An English language learner (ELL) is defined as someone whose first language is other than English or, a variety of English not taught in Ontario schools. An ELL is in the process of learning English. An ELL can either be:
*Canadian born or,
*Newcomer to Canada
When ELLs enter the Ontario school system in Canada (from Kindergarten to Grade 12), they do so with varying degrees of English proficiency. It is important to understand their background in order to best support their learning needs. For example: if a Newcomer to Canada arrives in high school at Grade 10, with limited to no English proficiency, then one must understand that s/he is already behind in their knowledge/acquisition of the English language. These students are “chasing a moving target”. Not only are they acquiring the English language, but they also must learn the content, and the language, of their courses (e.g. Math, Science, Language, The Arts …). They already possess ‘school’ skills and strengths and proficiencies in their first language (L1), and these strengths help to support them in their learning of English.
When ELLs enroll in the early to late primary years (K-3), there is not the same ‘moving target’ that exists in junior, intermediate and senior years. The increase in the complexity of both content areas and English language builds on the primary years. To illustrate: In the primary grades, students are ‘learning to read’. But, after starting Grade 4, these student are ‘reading to learn’ similar to native speaking children.
How Long Does It Take To Acquire English Language Proficiency?
Dr. Jim Cummins, the internationally known expert on bilingual education, defined two terms to help explain how ELLs acquire language.
BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills)
These skills are the basic conversational fluencies that students acquire over a period of 1-2 years. This is acquired through speaking and listening to peers, communicating orally with others and getting to understand the everyday language.
CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) refers to the academic English proficiency that is acquired over a period of 5-7 years. Academic language would include words that are specific to a given subject area (e.g. Math vocabulary: Pythagorean Theorem, area/perimeter, calculus; Science vocabulary: amoeba, hypothesis, eukaryote, string theory; Language vocabulary: procedural writing, synonyms, thesaurus) as well as the lexicon that you would experience across more than one subject area. For example: In the areas of Science, Language, and Math, you will find the use of the word procedure:
*Math: What procedure (method) did you use to calculate your answer?
*Science: In the experiment, remember to follow the correct procedure;
*Language: In this activity, you will be doing a procedural writing piece;
It is important to understand is that, on average, students will develop their oral communication skills before they acquire reading skills. And, reading skills, on average, develop before the writing skills. With this in mind, oral language plays a key role in learning English.
How Might I Support My Child While They Learn English (ELL)?
For young students starting Kindergarten, remember to continue to speak your native language at home. This helps your child to learn the structure of the home language which contributes to his/her success in acquiring English.
For Newcomers vocabulary building provides a strong foundation. Some ideas to help with vocabulary building include:
*use of visuals to allow the connections between the image and the word in English AND the word in L1;
*use the real thing to help with vocabulary building (e.g. spoon, fork, knife, toaster, knitted sweater)
*take the students on walking tours of the neighbourhood to develop more vocabulary;
*have your student keep a personal dictionary that includes a picture or the object, the word in L1, the word in English and the definition for that word;
*encourage your student to read a variety of printed word (library books, newspapers, articles, magazines);
*help students to look up words that are unfamiliar using many different resources: internet, dictionaries, thesauri, speak to a friend;
*make trips to different points of interest in the community. This continues to help build vocabulary.
While this list is not exhaustive, it is a start. Watch for the next post that will include a list of websites & video to helps support ELLs in their steps towards proficiency in English.
Let us know your thoughts, comments and views on ELL learning in Ontario Schools by replying to this blog or contact us by email, we look forward to your replies!