L is for Language arts

13 08 2017

language arts blackboardAt the very end of an intensive summer of methodology and language analysis, one of my MA TESOL students, who I will call Alice, confessed that it had taken her until that point to realize that TESOL is ‘different’. “You need to understand that I come from a language arts teaching background,” she told me. “It seems that teaching ELLs [English language learners] is not the same”.

On reflection, this insight explained a lot about the struggle Alice had been having, both in her practical teaching classes, and in her written assignments, especially those that required an understanding of how texts could be exploited in class. In her classes she had often used her energetic and engaging manner to focus her students’ attention on unusual or literary features of language, such as idioms and the use of figurative language – irrespective of her students’ level, and at considerable cost to their comprehension.  When her display questions elicited blank stares she seemed to assume it was because they lacked knowledge of the topic, not that they lacked the necessary language – particularly the vocabulary – with which to understand her or to respond. And, in her written assignments, she chose texts or topics for classroom exploitation that were way beyond an average ELL’s capacity to process.

Alice’s ‘epiphany’ made me think that perhaps we don’t do enough – at the outset of the program  – to distinguish between these two very different disciplines, i.e. language arts teaching and language teaching. Because they both involve language, and, specifically, the English language, it is tempting to assume that they share the same goals, methods, and learner profiles. And that the experience of teaching one would be ideal preparation for teaching the other.

But I would argue that there are more differences than similarities.

language arts free expressionTo start with the most obvious: students of language arts are, generally speaking, already fluent in the language of instruction, for most of whom it is their first language. What’s more, they come to class with a receptive vocabulary of several thousand words. They are equipped to understand most everything their teacher says to them, or gives them to read.

ELLs, on the other hand, are seldom already fluent (that’s why they have enrolled in classes in the first place), and have a limited lexicon: the average low-intermediate student may have a sight vocabulary of fewer than a thousand words. Apart from anything else, this makes reading and listening of anything but the most simplified texts an enormous challenge. Hence they need help – not in appreciating the writer’s style, or inferencing the text’s covert message  – but in cracking the code and releasing its literal (not literary) meaning. And they need a teacher who is able to grade her language appropriately to ensure understanding.

Moreover, the kinds of texts they will need to unpack are unlikely to be expressive or poetic ones, but utilitarian, even prosaic ones, such as instruction manuals, legal documents, academic abstracts, and so on. This doesn’t mean that there is no room for expressive and imaginative writing in the ESOL classroom, but that there is little point in having learners engage with ‘higher order’ texts until their basic reading strategies are in place.

language arts libraryLikewise, the goal of language production, whether speaking or writing, is first and foremost, intelligibility. Again, this will require a core vocabulary and a basic grammar – not a style-guide grammar (as in Never use the passive voice when you can use the active) but a nuts-and-bolts grammar (such as Adjectives generally always go before the noun and To make a question, invert the subject and the auxiliary verb).  And, of course, they will need pronunciation and spelling that are comprehensible even if they are unlikely ever to be native-like.

To sum up, then: here are some of the major differences between teaching language arts and teaching language. (Is this perhaps something we should introduce to trainee language teachers on Day 1?)

language arts chart

(This post first appeared on The New School MA TESOL blog Uncharted ESOL in September 2015).



13 responses

13 08 2017

A bit off topic but as I read this it struck me as the most American post on this blog, both in language and in content. And then I read the comment in brackets at the bottom and realised why (?)

15 08 2017
Scott Thornbury

Fair point, Alex – this blog post was originally directed at a largely North American audience, where the term ‘language arts’ is commonly used. What would the equivalent be in the UK?

13 08 2017
Mike Harrison

I think you’re right that this key distinction should be made evident from the get-go. However, I think that it does depend at what level and in which context you’re teaching in. For example, I don’t think literacy development should (and I don’t think it is) be excluded from the ESOL teaching context. When you’re teaching learners who have migrated to an English-speaking country, it’s of prime urgency for them to be able to read and write (albeit at a basic level) to be able to function and access services, like healthcare and education.

15 08 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Mike – your point about context is well made. What you are describing for ESOL learners (accessing health care etc) is what is sometimes called functional literacy, and clearly there is an urgent need to address it. I would argue that EFL learners also need functional literacy, although there is perhaps less urgency (and less clear a focus) than with ESOL learners. But it seems to me that ‘language arts’ teachers are less concerned with functional literacy than with some vague notion of literary expression.

13 08 2017

Hi Scott,
True, and we should make the difference clear between teaching language arts and teaching English language from the very outset. However, there is a danger that trainee teachers come to think that language teaching is somehow fundamentally different from teaching other subjects. I often find the ELT community somehow isolated and independent from mainstream education, which is a pity.

15 08 2017
Scott Thornbury

Good point, Mark. Of course, one way of erasing the difference between language teaching and the teaching of other subjects might be to get rid of language teaching altogether and simply teach (some of) the other subjects in the target language, à la CLIL.

13 08 2017

with immersion programs , it is difficult to make fine distinctions between teaching English language arts and teaching English per se.

15 08 2017
Scott Thornbury

Agreed, Shahram -see more comment to Mark (above).

14 08 2017

As a mentor to new teachers entering the ESL field, I have often found that language arts teachers are confident at first but find the same problems your student ‘Alice’ found. They tend not to be able to move between pedagogy and andragogy as smoothly as they first expected. One aspect, in addition to your observation of reading comprehension, is including speaking as a separate skill and one that needs to be explicitly taught.

15 08 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jenn. Yes, the assumption that language learners ought to be fluent from day one is one that is carried over by language arts teachers, in my experience. I had a teacher this summer who believed that his students’ lack of fluency was due to poor breath control (not lack of vocabulary or grammar) and could be corrected by doing the kinds of exercises that actors do in order to increase the length and speed of their utterances.

14 08 2017
Niall O'Donnell

I agree, particularly as most ESL teachers have experience as students of English Language Art lessons, and pick up on habits they observed in their own teachers, especially if using authentic texts.
That said, with experience and higher-level students, incorporating elements of English Language Art teaching can be useful for adding variety and helping learners to identify elements of style in English.

15 08 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Niall. Yes, at higher levels, the difference between teaching language and teaching language arts starts to blur. Nevertheless, I get somewhat edgy when I hear a teacher tell me that he/she has a designed a lesson that focuses on elements of style (with all the connotations that that word has). I would prefer it if they talked about register, for a start.

19 08 2017
Hera Kashmeri

An extremely interesting distinction inferred by you here, Sir. Add to that, as a TESOL teacher, I encounter English language learners almost on a week-by-week basis, that have a variety of levels, and needs, all the way from professional (L2) learners, impatient to learn English for job interviews for that 1st job ; to adults that need more functional English, i.e. cancelling a medical appointment/getting rid of that telemarketers ; to students that are on work visas, and finally the older adult L2 learners, that are eager to close the gap in their English language learning, for their retirement living, to access their health/pension needs. Challenging, yet immensely humbling experience, in terms of keeping every one’s language interest focused!

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