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Teaching English as a Foreign Language

In this excerpt from Active Literacy Across the Curriculum: Strategies for Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening, Heidi Hayes Jacobs advocates developing students' "word power" by borrowing methods from the foreign language classroom.

There is one class where each and every student speaks out loud every day; one class where every student is expected to use correct grammar in speech; one class where the learner is given words and uses them; one class where pronunciation, enunciation, and inflection are requisite: This class is foreign language. When students learn a new language, they get the best type of literacy instruction. I believe that English should be taught as if it were a foreign language. A key feature of language instruction is the development of word power — actively, interactively, and daily in world language classes. Walk into any French, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, or Italian language class and you will hear the teacher asking students to speak out loud. If you walk into Mr. Mendez's Spanish class, you hear students repeating words. They say them aloud; they attempt to say them properly; they employ them in a context; and they learn to speak Spanish. Think of how absurd it would be if Mr. Mendez said: "Watch me. Listen to me speak Spanish, but don't say anything out loud. Quiet over there while I speak Spanish! Listen to me; now try to read."

Careful observation of the methods of world (or foreign) language classes shows that there is a distinctive instructional approach to language development that contrasts sharply with how language is developed in other subjects. There are three distinctive types of vocabulary with corresponding instructional approaches. This pattern for organizing and delivering word power is the basis for the second strategy. To make the point clear, if you ask most students in a high school where they learn vocabulary, chances are that they say it is in their English class. But vocabulary is not learned best in English class alone. If it is acquired and deployed in all other subjects, the student has a genuine opportunity to build the ultimate language power tool: an internalized vault of words. On any major standardized test, the subtest that is the best predictor of overall success is vocabulary. Obviously, the student who has developed a command of words and can make sense of those words in a range of contexts has the best chance of reading, writing, speaking, and listening in any situation. In a detailed analysis of vocabulary development, Steven A. Stall (1998) from the University of Georgia notes that there are various hypotheses about the relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension:

Vocabulary knowledge certainly affects comprehension, because we have evidence that teaching word meanings directly affects comprehension. Vocabulary knowledge is certainly related to topic knowledge. . . . Furthermore, vocabulary is related to intelligence, although the nature of that relationship is far from clear.

Down with Simply Looking Up Words

The traditional approach to improving student performance with vocabulary development is based on asking students to "look up words," write down the definitions, and then use them in a sentence. Copying words from a dictionary to a piece of paper is passive, so there are glaring problems with this model. Each word hangs in suspended animation and remains out of context among twenty random, and usually unattached, words on a list. Most often, the students never say the word aloud in class.

Compare this approach to the way a world (foreign) language teacher builds vocabulary. Mr. Sanchez presents words in situational clusters that help students focus on employing words in real contexts: "This week we are going to study marketplace words. On Friday, we will simulate a walk through a Seville marketplace across from the Alfonso Palace." Students are expected not only to say the words aloud but also to use them in sentences and employ them in simulated situations. In short, they are expected to speak to each other and to the teacher. Everyone speaks in Spanish. It is surprising that we do not use this technique in English classes. Foreign language instructors tend not to take any sets of words for granted. Everyday words or high-frequency words are reviewed as well as more specific types of contextually based words. Finally, world language teachers praise the additional initiative shown when a student inserts a richer, more colorful word into an assignment, whether written or spoken. All instructors could learn from language teachers; for, in a sense, when a teacher teaches math, he is also teaching reading, writing, speaking, and listening in the language of math.

Research on reading indicates the value of strategic grouping of words (Stall and Nagy, 2005). Grouping words strategically contrasts with the more common practice of clumping all words into one big vocabulary pile.

To achieve a major shift in the way we teach language so that it is a powerful tool in all subjects, I propose to build vocabulary in three distinctive arenas:

  1. high-frequency words
  2. specialized terminology
  3. embellishments

Each vocabulary arena should be developed with three corresponding and distinctive approaches. We should explain the three types of words clearly in every subject, K?12, with the goal that students learn to translate each type of vocabulary into their own words, just as students of French or Japanese do habitually. I am suggesting that students learn to translate academic English into their own vernacular and then to employ the academic terms with the same facility.

Some Basics

To appreciate the need for this tripartite approach, let us look at some basics about the act of reading. Reading is composed of two related components: phonemic awareness and text interaction (Billmeyer, 1998). To develop phonemic awareness, the reader must be able to make sound patterns that relate to the symbol pattern in written text. For example, when Maria sees a deliberate shape on the page, such as the letter "b" in English, she can register the name of the symbol and, more importantly, link it to a sound pattern. In other words, she can hear it. She then can reproduce that sound externally, or orally. Maria proceeds to register the link between symbol and sound internally in her mind, and eventually she will display the sound in writing. Maria has a distinctive and deliberate awareness of the phonemic pattern. But the act of matching symbol to sound, decoding, is not actually reading in the sense that reading is an act of making meaning from the patterns of symbols and sound. Nevertheless, the awareness of phonemic pattern is necessary for Maria to move to the ultimate purpose of interacting with the text. This component represents the ability of the reader to find and make meaning from the words. It is not just that Maria can reproduce the sound patterns she sees, but that when these patterns are linked together to make words, she can gather sense and purpose.

Deriving meaning from text is personal interaction. It is the heart of reading. In the compelling book Mosaic of Thought (1997), Zimmermann and Keene discuss the ultimately intimate and personal nature of creating meaning from text. Through their readers' workshop model, they want to create the opportunity to fill the gap that was too often a part of the reading experiences which they and so many of us had in our elementary and secondary schools. That gap, which stems from the reader's inability to interact personally with the text and create meaning from it, causes too many young readers miss such enriching activities as "rereading, understanding symbolic meaning or talking with others about books" (p. 3).

If you have ever attempted to learn a new language as an adult, then you know what I mean by the relationship between recognizing sounds and making meaning from them. It can be daunting to respond to and recognize new sounds and new symbols, especially in languages using alphabets different from one's own. It is thrilling to begin to grasp those basic phonemes as words emerge both aurally and in text. Yet it is not enough to simply reproduce the sound pattern. Only when Maria comprehends and interacts with the text can she claim it for her own. Central then to her growing language capacity is her arsenal of words. The more words we "own," the more likely we are to make meaning aurally and textually. Having recently begun to take Spanish language lessons, I am particularly aware, as a novice, that I possess only a handful of words to employ, so almost everything I hear when I listen to fluent Spanish speakers goes right by me. I just don't have the words. It is humbling.

It is confusing to learners (and to teachers) when vocabulary is lumped into an instructional heap. If I were to ask most youngsters what "vocabulary" means in school, they would likely respond, "New words that I don't know and will never use, but that I will need on a test or someplace." When handed a list of vocabulary words, some learners certainly have the capacity to look up meanings and then put them into a sentence, eventually recalling what these words mean. But, frankly, most students do not have this capability. We should segregate words into groups that promote the easiest ways for them to be learned and integrated into the world of the learner. Such a technique is comparable to how a physical education teacher separates general warm-up exercises, specific drills, and then the game. The game synthesizes the first two strategies in a sophisticated way so that the player finesses the finer points of the game. Similarly, the music teacher starts with warm-up exercises on scales and rehearsing sections of pieces before tackling an actual performance.

From Active Literacy Across the Curriculum: Strategies for Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening. Copyright 2006 by Eye On Education. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of Eye On Education.

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