Public reports of large-scale mathematics assessment data indicate that English language learners (ELLs), on average, are typically performing well below their fluent English speaking peers, and often well below grade-level expectations (Abedi, 2002, 2004; Abedi & Lord, 2001; Janzen, 2008; Secada, 1996). While some individual ELLs do achieve at higher levels, lower levels of group achievement are not unexpected for students who are learning academic content in a language in which they are not yet proficient. However, current federal legislation requires that schools and teachers find ways to increase the math achievement of all students and help struggling students reach grade-level learning expectations. One way that general education math teachers can support ELLs in the mainstream mathematics classroom is to focus on their academic language development to a greater degree. This interpretive case study of one sheltered high school pre-algebra classroom adds to the small, but growing, research base on students' use of academic language in math instruction. It relies on Activity Theory (e.g., Engestrom, 1999, 2001), as well as conceptual frameworks associated with the analysis of learners' second language complexity, accuracy and fluency (CAF) (e.g., Ellis & Barkhuizen, 2005), and academic English proficiency (Scarcella, 2003) to examine the real-time language use by ELLs and how that language use was influenced by the classroom context.Data analyses suggest that a number of elements in the classroom activity system shaped the expectations for, and opportunity to use, academic language. These elements included: (a) Classroom rules that reinforced the limited role of students in instructional activities; (b) the constantly fluctuating classroom community with a few members who could create a distraction from math learning; (c) the primarily teacher-centered division of labor between the teacher and students, and; (d) the presence of several potential mediating artifacts (e.g., a language-reduced, conceptually-based curriculum, consistent opening instructional routine, teacher language, collaborative student language) that could support, or detract from, the desired outcome of academic language production.CAF analyses of four African focal students' language production (David, Naomi, Jesse, Marie) highlight the lack of complex, academic language use by students in this particular classroom. Students' utterances were typically short, were often less than a complete phrase, used common everyday vocabulary largely did not include math terms, and incorporated few of the relevant language functions (e.g., explaining, justifying a solution, comparing/contrasting) emphasized by the curriculum and the teacher. Despite the presence of potential supports for academic language learning, there were three key tensions in the activity system that minimized academic language expectations and opportunities for students to use such language. The first tension was between the departmental policy providing remedial instruction and the state and federal mandate for grade level instruction. Students were quite aware that the instruction they received was well below grade level and that they might not pass state assessments or be allowed to graduate. A second tension was the teacher's struggle to balance the teaching of math and the teaching of language. She had been trained primarily as a math teacher and had difficulty seeing the language of her discipline, let alone making it transparent to students. The third and final tension was between adult and students' preferences for instructional approaches and activities. Some elements of best practice that the teacher implemented were resisted by the students, and some aspects of what the students thought of as good instruction were resisted by the teacher. Instead of creating a positive change in the activity system, as some tensions can do if they are addressed, these three key unresolved tensions created a barrier to academic language production, and to the teaching and learning of math content as well. The lack of access to grade-level content and the associated academic language observed in this particular classroom has been identified in the literature as constituting a serious lack of opportunity to learn that schools must urgently address if all students are to succeed academically (Abedi & Herman, 2010; Aguirre-Munoz & Amabisca, 2010; Bailey & Butler, 2009; Bigelow, 2010; Herman & Abedi, 2004; Wang & Goldschmidt, 1999). This study provides critical evidence that educational leaders in particular need to do more to ensure that content teachers who must do the difficult work of integrating academic language and content instruction are provided with clearly defined language learning goals, and that they are well-trained and fully supported in the classroom so that they can do their job effectively.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. September 2014. Major: Education, Curriculum and Instruction. Advisor: Diane J. Tedick, Ph.D. 1 computer file (PDF); xiii, 302 pages.
Liu, Kristin Kline.
An activity theory perspective on academic language use by ELLs in a high school math classroom.
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