Examing African American Middle School Students Learning Language Arts in Context

By Dinkins, Erica; Norris, Jan et al. | Multicultural Education, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Examing African American Middle School Students Learning Language Arts in Context


Dinkins, Erica, Norris, Jan, Hoffman, Paul, Multicultural Education


Lois Bloom (1970) described oral language as comprised of content, form, and use, using a Venn diagram to show the interrelated nature of these aspects of language. More recently, the International Reading Association (1996) has adapted a similar diagram to describe the language arts, labeling them "development," equivalent to Bloom's "form," content, and purpose or use. The parallel structures of the diagrams highlight that whether the modality is oral or written, the process of language arts acquisition is the same. The International Reading Association model has one added component, termed "context," which highlights the importance of the cultural and situational context in which learning is embedded.

Reading and writing are recognized as language processes, and deficits in these abilities are often related to language. As students increase in grade level, they are expected to read and write in the formal literate language style. Literate language is taught in schools, primarily within the English and Language Arts curriculum.

Language Arts teaches syntax, morphology, vocabulary, and metalanguage in ways abstracted from ordinary use. Typically, language instruction is traditionally taught in workbook form and is characterized by drills designed to explicitly focus on one specific aspect of language, such as identifying a noun or distinguishing between a proper versus common noun. This metalinguistic approach teaches the elements of language in abstract, disembodied contexts that separate form, function, and meaning.

Students must first learn the concepts using the abstract label (i.e., "compound subject") and then apply the definition to examples within a workbook page. Therefore, students are not given the opportunity to understand how to integrate semantic, syntactical, and discourse information simultaneously. Without this opportunity, it is hoped that this awareness of language forms will carry over into authentic reading and writing (i.e., used to decipher, comprehend or produce sentences containing these complex forms).

Unfortunately, this generalization does not appear to happen for low achieving students, especially those from diverse linguistic backgrounds beyond Mainstream English, whose scores on the national and local reading and writing examinations remain low. Once again, instruction intended to enrich impoverished language skills only adds more confusion, causing the classroom to become yet another setting where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Therefore, schools cannot hope to compensate for these differences unless language becomes a rich and integral part of the curriculum (Weaver, 1996).

It is known that simply reading literature, such as a story or expository text, is beneficial to language learning. Children with poor reading skills, however, have difficulty reading written language, because of their poor mastery of semantic, syntactic and pragmatic nuances of language. Reading however, can be treated as an interactive and communicative exchange of information that occurs between the author, the teacher, and the students rather than a solitary experience. During the communicative exchange that occurs, the teacher can mediate language learning by assisting the child in understanding how the author of the text uses language to share meaning and accomplish goals. Recent investigations indicate positive language and reading outcomes in using comprehension-based reading instruction (Norris, 1991).

Findings by researchers at Louisiana State University are detailed in a study entitled, "Examining Middle School Students Learning Language Arts Skills in Context." They found that an alternative approach that teaches the complexities of language within authentic contexts of reading and writing using an embedded lesson held advantage for improving performance in mastering language arts skills.

Ten middle school classrooms across the southern parishes of Louisiana, over 100 students, participated in the study for six weeks. …

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