Academic journal article Research in the Teaching of English

Using Translation to Drive Conceptual Development for Students Becoming Literate in English as an Additional Language

Academic journal article Research in the Teaching of English

Using Translation to Drive Conceptual Development for Students Becoming Literate in English as an Additional Language

Article excerpt

Much research on the literacy development of students learning English as a second language has focused on why this population struggles to learn English, and how to make English literacy instruction more "accessible and comprehensible" (cf. Goldenberg, 2008,p. 22). Existing research says little about how emergent bilinguals use their linguistic resources in two languages to support their comprehension of English language texts (for important exceptions, see Cummins, 2000; Orellana & Reynolds, 2008; Orellana, Reynolds, Dorner, & Mesa, 2003; Valdés, 2003). Furthermore, it does not specify how students learning English develop conceptual understandings of literacy, nor does it have much to say about how they learn to reason about text meanings. More focus on how bilingual students develop conceptual understandings about language and apply them to the specific task of comprehension of English language texts could point toward new instructional approaches to facilitate literacy achievement among students learning English.

In this paper, we report on an instructional approach (TRANSLATE: Teaching Reading and New Strategic Language Approaches to English learners) in which we asked grade 7 middle school students to translate carefully selected excerpts from grade-appropriate literature. Using sociocultural understandings of how young learners become literate in a second language, we observed how our participating students drew on their cultural and linguistic knowledge to derive meaning and use information found in written text as they engaged in the process of translation. Guided by design research methodology, we analyzed data from our first iterations of the instructional approach and revised and refined our initial instructional theory to better incorporate students' conceptual understandings of language.

Theoretical Framework

Our understanding of the conceptual development of students learning English is influenced by conceptual change paradigms explored in science education, theories that advance bilingualism as an attribute influencing conceptual change, and theories from applied linguistics that frame translation as an activity that requires active engagement with language at a conceptual level.

Conceptual Development in Language and Science

Emergent bilinguals bring many different ideas about language and bilingualism into schools. These ideas are rooted in what they know about their first language as well as what they know about English. They thus bring with them highly context-dependent-or, as Vygotsky (1978) called it, spontaneous-concepts about language, which they reference to complete linguistic and academic tasks. While these spontaneous concepts about language maybe highly developed, they tend to be unconscious and unarticulated. That is, while even emergent bilinguals maybe capable of extraordinarily complex linguistic tasks across two languages (cf. Valdés, 2003), they may not be able to describe the rules that govern this work. Lee (2007) calls this tacit knowledge and recommends that teachers focus on making these understandings more explicit as part of culturally responsive pedagogy. We argue that students use this tacit knowledge to solve problems, and their problem-solving activity can be examined to identify their spontaneous concepts about language. These understandings and problem-solving approaches can then be used as the basis for instruction designed to construct more disciplinary-like understandings of language and literacy. Like science educators, we believe these disciplinary understandings develop when student thinking shifts to broader, more theoretical conceptualizations of language and its uses.

In science education, learning has become synonymous with conceptual change and growth (Craig, Nersessian, & Catrambone, 2002; Lehrer & Schauble, 2006, p. 371). Students come to school with what science educators call intuitive concepts about natural phenomena that exert a powerful influence on their ability to learn disciplinary scientific concepts. …

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