Academic journal article High School Journal

Knowing English Is Not Enough! Cultivating Academic Literacies among High School Newcomers

Academic journal article High School Journal

Knowing English Is Not Enough! Cultivating Academic Literacies among High School Newcomers

Article excerpt

Secondary school teachers face remarkable challenges when they are asked to incorporate language objectives because the traditional approach to the education of English Language Learners (ELL) separates English language development from content instruction. The underlying assumption is that English language proficiency is a prerequisite for subject matter learning. Research shows this is a misconception. The qualitative research project described in this article investigated how a high school social studies teacher integrated language and content and how the newcomer students were able to demonstrate their understandings. Findings showed that the practice of historical inquiry through primary sources and document-based questions assisted students in developing English, academic vocabulary, and academic concepts in the learning of American history. In the spring of 2010, when the teacher deviated from the state's official curriculum through the use of digitized primary sources, notions of agency, empathy, and moral judgment played a significant role in the students' writings and use of historical reasoning. However, despite the use of historical inquiry and digitized primary sources, when there was tighter adherence to teaching the mandated curriculum in spring 2012, student expression and development of historical agency, empathy, and moral judgment was diminished or absent.


Portraits of successful teachers of linguistically and culturally diverse students are needed now more than ever. According to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (2007) the population of learners adding English to their home language has been rapidly rising in urban schools throughout the United States. In many school districts these students represent over half of the school-age population. In Texas, where the study took place, students whose dominant language is not English make up approximately 18% of the K-12 enrollment (Texas Education Agency, 2009). What these linguistically and culturally diverse students do, feel, and draw upon in the acquisition of academic literacies depends on how they come to understand the relationships among their languages, cultures, and identities. Engaging students in literacy practices that validate their home language, cultural background, and academic needs poses challenges for English language social justice educators.

Interestingly, Wright and Kuehn (1998) found that the single most important variable that places students at risk for access to higher education is their lack of preparation in academic literacies. The problem of low literacy achievement is complex and disproportionately impacts students who are economically disadvantaged, of color, or are adding English to their linguistic repertoire. The expectation is that students make the leap from learning to read to reading to learn and, ultimately, to reading to solve complex and-specific disciplinary problems with ease. These higher level, problem-solving skills are based on a social and cognitive conception of the acquisition of literacies that highlights social mediation in the learning process (Vygotsky, 1978).

Teachers invested in social justice outcomes bear a special responsibility to co-construct with their students various academic contexts where social mediation in learning provides successful outcomes for all. In the words of Colombi and Schleppegrell (2002), successful outcomes means that students need to be able "to construct arguments and critique theories; and to integrate print, visual, interactional, and electronic means of developing and sharing knowledge" (p. 2). For students whose first language is not English, innovative practices that capitalize on their linguistic and cultural resources are significant for cultivating academic literacies.

Literacy for social justice challenges the widespread belief that educational success for ethnic groups, such as Latinos, is about halting the use of native language and abandoning native traditions, an assimilation process portrayed by some scholars as "subtractive assimilation" (Gibson, 1995). …

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