ERIC Identifier: ED447721 Publication Date: 2000-11-00
Author: Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and
Linguistics Washington DC.
What Elementary Teachers Need To Know about Language. ERIC
Over the past decade, education reforms have raised the educational bar that
all children in the United States--including newcomers--must clear to finish
school and participate in the economic and social world of the 21st century.
These reforms place tremendous pressures on children and teachers: In addition
to mastering the content-area curriculum, children must become skilled users of
language. They must be highly competent in reading and writing to pass the
various assessments that constitute gateways for completing school, getting into
college, and finding jobs. Teachers need a wealth of content and pedagogical
knowledge to ensure that they are providing appropriate instruction to all
students. Teachers also need a thorough understanding of educational
linguistics--how language figures in education. This foundation would support
teachers' practice overall, and in particular, it would help them teach literacy
skills (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998), especially to English language
learners (August & Hakuta, 1998). If approached coherently, preparation in
educational linguistics would cover many items on lists of teacher competencies,
such as skills in assessing children, individualizing instruction, and
respecting diversity. This Digest summarizes some basic aspects of oral and
written language about which elementary teachers need expertise in order to
promote literacy. However, it is only one part of the formula for effective
teaching. How literacy skills should be taught and how teachers can learn what
they need to know about language are beyond the scope of this Digest.
WHAT SHOULD CLASSROOM TEACHERS KNOW ABOUT
Classroom teachers and other educators should be able to answer a
basic set of questions regarding oral and written language. Underlying their
knowledge should be an understanding that oral language proficiency developed
first in the native language (and often in a second language) serves as the
foundation for literacy and as the means for learning in school and out.
Teachers need to know how written language contrasts with speech so they can
help their students acquire literacy.
What are the basic units of language?
Teachers need to know that spoken language is composed of units, the smallest
of which are sounds, called phonemes if they signal meaning differences (e.g.,
bet and met have different meanings because they start with different phonemes).
Next come morphemes, sequences of sounds that form the smallest units of meaning
in a language (cat is a morpheme of English and so is -s); words, consisting of
one or more morphemes (cats); phrases (one or more words); and sentences.
Crucial to an understanding of how language works is the notion of
arbitrariness: Language units have no inherent meaning. A sequence of sounds
that is meaningful in English may mean nothing at all in another language--or
something quite different. Understanding the variety of structures that
different languages and dialects use to show meaning can help teachers see the
logic behind the errors in their students' language use.
What is regular, and what isn't? How do forms relate to each other?
Proficient English speakers take for granted language irregularities that can
be puzzling to younger and less fluent language users. An important part of
acquiring a vocabulary suitable for academic contexts is knowing how to parse
newly encountered words into their morphemes, rather than simply treating them
as "long words." Teachers need to be aware of the principles of word formation
in English since such knowledge can aid students in vocabulary acquisition.
How is the lexicon (vocabulary) acquired and structured?
Most classroom teachers recognize the need to teach vocabulary. Often, they
identify and define technical or unusual words in texts. But knowing a word
involves more than knowing its definition: It takes many encounters with a word
in meaningful contexts for students to acquire it. It also requires
understanding how the word relates to similar forms, how it can be used
grammatically, and how it relates to other words and concepts. Effective
vocabulary instruction requires that teachers understand how words are learned
in noninstructional contexts through conversation and reading.
Are vernacular dialects different from "bad English" and if so, how?
To realize that differences among regional and social dialects of English or
another language are a matter of regular, contrasting patterns in their sound
systems, grammar, and lexicons--rather than errors--educators need a solid
grounding in sociolinguistics and in language behavior across cultures. Schools
must help children who speak vernacular varieties of English master the standard
variety required for academic development, and they must respect the dialects
that children use in their families and primary communities. Recognizing how
language influences adults' perceptions of children and how adults relate to
children through language is crucial to teachers' work. Educators need enough
knowledge to keep speakers of vernacular dialects from being misdiagnosed and
misplaced in school programs. In addition, they need knowledge about language
variability in order to make sound decisions about instruction.
What is academic English?
Academic English is a cognitively demanding and relatively decontextualized
register (Cummins, 1984). It relies on a broad knowledge of words, concepts,
language structures, and interpretation strategies. Skills related to mastery of
academic English include summarizing, analyzing, extracting and interpreting
meaning, evaluating evidence, composing, and editing.
Acquiring academic English is a challenge for both English language learners
and native speakers. Few children arrive at school competent in this register.
For the most part, academic English is learned over the course of schooling
through frequent engagement in classroom talk, reading textbooks, and writing.
Teachers need to recognize that all students need support to acquire the
structures and vocabulary associated with academic English, and they need to
know how to provide it.
Why has the acquisition of English by non-English speaking children not been
more universally successful?
English language learners may be having a harder time learning English for
academic success. Regardless of instructional program (e.g., bilingual, ESL,
structured immersion), students who have entered school speaking little or no
English may not be receiving the instruction they require to master academic
English. Many teachers have been given misguided advice about what works for
teaching English language learners--from letting children acquire the language
naturally, to simplifying language use, to avoiding error correction. The
message has been that direct instruction has no role. Fillmore (1991) found that
children who are successful in acquiring English interact directly and
frequently with people who know the language well. Such expert speakers not only
provide access to the language, they also provide clues as to how to combine and
communicate ideas, information, and intentions. Teachers must know enough about
language and language learning to evaluate the appropriateness of various
methods, materials, and approaches for helping students succeed.
Why is English spelling so complicated?
Unlike some other languages, English has not changed its spelling to
eliminate inconsistencies and reflect changes occurring in its sound system over
time. In addition, English generally retains the spelling of morphological
units, even when the rules of pronunciation mean that phonemes within these
morphological units vary (e.g., the second /k/ sound in electric and the /s/
sound in electricity have the same spelling). Errors in spelling can result from
writers' inclination to write what they hear. English language learners'
spelling errors may reflect limited exposure to written English forms,
inadequate instruction, and transfer of general spelling strategies from another
language. Understanding the complexities of English orthography can help
teachers take sensible approaches to teaching it. Knowing how orthographies of
different languages are organized also can help teachers figure out why spelling
is more difficult for some students and why students make certain errors.
Why do students have trouble with narrative and expository writing?
All students need to learn the rhetorical structures associated with story
telling and the various kinds of expository writing in English. However, many
students bring to this task culturally based text structures that contrast with
those expected at school. The emphasis in mainstream English stories is on
getting the sequence of events correct and clear. This can seem so obviously
correct to the monolingual speaker of English that the narrative of the Latino
child, who emphasizes personal relationships more than plot, or that of the
Japanese child, who may provide very terse stories, can be dismissed as
incomprehensible (McCabe, 1995). Similarly with expository writing, argument
structure varies across cultures. The topic sentences, paragraphs, and essays
that are staples of English prose may be more difficult for students whose
language experience includes other ways of expression.
How should the quality and correctness of a piece of writing be judged?
Teachers must have a solid-enough knowledge of grammar to support children's
writing development and pinpoint problems in writing and interpreting text.
Partly because teachers may feel insecure about their own writing, partly
because students are not given opportunities to write frequently, and partly
because teachers of writing are sometimes reluctant to correct students'
writing, students may not be receiving the kind of corrective feedback that will
help them be better writers. This problem is particularly acute for English
What makes a sentence or text difficult to understand?
Many educators erroneously associate simple sentences with ease in
understanding and interpretation. For this reason, texts for English language
learners are often composed of short, choppy sentences. The unintended result is
that these simplified texts are far less readable than regular texts and may be
insulting to readers. Moreover, because simplified texts are often unnatural,
they cannot serve as exemplars of written academic English. With teachers' help,
students can use well-written, grade-appropriate texts to learn content-area
knowledge--as well as the vocabulary, grammatical structures, and rhetorical
devices associated with academic writing.
As schools become increasingly diverse,
education reforms will continue to put pressure on educators to provide
appropriate instruction for all students. Teachers will continue to need access
to a wide range of information to help students succeed, including information
about the language that many of their students are learning. A thorough
knowledge base in educational linguistics will support teachers' work overall
and make school a place for students to succeed.
August, D., & Hakuta, K. (Eds.). (1998).
"Educating language minority children." Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Cummins, J. (1984). "Bilingualism and special education: Issues in assessment
and pedagogy." Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.
Fillmore, L.W. (1991). Second language learning in children: A model of
language learning in social context. In E. Bialystok (Ed.), "Language processing
by bilingual children" (pp. 49-69). New York: Cambridge University Press.
McCabe, A. (1995). "Chameleon readers: Teaching children to appreciate all
kinds of good stories." New York: McGraw-Hill. Snow, C.E., Burns, M.S., &
Griffen, P. (Eds.). (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children.
Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
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