Sunday, February 14, 2016

Second Language Acquisition - What You Need to Know

One of the most important concepts that we must understand in order to successfully teach ELLs is the process of second language acquisition (SLA).  First, let's take a look at how we learn our first language.  Most people know the stages of learning the first language - from cooing and babbling all the way up to grammar and vocabulary building.  The first language is learned through cognitive processes like habit formation, repetition, reinforcement, and practice.

Learning a second language is a little different.  There are two main types of language in SLA, which are BICS and CALP (theorized by Jim Cummins).  
  • BICS, or basic interpersonal communication skills, is the type of language that ELLs will easily pick up on by interacting with friends at school, people in the community, and seeing them on television.  Some examples include talking on the phone, singing songs, and slang words that are popular in the area/culture.  On average, BICS proficiency can be achieved anywhere from 6 month to 2 years.  
  • CALP, or cognitive academic language proficiency, is academic language specific to content area studies that must be learned for success in school but will not be picked up through day to day conversations.  Many of these words are vocabulary words for specific content areas like math or science.  
Now, to understand the role of BICS and CALP in language development, we must be familiar with the stages of Second Language Acquisition.  The stages in SLA include: 

It is important for teachers to really understand which level their ELLs are in when they come into the classroom in order to give them the best education possible.  Another important thing is to respect the silent period, as most ELL students will take time to get adjusted in the first place, especially if they are new to the country or the school. 

Now, another viral aspect of SLA is reaching fluency in academic language, or the CALP aspect from above.  Many teachers do not realize that it may take as many as 7-10 years to reach fully academic language fluency.  But, what is academic language anyways?  Academic language is the content area language and vocabulary needed for students to be successful in each subject.  Some examples are theme and irony in English language arts, hypotenuse and function in mathematics, and democracy in social studies.  Academic language usually needs to be explicitly taught, and the instruction and explanation of these content area words may even benefit the mainstream students as well.  Who doesn't need a refresher on the difference between mood and tone or communism and socialism every year??

Some methods/activities for achieving academic language proficiency are:
  • Flash cards (or Quizlet)
  • Reading different types of texts (in or out of class)
  • Conversation practice or stimulated dialogues with peers and teacher
  • Language learning software (Rosetta Stone, or the app DuoLingo are great ones!)
  • Teaching grammar/giving grammatical explanations before students use it
  • Activating background/cultural knowledge
  • Providing quick, easy to understand, and constructive feedback
  • Creating graphic organizers or handouts with visuals, pictures, explanations, and more.

Take a look at this video to see what Dr. Cynthia Lundgren from Hamline University has to say about social vs. academic language!! (3:23 minutes long)


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