“A Review of the Literature on Teaching Academic English to English Language Learners” by DiCerbo, Anstrom, Baker, and Rivera

From the Review of Education Research, this literature review piece does the kind of job that makes me thankful for literature reviews, assembling and organizing the existing research within certain boundaries.  In this case, the authors, researchers at the George Washington University Center for Equity and Excellence in Education, gather research since 2000 that describes academic language, research on how it is taught, and the implications for teacher education and professional development.  It’s a valuable piece that puts together much of the research I read, a piece that I’ll share with others, and definitely cite in my work on academic English.  A rough outline of the piece, before some of my own thoughts:

I. Introduction: Language’s important in teaching/learning and schools, “hidden curriculum,” and CCSS emphasis.

II. Methodology: Marking the boundaries for inclusion in this review

III. Conceptualizations of Academic English in the Literature:

   A. Differentiates Academic vs Social English

   B. Explicates Features within and across Content Areas

      1. Vocabulary

      2. Grammar

      3. Discourse

      4. Science, Mathematics, History/Social Studies

      5. Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Math

   C. Addresses the Social Function of Language

IV. Research on Academic English Instruction

      1. Instruction in Academic Vocabulary

      2. Instruction in Grammar

      3. Classroom Discourse

V. Implications for Teacher Knowledge

VI. Conclusions and Research Priorities

My Commentary:

Like any literature review, or really any work covering extant knowledge, the authors/reviewers have to gather, select, and justify their selections.  Sometimes, that’s the most interesting part.  For example, from the paradigms of evidence these authors are working within (the piece is based on an unpublished report commissioned by the US Department of Education), they need to cite the “scarcity of research” to justify a broad inclusion of studies with different research methodologies, including quantitative and qualitative studies.  They cover empirical studies with various approaches, including linguistic studies, educational ethnographies, and even works of theory.  I’m presuming here, but with an audience sector that tends to privilege quantitative, gold-standard research, adding those notes about the inclusion of qualitative research is a necessary move.  But there is a feeling of, why should those have to be justified?  Qualitative studies are necessary to get at the depth and detail of phenomena like teaching and learning or structures like academic English.

Anyway, if I have any critiques of the piece, they aren’t ones where I would fault the authors for the shape of the review.  Instead, they would be things I’d add as I shared the piece with others in order to say, “this review covers many important perspectives well, but if you wanted to think comprehensively about the topic of ELLs and academic English, I’d also include consideration of these things.”

What are “these things?”  They’re related things: a somewhat attenuated discussion of “English Language Learner,” a little short shrift to social and cultural dimensions of both ELLs and academic English, and a few other perspectives that could have been included somehow.  Some of these oversights are a matter of a lack in the research, not in the reviewers, and some of it is alluded to in their conclusion.

First, while the article repeatedly specifies work on English Language Learners and not the general population, this seems more like a useful limiting or boundary line for a segment of work than an exploration of all that goes on under that label in relation to language.  In that sense, this review addressing “English Language Learners” is a little bit like the uses of the label itself: useful for focusing, categorizing, and specifying, but not quite ready to take on the full-blown implications of addressing the population of immigrants and children of immigrants.  The complexities of the population (which have huge impacts on their relationship to, and learning of, academic English) aren’t really discussed, and they could have cited scholars like Kate Menken, Laurie Olsen, Ofelia Garcia, Tatyana Kleyn, and many others.  Granted, those researchers may not always be doing work directly concerned with the linguistic or learning aspects of ELLs, so I can understand their omission from the review.  But some parts of education have a habit of ignoring the concrete social dimensions that both research and teacher instincts tell us have a primary role in student learning and achievement, such as whether groups of immigrant youth are isolated, overlooked, or embraced in a school community.  Like I said, if I were tasked to write a similar review, I know such considerations might end up on the cutting room floor, but when we talk about language and immigrants in pre-service and professional development training, I’d hope we have a bigger-picture conception.

The authors do have a useful section talking about the social function of language, which I notice draws heavily on the work of James Paul Gee.  I can understand why and I’ve done the same; Gee has a way of pulling together theory, research, and practice from language, literacy, and education research in very accessible, comprehensive, and still sophisticated ways.  There’s also work cited from Systemic Functional Linguistics like Halliday and others, who have done great work on academic language analysis with awareness of its social dimensions.  But I wonder about the missing perspectives from fields like language socialization (ie Patricia Duff) and sociocultural and other socially-inflected approaches to second language acquisition (although Lourdes Ortega and others within these schools are cited, but not explicitly discussed).  Again, their omission may have to do with research not directly addressing ELLs in P-12 schools and things like that, so it’s understandable.  And it’s a relevant question whether, when we talk about ELLs and academic English, we’re talking about second language acquisition, first language acquisition, or something that really busts those simplistic categories (see Ortega and folks like Ofelia Garcia for that stuff).  But really important thinking and research still left out, which I think is highly relevant to ELL education.

All of these concerns are triggers for my own work, and people familiar with my research projects (still in progress… grad student… ) will see these as familiar concerns coming from me.  But my work needs the knowledges and awarenesses from the research reviewed in DiCerbo, Anstrom, Baker, and Rivera’s piece, for which I’m grateful.

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