UCLA Community College Review: Academic Literacy for English Language Learners

Article excerpt

Immigration to the United States has sharply increased in the past 30 years; between 1970 and 2000, the percentage of foreign-born people doubled to 10% of the overall U.S. population (Szelenyi & Chang, 2002). Of this population, 43% are between 25 and 44 years old (Lollock, 2001), ages at which they are likely to seek post-secondary education. Second-generation immigrants, whose first language may not be English, make up another 10% of the population (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001). Historically, the U.S. educational system has played an important role in helping immigrants acculturate to U.S. society. However, advances in transportation and communications allow many recent immigrants to maintain greater linguistic and cultural ties to their countries of origin, and thus they may not seek assimilation as it has historically been understood. Like their predecessors, however, contemporary immigrants often see education as a way to move past low-level jobs in service industries, health care, and agriculture. Furthermore, more adult immigrants are seeking higher education and training, as the changing global economy requires greater levels of education in general, and multiple literacies in particular (Hull, 1997). Immigrants often turn to community colleges because of their open-door policies, low cost, proximity, and range of programs.

For immigrants who are English Language Learners (ELLs), however, entering and succeeding in U.S. institutions of higher education involve more than simply studying a new language. Students must also learn the specialized practices of academic reading, writing, and speaking that characterize college-level communication. These academic literacy practices represent particular views of the world, uses of language, and ways of constructing knowledge within academic disciplines. Although they are dynamic and evolving, these practices tend to manifest the dominant cultures of those inside academia, which many ELLs may not share (Lillis, 2001). Learning academic literacy involves engaging in a range of academic social practices; this effort entails much more than learning to speak or write in a new language. Rather, gaining academic literacy involves negotiating various academic discourses in multiple circumstances.

Academic literacy plays a pivotal role in the experiences and retention of ELLs in community colleges (Benesch, 2001). Without it, students may have difficulty passing gate-keeping examinations or courses that require large amounts of reading and writing, and thus they may be at greater risk of dropping out. For many students, academic literacy is a hidden bamer that stymies their educational efforts. Ultimately, students without sufficient academic literacy may lack the ability "to make their voices heard as they move through the academy and into a complex world" (Weiner, 1998, p. 102).

To examine the complex issues of language, writing, and identity involved in preparing ELL students for college-level academic work, this review will draw on research in community college education, the teaching of English to speakers of other languages (TESOL), basic writing, and the author's qualitative research on students' experiences with academic literacy in a basic writing course at a Midwestern community college. A qualitative study such as this provides a thick description and understanding

of how students' interactions with institutional structures and processes can affect the quality of their education. After providing background information about ELLs and an overview of issues related to teaching and learning academic literacy, this article argues that community colleges should both set high expectations for ELLs and support them as much as possible by linking ESOL and writing courses with disciplinary content. This argument advocates exposing nontraditional students such as ELLs to the holistic approaches to curriculum and instruction that have historically been offered only in elite institutions. …