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Language Diversity, School Learning, and Closing Achievement Gaps: A Workshop Summary
guage? She argued that the answer is yes, according to evidence obtained with international university students learning content in a second language. Yet schools in the United States categorize students using literacy assessments, failing to distinguish between oral-language and literacy skills. Although literacy depends on language, the two are known to be different skills learned under different conditions, with literacy learning being more similar to other forms of academic learning. As long as students with a wide range of oral-language skills are all deemed to be perpetual language learners, “closeted away” with other English-language learners even though conversationally and in many other ways they can use English, an achievement gap will persist caused at least in part by children’s lack of opportunity to learn academic content.
Jeff MacSwan noted that two ideas discussed during the workshop permeate language-minority education and special education. First is the notion that students undergo language subtraction and lose proficiency in the first language as a result of learning a second. The latter is a misconception that emanates from standardized testing, which inappropriately labels children as a-lingual or semi-lingual, in his view. For instance, children in his research whose scores on standardized tests ranged from nonproficient through proficient and who could be labeled as a-lingual or semi-lingual on the basis of their test scores were nonetheless empirically indistinguishable in their actual Spanish narration, as indicated in the morphological and other syntactic characteristics of their narratives.
Second, MacSwan said, is that academic language is often discussed as if it is fundamentally different from language used in other contexts. It would not be productive, he said, for researchers to begin relating features of academic language to cognitive ability as if to imply that certain features of academic language are more syntactically complex. A more fruitful way to proceed would be to conceptualize school language as language used in a particular place for a set of purposes and not as having a higher developmental status. Several participants noted that Schleppegrell (2009) has offered one way to start thinking about how this might be done. The researcher’s task then becomes, MacSwan said, to figure out how to apprentice students into using the language of school while engaging them in rich and appropriately complex academic content.