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).

P is for Phonics

27 02 2011

A recent item on the BBC website (Reading test for six-year-olds to include non-words) reminds us that the debate about phonics continues to polarise educationalists and the public alike. The fact that a government-mandated reading test for six-year-olds is to include nonsense words, like ‘koob’ and ‘zort’, which the children are required to sound out, has incensed advocates of a more meaning- and context-driven approach to developing first language literacy: “It’s just bonkers!” The very mention of  phonics is guaranteed to elicit this kind of knee-jerk reaction in some quarters.

Just to remind you, phonics (to quote the entry from An A-Z of ELT)

is an approach to the teaching of first language reading that is based on the principle of identifying sound-letter relationships, and using this knowledge to ‘sound out’ unfamiliar words when reading.

The analytic, bottom-up phonics approach contrasts with a more holistic, top-down approach to developing literacy skills that is called (in the US at least) whole language learning. Whole language learning is premised on the belief that, “in the development of both speech and writing, children begin with a whole and only later develop an understanding of the constituent parts… Parts are harder to learn than wholes because they are more abstract. We need the whole to provide a context for the parts” (Freeman & Freeman, 1998, p. 65).

Because so much is at stake (i.e. first language literacy, and hence access to all the ‘cultural capital’ that goes with being able to read and write) the debate between advocates of phonics, on the one hand, and of whole language learning, on the other, has become iconic – representing as it does the war between traditionalists (‘teach the facts’) and the progressivisits (‘nurture the child’). The former claim that there can be no learning without knowledge of the system (i.e. the rules), while the latter claim that the only real learning is self-directed, socially-situated, and experiential.

Supporters of the phonics position cite research studies that suggest that the best predictors of reading ability are good phoneme-identification skills (the ability to sound out a word like c-a-t) and a knowledge of letter-sound correspondences, enabling accurate decoding of the written word. In one of a series of studies, for example, Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley (1995) found that children who had been instructed in phonemic awareness in pre-school “were superior in nonword [i.e. nonsense word] reading 2 and 3 years later and in reading comprehension at 3 years” (cited in Grabe & Stoller, 2002).

Advocates of whole language learning, on the other hand, argue that learning to read emerges out of immersion in a world of texts. “Children growing up in literate societies are surrounded by print. They begin to be aware of the functions of written language and to play at its use long before they come to school. School continues and extends this immersion in literacy…” (Goodman & Goodman, 1990, p. 225). Krashen (1999) cites a number of studies that show that what he calls ‘free voluntary reading’ “profoundly improves our reading ability, our writing ability, our spelling, our grammar, and our vocabulary” (p. 54).

Is there a compromise position? In her fascinating book, Proust and the Squid, (Wolf, 2008), Maryanne Wolf argues that successful decoding is contingent upon “knowing the meaning”, and that “for some children, knowledge of a word’s meaning pushes their halting decoding into the real thing”. One clue to a word’s meaning is its context, and an understanding of context requires reading skills, such as predicting and inferencing, of a more global kind than simply knowledge of sound-letter relationships. And it also assumes the existence of an already extensive and well-connected lexicon: “The more established our knowledge of a word, the more accurately and rapidly we read it” (p. 153).

Thus, successful readers are able to marshall both bottom-up (i.e. phonics) and top-down (i.e. whole language) processes more or less simultaneously, drawing on the one when the other is less reliable. Effective teaching of reading, arguably, achieves a similar balance. In the Reading Recovery approach, as pioneered by Marie M. Clay, the child’s reading aloud is supported and scaffolded by the teacher, allowing both a bottom-up or a top-down focus, as appropriate. As Clay & Cazden (1992) observe:

This program should be differentiated from both ‘whole language’ and ‘phonics.’  It differs from most whole language programs in recognising the need for temporary instructional detours in which the child’s attention is called to particular cues available in speech or print.  It differs from phonics in conceptualising phonological awareness as an outcome of reading and writing rather than as their prerequisite (pp. 129-130).

How does all this relate to second language learning? As I point out in An A-Z of ELT “the phonics debate is less of an issue [for us] since most adult second language learners are already literate”.  Nevertherless, the more fundamental argument – as to whether the parts should be taught in advance of the whole, or vice versa – is just as relevant to  language teaching as it is to literacy learning, and just as capable of inflaming similar passions.


Clay, M. & Cazden, C. (1992) A Vygotskian interpretation of reading recovery. In Cazden, C. 1992. Whole Language Plus: Essays on Literacy in the US and NZ. New York: Teachers College Press.

Freeman, Y.,  & Freeman, D.  (1998).  ESL/EFL Teaching: Principles for Success. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Goodman, Y., & Goodman, K. (1990). Vygotsky in a whole language perspective. In Moll, L. (ed.) Vygotsky and Education: Instructional implications and applications  of sociohistorical psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grabe, W., & Stoller, F. (2002). Teaching and Researching Reading. Harlow: Pearson.

Krashen, S. (1999). Three Arguments against Whole Language & Why They are Wrong. Portsmouth, NH.: Heinemann.

Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain. Thriplow: Icon Books.

L is for Literacy

9 12 2009

I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the treatment of literacy in An A-Z. This is how the entry goes:

“Literacy is the ability to read and write in a language, usually one’s own. However, increasingly learners of a second language, especially those living in an… ESL context… require native-like literacy skills in order to function effectively in the target culture. … Simply ‘doing reading and writing’ in class is unlikely to meet the special needs of such learners.” 

Ok, so literacy is more than reading and writing – it is socially-situated and functional. And it’s true, a lot of traditional reading and writing work was neither socially-situated nor functional, but was instead almost exclusively form-focused: Read this text and underline all the conditionals… Write about an industrial process using at least six examples of the passive….etc

But surely, when teachers ‘do reading and writing’ nowadays, and within the framework of a communicative approach, this is very definitely socially-situated and functional: Read this article and infer the writer’s attitude…. Write a letter to your local counsellor complaining about the lack of sports facilities …etc.   In other words, where does ‘reading and writing’ finish and ‘literacy’ start?  Is it the fact that it’s ESL-oriented, and addresses “special needs”,  that makes it literacy?  In which case how does literacy training differ from ESP? Or is literacy the converse of illiteracy, and does literacy training therefore imply that learners are not yet literate in any language?

Given these confusions, it seems to me that literacy is a bit of buzz term that has migrated into ESL (and even EFL) from mainstream education. (And even in mainstream education, I get the sense that literacy is a moving target).

In short, how can I improve my definition?