Not Simply Language Learners, But Masters of Communication

I’ve blogged previously about my desire to fuse Literacy and EAL into a single, spiral curriculum. I’m convinced that good literature provides the best platform through which to teach language. However, I think that I suffer from a confusion of terminology and therefore need to clarify how literacy and language differ from one another. This involves asking some fundamental questions:

  1. What does it mean to be literate?
  2. What distinguishes language learning from literacy?
  3. Are language and literacy separable?
  4. What is the benefit of acquiring literacy in a second language?
  5. Can one be taught through the other or is the relationship more symbiotic?
  6. Is it desirable and feasible to teach both in tandem and, if so, what would the best curriculum look like?

Let’s work through these questions and see where it gets us.

First of all, what does it mean to be literate?

To be literate is to have the facility to communicate in speech and writing, to such an extent that one can operate within society and successfully carry out a range of functions, such as acquiring information from a book or writing an email to invite friends to a party. In this sense, literacy seems indistinguishable from language acquisition. Which brings us to our second question…

What distinguishes language learning from literacy?

The distinction between language and literacy is, for me, largely based on historical practice. We understand the division in terms of how second language is taught, how first language is acquired and how literacy is learned. Let’s consider these three points:

  1. Second languages are typically taught with a focus on vocabulary, grammar and skills work.
  2. First languages are acquired through immersion in those languages. It is expected that a baby as it grows will acquire its language as a matter of course.
  3. Literacy is focussed on the formal aspects of, primarily, written communication (through both reading and writing). It is both language and the means through which language is used and manipulated. For example, punctuation is a key strand in all literacy programmes. One would not, in a second language course, expect to have to spend any time focussing on punctuation. Unless, of course, the punctuation differed enough from the first language to warrant comment (as is the case between Spanish and English).

So we start to see language as a set of manipulable things: words, verbs, adjectives. And literacy as a quality: the ability to communicate knowingly and read with deep understanding.

Are language and literacy separable?

An interesting question (even if I ask it myself). Would it be possible for an illiterate person to learn a second language? Yes, because a child immersed in a second language will acquire that language, but not necessarily be able to read the written word or write clearly. So then, is literacy actually a synonym of mastery? A literate person can manipulate language beyond the informal, spoken word.

What is the benefit of acquiring literacy in a second language?

For a child in a non-English speaking country (or more pertinently their parents), there is a clear economic benefit in acquiring fluent English. But, if literacy can be acquired in a first language, why should it be acquired in a second language first (or in tandem)? Surely there is a risk that the student will acquire an impoverished literacy, filtered through a language not fully understood.

A simple answer would be: why not? If literacy is transferable or taught in both languages, wouldn’t that be beneficial? Lots of opportunities for reinforcement, comparison and reflection. Economies of scale would have to be found to avoid too much duplication between literacy taught in both languages, but ultimately students would benefit from dual exposure to literacy. (However, as I type this, I’m still not entirely convinced. Mental note to read up on this.)

Can one be taught through the other or is the relationship more symbiotic?

If language is the stuff and literacy is mastery, then it is not so much a question of teaching one through the other. It is much more a case of pushing beyond the stuff of language into mastery. Precisely the task of a teacher in a native language teaching context: giving the students the literacy skills to pay the bills. It just happens to be in a second language.

So, my role as a teacher of literacy and language in a bilingual context is to allow my students to become masters of communication in a second language: to teach the whole thing and not just the words, grammar and functions.

Is it desirable and feasible to teach both in tandem and, if so, what would the best curriculum look like?

In answering previous questions, I now see language and literacy as inseparable. Novels, plays, poems and non-fiction are the fuel of each lesson, through which students grasp not only vocabulary, grammar and functions (an ESL synonym for “purpose” in literacy parlance), but also sentence separation, paragraphs, audience sensitivity and cultural relevance – aspects not typically covered in a purely ESL context.

It seems desirable then to teach this richer, deeper curriculum, combining the functional aspects of language acquisition with the mastery of communication associated with being highly-literate. But what should it look like?

I need to be a bit selfish here and make sure that what I describe suits my context. I teach students 99% of whom have a shared first language and live in the country of that language. For those reasons, the students are not fully immersed in English to the extent that they might be as EAL students in the UK. Therefore they’ll need a curriculum that continually reinforces the basics, requires teachers to continually check and correct language use (to break bad habits) and sells the benefits of learning a language seemingly separate from their home context.

The curriculum I am looking for is cumulative, has lots of opportunities for revisiting language points, is extremely enjoyable (for young people), and promotes an interest in internationalism (because without that interest, English becomes irrelevant to the student’s needs).

What I need to do then, is take the literacy curriculum and map vocabulary, grammar and functions onto it. This could be done by listing the vocabulary topics, grammar and functional English in a table divided into years and terms. Points in time can then be checked off to ensure that learning points are cumulatively built-up and revisited.

The big question, for the next blog in this series, is: what should that table look like and what language learning points will need to be included on it?

This is where it gets really thorny. Once you start to unpick and list language points such as topical vocabulary, tenses, functions of language and such, you become mired in endless lists that are extremely difficult to manage and very hard to apply to pre-existing literacy programmes.

What I produce needs to be simple, manageable and deliverable. It also needs to work. The key outcome is not that my students speak English; it is that they are masters of communication. The language just happens to be English.

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