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Linguistics. Professional Development for Middle School

Demography The United States

Demographically, the United States of America is one of the most multinational countries of the world. The number of foreign-born citizens of the US has been rapidly growing over the last several decades. This number used to be 14.1 million people in 1980, by 1990 it grew to 19.8 million, and by 2003 it estimated 33.5 million people (Ovando 2012). Statistically, in 2003 among the foreign-born citizens of the United States there were 53.3 per cent of Hispanics, 25 per cent of Asians and 13.7 per cent of Europeans (Ovando 2012). Social and ethnic diversity in the contemporary American schools is a serious issue, which requires a professional solution. There is a common belief that providing diversity sensitive education is easy and all that is needed is “being good teachers”, yet in reality incorporating ESL teaching practices into the methods and systems developed for the diverse native English speakers is not easy (de Jong & Harper 2005).

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English Language Learners

Since languages differ between various cultural and ethnic communities, studying within the standardized educational systems oriented at diverse native English speakers in the United States is challenging. Students, whose native language is not English, are called English Language Learners or ELLs. Such learners tend to struggle in schools because their second language professiency is often insufficient for the school level. This happens because the grammar, vocabulary, phonetics and set expressions of their native languages are different from the second language they acquire education in (McSwan & Rolstad 2010). Growing up in the second language surrounding they might prefer speaking their native languages at home. English language learners struggle to read, write and speak English fluently, yet at schools they are expected to study on the same academic level with their peers that have English as a native language. The difficulties ELLs face in the classroom may and should be addressed through the incorporation specially designed teaching methods and instructions allowing ELLs to learn various subjects and develop English language proficiency at the same time (Wright 2010).

Cummins (1992) differentiates between basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) and cognitive/academic language proficiency (CALP), where the former represents the languages skills used in everyday settings and the latter – the deconceptualized use of language is academic situations. The difference between these two kinds of language skills is the source of academic underachievement and struggle of ELLs. Cummins (1992) also is the author of Common Underlying Proficiency theory, which states that one’s native language proficiency level serves as an academic base for their second language. Threshold theory developed in 1977 explores another important aspect for ELLS, according to this theory one’s cognitive development is directly connected to their age, and if it stops before reaching a certain age threshold, one is likely to experience future cognitive disadvantage (Thomas & Collier 1997). For the individuals that speak more than one language there are two of such thresholds. It is crucial for the ELLs of all ages to be educated according to the language proficiency sensitive methods and techniques, by the educators specially trained to work in linguistically diverse classrooms. Middle school students should be paid especial attention to because the age of 11-12 is the age of the most important linguistic threshold.

During the educational process ELLs have to learn their subject contents and at the same time develop their language proficiency. This may be achieved through a variety of methods and strategies. It is crucial that the learners see language as the action, but not as form only, in order to achieve this the educator is to challenge their students regularly introducing them to complex texts, for the middle school learners at least 50 per cent of complex texts have to be of informational character (Bunch, Kibler & Pimentel 2012). Work with text is to include such activities as asking questions about the text analyzing the meaning and contents of the text, the author’s perspective and the structure of each clause in details focusing on complex sentences, breaking them into parts, viewing the connections between the parts (Fang, Shleepegrel & Moore 2013). It is also highly important to have visual aids suitable for ELLs, who experience confusion and frustration when it comes to language comprehension. Visual aids must not be too colorful and crowded, for ELLs it is better to employ very simple schematic diagrams and charts (Hightower 2013). Otherwise issues with data interpretations may occur.

Since this new form of education is not very familiar to the educators, it is very important for them to use specially developed textbooks, handbooks and aids for work with ELLs. To simplify the process of teaching for the educators and avoid misinterpretations and complications such textbooks include standard academic vocabulary and techniques for forming opinions, expressing arguments, describing sceneries and pictures, providing conclusions and closures (Maxwell 2012). Such textbooks allow the teachers approach their linguistically diverse students faster and more efficiently, and create the required basis for each class taking into consideration the students’ age and English proficiency level.


Bunch, J. C., Kibler A. & Pimentel, S. (2012). Realizing Opportunities for English

Learners in the Common Core English Language Arts and Disciplinary Literacy Standards. Understanding Language. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

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Cummins, J. (1992). Language Proficiency, Bilingualism, and Academic Achievement. In Richard-Amaton, P. A. & Snow, M. A. (Eds.) The Multicultural Classroom: Readings for Content-Area Teachers (pp. 16-26). New York, NY: Longman Publishing Group.

de Jong, E J. & Harper, C. A. (2005). Preparing Mainstream Teachers for English-Language Learners: Is Being a Good Teacher Good Enough? Teacher Education Quarterly, 101-124.

Fang, Z., Shleepegrel, M. J. & Moore, J. (2013). The Linguistic Challenges of Learning Across Academic Disciplines. In Stone, A. (Ed.) Handbook of Language and Literacy: Development and Disorders (pp. 302-322). New York, NY: Guilford Publications.

Hightower, A. (2013). Keep It Simple to Avoid Data Distractions. American Educator, 37(2), 1-40.

Maxwell, L. A. (2012). Sophisticated Language Use Awaits ELLs in Standards. Education Week: Common Standards, 34-38.

McSwan, J. & Rolstad, K. (2010). The Role of Language in Theories of Academic Failure for Linguistic Minorities. In Petrovic, J. E. (Ed.). International Perspectives on Bilingual Education (pp.173-193). Charlotte, NC: IAP.

Ovando, C. J. (2012). Bilingual and ESL Classrooms: Teaching in Multicultural Contexts. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

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Thomas, W. P. & Collier, V. (1997). School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students. NCBE, 9, 1-96.

Wright, W. E. (2010). Foundations for Teaching English Language Learners. Philadelphia, PA: Caslon Publishing.

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