TEACHING THE ACADEMIC LANGUAGE OF TEXTBOOKS: A PRELIMINARY FRAMEWORK FOR PERFORMING A TEXTUAL ANALYSIS
By Alex Ragan, ELL Outlook™ Editor
Anybody who has tried to teach ELLs using textbooks that were written for native speakers of English knows that ELLs usually find reading and responding to these textbooks extremely difficult. This occurs both because of the difficulty of the language and the lack of background knowledge many of these students have.
Experienced teachers of ELLs use a variety of strategies and techniques to help ELLs access textbook content. However, if ELLs are not also taught the language of the textbooks, they will never learn to read and respond to textbooks without modifications or adaptations. The difficulty with teaching the academic language of textbooks, however, is that it is not completely clear how teachers can decide exactly what academic language they should teach. Few teachers have the training or the time to perform the kind of linguistic analysis that would reveal what it is about a particular text that creates difficulty for ELLs. What teachers need is a usable method for analyzing the language of textbooks in order to determine what aspects of academic English they should teach in order to help ELLs read those textbooks.
This article provides a simple framework for determining what textbook language may be difficult for ELLs, and for deciding exactly which items of academic language need to be taught in order to help ELLs understand what they are reading about.
An Overview of the Framework
The framework uses the answers to three questions to help teachers choose the language items that ELLs will need in order to read, understand, and discuss specific parts of the textbooks they use in their classes. The questions are:
What follows is a step-by-step process for using these questions to decide what academic language needs to be taught to support reading and understanding of textbooks. The examples are taken from a third-grade science textbook, but the same principles can be applied to textbooks from any grade level or subject area.
Step 1: Locating the Main Ideas and Learning Objectives
Textbooks often list lesson-by-lesson content objectives, main ideas, important vocabulary, skills that need to be learned or practiced, and comprehension questions that students need to understand as they work through their textbooks. These study aids provide an end point for the teaching of any academic English, and form the lens through which the language in Steps 2 and 3 should be viewed.
For example, in Houghton Mifflin's third-grade science textbook (Badders et al., 2007), the essential vocabulary, main idea, and reading skill are presented explicitly to students. For Step 1 of a textual analysis of Chapter 1, Lesson 2 (pp. 36-43), the following would be taken directly from the textbook:
The lesson-specific content identified in Step 1 will be combined with the potentially difficult language that will be identified in Step 2 and used in Step 3 to determine the essential academic language that ELLs need to be taught in order to understand the textbook lessons they will be studying.
Step 2: Deciding What May Be Difficult
Textbooks are notoriously text-heavy, laden with linguistically and conceptually dense content. For this framework, the identification of the types of language that may cause difficulty for ELLs was done by synthesizing several sources that catalog academic language (Clair, 2001; Diaz-Rico & Weed, 2002; Irujo, 2004; Scarcella, 2003). The following three types of language emerged as the most likely to cause reading problems for ELLs.
1. Vocabulary - Words can be difficult for ELLs, either individually or in fixed multi-word expressions. Vocabulary words that cause difficulty may be everyday words that have subject-specific meanings (e.g., table in math or science), or nonspecialized vocabulary words that most native English speakers know but that may still be unknown to ELLs. Idiomatic phrases cause difficulty because the meaning of the fixed idiom is different than the sum of the meanings of the individual words.
2. Grammatical structures - To catalog every potentially difficult language structure in a textbook would be time-consuming and not altogether useful. This analysis will focus on three structures that often cause ELLs considerable difficulty while reading textbooks: conditional sentences (e.g., if . . . then), sentences with irregular verb tenses, and complex sentences with multiple embedded clauses. These categories may overlap.
3. Cohesive devices - Various features of sentences help to relate them to one another. If ELLs understand-or are taught-some of the methods textbook writers use to connect the ideas in a text, they will more easily understand what they are reading. Three types of cohesive devices are important for this analysis: ellipsis (information that is necessary to understanding a text but is not made explicit), substitution (using a different word to refer to the same thing in order to avoid repetition), and conjunction (words that link clauses or sentences and sometimes also convey the nature of the relationship between them).
Returning to our analysis of the third-grade science textbook that we began in Step 1, we can quickly list examples of each language type by just skimming the text and noting frequency of occurrence, as shown below. This should not be an exhaustive catalog of language, but a preliminary survey that can be done in about five minutes.
Step 3: Deciding What Academic Language to Teach
Even a short preliminary survey such as the one done in Step 2 often reveals a larger amount of difficult language than can be taught to ELLs in a specific lesson. Knowing what the textbook is trying to teach (Step 1), and connecting it to the language that students will find difficult (Step 2) creates a lens for focusing the textual analysis and deciding what academic language should be taught (Step 3).
This is done by looking at the specific language that ELLs will need in order to understand the main idea, highlighted vocabulary, and skill focus. For example, to be able to "[n]ame one trait shared by humans and fish" and "[n]ame one trait that is not shared by humans and fish" (the main idea; Badders et al., p. 43), ELLs must understand the meaning of shared and trait. They must also be able to compare traits that are like and unlike. A similar type of analysis should be applied to the highlighted vocabulary and skills focus, which then reveals the essential language that needs to be taught:
Devising an easy-to-use method for assessing the difficulty of textbook language and making decisions about the essential language that needs to be taught is a difficult task. This framework needs to be tested further to balance ease of use with accuracy. Teachers may find ways to streamline or adjust the process to better meet their needs. To a certain extent, it is a subjective process, requiring a fair amount of teacher judgment.
Teachers should also remember that this framework should be used concurrently with other methods for making content comprehensible and accessible. Teaching the academic language of textbooks is only one part of helping ELLs achieve academically.
Balders, W., Carnine, D., Feliciani, J., & Jeanpierre, B., Sumners, C., & Valentino, C. (2007). Houghton Mifflin science (Alabama edition). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. Clair, N. (2001). Why reading is hard: Viewers guide. McHenry, IL: Delta Systems, Inc. Diaz-Rico, L. T., & Weed, K. Z. (2002). The crosscultural, language, and academic development handbook: A complete K-12 reference guide. Boston: Allyn & Bacon. Irujo, S. (2004). Text analysis framework: Science. Unpublished manuscript. Scarcella, R. (2004). Academic English: A conceptual framework. The University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute Technical Report 2003-1. Retrieved November 17, 2005, from http://lmri.ucsb.edu/publications/03_scarcella.pdf
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