students’ attention to it. The authors point out that, in terms of student learning, explicit instructional approaches were on average more than twice as effective as implicit approaches.

Research on what has come to be known as focus on form has been motivated by the findings that suggest that when classroom second language learning is entirely experiential and meaning-focused, some linguistic features do not ultimately develop to target-like levels (Harley, 1992; Harley & Swain, 1984). For example, even after many years in French immersion programs in Canada, many students have difficulty using the tu and vous forms appropriately and marking gender on articles. Swain (1998) notes that although many of these students are able to get their meanings across in French, they often do so with non-target-like morphology and syntax. She concludes that an input-rich, communicatively oriented classroom does not provide all that is necessary for the development of target-like proficiency. Swain has long emphasized the role for output (speaking and writing) in second language learning (Swain, 1985).

We should note that focus on form is different from what Long & Robinson (1998) refer to as focus on forms—that is, isolated instruction in linguistic forms that often takes place in primarily grammar-based classrooms. In these classrooms, students might learn how to transform a sentence into the passive voice (e.g., The kids put on the show ^ The show was put on by the kids) or pluralize nouns (e.g., book ^ books, match ^ matches, sheep ^ sheep0, goose ^ geese). The goal of these lessons is to have students rehearse and memorize individual rules of the target language. While it is certainly important for ELs to master discrete rules such as these in order to use English accurately and fluently, a mere collection of language rules is not sufficient for ELs to access grade-level content in the various subject areas.

What ELs need is meaning-driven academic discussions of content with specific attention to form. Doughty & Varela (1998: 115) provide the following criteria for a content-based lesson with a focus on form:

  • 1. The target of the focus on form should arise incidentally in the otherwise content-based lesson.
  • 2. The primary focus should remain on meaning or communication.
  • 3. The teacher should draw students’ attention to form rather than leaving it to chance that students will notice linguistic features without any pedagogical assistance.

In a lesson with a focus on form, teacher discussions of structural aspects of language are carried out with specific reference to performing the academic task at hand. Students’ learning of the structural rules of language is not an end goal but a means to accessing the content.

What does focus on form look like in the content classroom? Doughty & Varela (1998) provide an example from their study of intermediate ELs in middle school science classes. The teacher in the treatment group analyzed students’ writing in their weekly lab reports and noticed that many of the students had particular difficulty with past time reference. Although students were having difficulty with other forms as well (comparatives and superlatives, third person singular -s), the teacher selected simple past and conditional as the form in focus because errors of time reference were quite common among the ELs and resulted in oral and written reports that unsuccessfully communicated the predictions and outcomes of the science experiments.

Throughout the treatment period, whenever past or conditional errors occurred in speaking or writing, the instructor of the treatment group drew students’ attention to the problem and then immediately provided corrective feedback in the form of a recast, a reformulation of an incorrect utterance that maintains the original meaning. Each procedure focused on only one learner error of past time reference and involved repetition of the student’s incorrect utterance with a rising intonation and a corrective recast with a falling intonation. Thus, each procedure looked something like the following (Doughty & Varela, 1998: 124):

Jose: I think that the worm will go under the soil.

Teacher: I think that the worm will go under the soil?

Jose: (no response)

Teacher: I thought that the worm would go under the soil.

Jose: I thought that the worm would go under the soil.

Doughty & Varela (1998) report that the effects of the intonational focus and corrective recasting during science lab experiments were substantial. Learners in the treatment group improved in both accuracy and total number of attempts at past time reference, particularly in the oral reporting of the science labs. The progress made by the control group (which received no focus on form instruction) was much less significant than the improvement seen in the treatment group.

Overall, to successfully focus on form, content area teachers need to become more aware of the linguistic challenges of their specific disciplines at the grammatical, phonological, and discourse levels (Wong Fillmore & Snow, 2000). In order to help students develop an “ear” for academic English, teachers may wish to increase the amount of students’ exposure to academic texts by reading to them out loud, focusing their attention on specific features of English, and getting them to use these features in their own writing and speech (Scarcella, 2002). Teacher training courses need to ensure that teachers are equipped with the skills necessary for focusing students’ attention on form and that they have an understanding of the potential advantages and disadvantages of the different procedures involved. Furthermore, teachers need to be trained to analyze and reflect on their own as well as others’ techniques for addressing form. Accomplishing this will require a significant change in the way content area teachers are prepared, and a shift in teacher identity from mainly content experts to those who are also well versed in the language demands of their subject areas.

 
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