New Jersey Department of Education

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English Language Learners (ELL) in the Mainstream

Part Two: The Theory of Second Language Acquisition

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Basic Theories

It is important to understand some of the underlying theory to help build a foundation for instructional practice when you teach English Language Learners. Below you will find discussions of some important theoretical concepts, some with links to graphics to help you visualize these concepts. In addition, you will find some with links to the questions and answers in the Myths of Second Language Acquisition quiz.

Culture Shock is common for the ELL. It is a series of feelings the second language learner experiences upon entrance into a new and foreign culture. Students experiencing culture shock may feel loneliness, homesickness, sadness, frustration, and even illness. Most students experience four stages of culture shock:

  • Euphoria over the newness of their new lives.
  • Shock at the cultural differences in their new lives.
  • Gradual, tentative recovery, with periods of regression.
  • Acceptance of the new culture and a renewal of self-confidence

BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) and CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) [Quiz answers, questions 7 and 12]: These acronyms describe the two types of language proficiency that students develop.

BICS describes the social and conversational language that students first learn to communicate orally in their second language. It takes two to three years for students to understand the "context embedded" social language of the classroom, playground, lunchroom, etc. [See information and graphic on Student Support Schema.] English Language Learners learn BICS by:

  • Observing students and teachers non-verbal behaviors such as gestures, facial expressions, eye movements and distances between speakers.
  • Observing students' and teachers' reactions to social conversation.
  • Using conversational cues such as phrasing, pausing, intonation, and word stress.
  • Observing and manipulating visuals, such as pictures, concrete objects.
  • Asking for clarification or repetition of phrases, statements, and questions.

CALP is the "context-reduced" language of the academic classroom. [See information and graphic on Student Support Schema.] Academic language takes English Language Learners up to seven or more years to become proficient. The reason that academic language is so difficult for the ELL to master is that:

  • there are few if any non-verbal cues to provide a context for learning;
  • there is often little, if any, face-to-face interaction or communicative discourse;
  • academic language, unlike communicative language, has a higher degree of abstract concepts and context specific vocabulary;
  • information is contained in narrative and expository text;
  • textbooks are written beyond the language proficiency of the ELL; and
  • students need a body of cultural and linguistic knowledge, which they have not developed, to comprehend academic content in a second language.

CUP (Common Underlying Proficiency) and Iceberg Model [Quiz answers, question 8]: Researchers [Cummins (1980, 1984) and Baker (1993)] theorize that although first and second language are visibly different on the surface, both languages operate through the same central processing system in the student's brain. Regardless of the language the person is using, the thinking behind language production comes from the same cognitive functioning ability. Speaking, listening, reading and writing in the first language help students develop the same skills in the second language. Concepts learned in one language are therefore transferable to the second language. Researchers believe that educators can help students learn more efficiently if they tap into students' prior academic knowledge, concepts, vocabulary, word cognates and grammatical structures from first language to help build second language.

Cummins has represented this theory through two visual representations. The Iceberg Model and the CUP Model. In the Iceberg Model, the two icebergs are separated at the top, representing the different surface features of both languages. Under the water, the icebergs are actually one large iceberg, symbolizing the central processing system that exists in bilingualism.

Student Support Schema's four quadrants provide a means of describing the linguistic and cognitive demands experienced by English Language Learners. In the upper quadrants "A" and "B" students have cognitively undemanding tasks [BICS]. In "A," the "context embedded" tasks are less demanding than in "B," "context reduced" tasks. In "C" and "D" students have the cognitively demanding tasks [CALP]. But "C" is less demanding than "D." Why? Cummins proposes that in order for teachers to teach content in a comprehensible way, they must create cognitively demanding tasks that are context embedded. In other words, content learning tasks and materials that have "embedded" information, such as visuals, graphics, manipulatives, modified language and modeled learning strategies to facilitate learning. [See the example.]