What Low Levels of Language Mask

In our classrooms, it’s important for us to know what our students know. Paul Black and Dylan William established this through their influential article Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment. They followed this up with extensive research to support the point that assessment for learning is the single best way for teachers to improve the learning of their students. And it’s what master teachers and coaches have been doing for centuries. Find what’s wrong, then look for a way to fix it.

But there are additional layers of complexity with our students whose English proficiency in either writing or speaking is low. Learning obstacles go undetected in native English speakers all the time. All the more so with our ELs. Or worse, a student is assumed to have a learning disability when all they needed was more time. It’s important for all teachers to amass as much evidence as they can, formal, written, observational, conversational, anecdotal, and so on.

However, here are some common issues that I’ve observed in my experience in the classroom.

Low spoken, and low written English

This is common in students who have just started learning English or who are new to a school. Observe them with their first language peers, if you can. See how animated they are. Watch how quickly they figure out class routines. Even if the student struggles to follow routines, remember we all have students that seem to be perpetually disorganized.

Do not expect students new to English to speak in full sentences. In fact, do not be surprised if they barely want to speak at all. There’s a documented silent period for young language learners where students may be unwilling to speak. Give it some time. Six months, a year. I remember one of my students who I taught during a summer school adamantly refusing to speak, and then a year later when she moved to Grade 4, I couldn’t get her to stop asking questions.

Some students may not have low English levels, they might just be shy. They may not feel they have much to say. See if you can catch them out in a game where they may feel compelled to participate in their excitement.

Students with low spoken English ability often, but not always, also have low written ability.

High spoken, low written

Students can have strong spoken English ability, but with a weak level of written English ability. They can come across as confident, gregarious, even silly. Sometimes it’s personality. Sometimes it might be because they’ve been exposed to English through a domestic helper, after school English activities, or playground friends. If the students do not have much of an accent, they can often be forgotten in language support programs. This is why it’s important for teachers to gather a variety of evidence. Collaborative activities in the classroom are important, and strong speakers can blend in better, but long term academic success really needs strong writing skills.

There is evidence showing that students with low levels of first language literacy struggle to acquire grade-appropriate writing skills. The Ontario Ministry of Education helpfully distinguishes between two types of language instruction: English as a Second Language and English Literacy Development. Although I have never taught in Ontario, I’ve seen the consequences to learning when students have had a disrupted educational experience.

The increasing ease and movement of people globally means that it’s no longer the case that parents who have the means to pay for an international education have ensured that their kids have been receiving a consistent education. In my experience, it’s not uncommon for students to skip a grade when transferring to a new school. This can be especially problematic when the child has not received a grade-appropriate literacy foundation in their first language.

These students may have received a poor English language literacy education, and their writing will show. They may have difficulty with alphabetic and phonetic awareness, or even a basic understanding of punctuation. If not explicitly taught, the child may accumulate more and more gaps, making progress more difficult. Just imagine if you were learning another language but you couldn’t write in your own!

The student may also have an undiagnosed learning disability, though please, please, do not hastily make this judgement or without professional advice. The majority of our kids can learn fine, without extensive interventions.

High written, low spoken

Older students are more likely to have higher levels of written English and lower levels of spoken English. When I was teaching in universities in China, I frequently met students who were reading and writing, with considerable success, academic papers. But then having a conversation with them would be excruciating. Latin is a bit like that. No one speaks it now (outside of ceremonies in some Catholic churches), but for centuries it was a very useful lingua franca for scholars until grubby English and the invention of the printing press changed everything.

In my experience, especially with younger learners, English learners with relatively high written proficiency and low spoken ability do fine in the long term. Schooling has a strong reading and writing bias while identity and even coolness seem more deeply rooted in spoken language.

Writing is a tricky business. It’s the most difficult aspect of language to master, and it’s far less forgiving than spoken language. If you see your student making progress in their writing and responding to your feedback, then the student will likely do well in the long term. For students that seem to pick up writing quite quickly, and who seem persnickety about things, find out how well they write in their first language. There’s likely a correlation there. Use that to your advantage.

Also remember that some cultures expect more modesty on the parts of students or even from a particular gender. Sometimes kids are just shy. If you’ve seen them complete their written work on their own without extra support, then they’ll likely be fine. Keep supporting them, and just give it time.

Strong writing and strong speaking

If you know that the student is using English as an additional language, don’t assume it’s smooth sailing if they can consistently write and speak with good proficiency. Cummins distinguishes between the approximately two years it takes to acquire English for Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills and the much longer five to seven years it takes to acquire English for Cognitive and Academic Language Proficiency. Often support for language learners drops off once they start sounding like native English speakers. But considering the vocabulary deficit that language learners have to catch up with their native English speaking classmates, English learners need continual support. Consider more direct grammar instruction of trickier sentence types and more detailed feedback. Native English speakers have the additional benefit of an ear for correct sounding grammar. Even if this does not completely replace a standard grammar knowledge, it’s a nice shortcut.

So if you are a classroom teacher, don’t pigeon hole your English language learners too quickly. Get as much data from them as you can (not all at once). Observe social interactions within same-language peer groups, and, if possible get first language writing and reading samples. Put the data together and work on a strategy forward.

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