Constructivism in Practice: The Case for English Language Learners

By Mvududu, Nyaradzo; Thiel-Burgess, Jennifer | International Journal of Education, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Constructivism in Practice: The Case for English Language Learners


Mvududu, Nyaradzo, Thiel-Burgess, Jennifer, International Journal of Education


Abstract

A classroom of diverse learners with diverse language backgrounds can be a great challenge for a classroom teacher. English Language Learners (ELL) present a particular challenge to teachers as they represent such a wide range of academic abilities, English language abilities, and academic background. Constructivism is widely touted as an approach to probe for children's level of understanding and the ways in which that understanding can be taken to higher level thinking. Constructivism is a way of learning and thinking. It is how students make sense of the material and how they can be taught most effectively. Constructivism as an educational theory holds that teachers should take into account what students know. Teachers then build on this knowledge and allow students to put their knowledge into practice. This paper will explore how the theory of constructivism may benefit ELL students in an inclusive classroom.

Keywords: English Language Learners, Constructivism, Inclusion

1. Introduction

Throughout history, immigration has significantly impacted the makeup of the U.S. population. Today, immigration continues to be a source of diversity in the U.S. Such diversity has many dimensions including language diversity. Language diversity has therefore become a standard reality in the school. It is reasonable to expect such diversity to grow. According to demographers, by 2026 an estimate of 25% of the children coming to school will live in homes where English is not the primary language. In light of this, it is important that teachers seriously consider language diversity if they are to meet the needs of all students and help them achieve academic success. Many states and school refer to these students as English Language Learners (ELLs).

There have been a number of programs designed to assist ELLs to develop English language skill. While the following is not an exhaustive list, it provides an overview of instructional programs implemented over the last decade or so.

1) Transitional bilingual education: Students are taught in their primary language. Over time (1-3 years) there is a gradual decrease in the use of the primary language and a transition to English-only instruction.

2) Maintenance bilingual education: Students are taught in both English and their primary language in the earlier grades (K-6) so that they become academically proficient in both languages.

3) Dual language programs: Students for whom English is the primary language and students for whom it is not are instructed together. The goal is for each group to become bilingual and bi-literate.

4) Sheltered English: Students are initially instructed at low levels of English and gradually move up the levels. The students' primary languages are not used.

5) English as a second language: No instruction is given in the primary language of the students. The goal is to mainstream students as fast as possible.

These programs are not mutually exclusive and many school districts use them in some blended form. Just as there are various ELL programs, there are various pedagogical approaches to teaching ELL students. Regardless of the program chosen, an approach that appears compatible with the goal of reaching all students is the constructivist approach.

2. Constructivism in practice

The constructivist view is touted as one of the leading theoretical positions in education. There is no universal definition of constructivism. For some it is a theory of learning, for others it is a theory of knowledge, and for others still it is a pedagogical theory. Additional views include theory of science, educational theory or an all-encompassing worldview. Phillips (2000) writes about a number of constructivist traditions. The theoretical framework for this article is educational constructivism. This theory has a number of variations. The two most popular are:

1) personal constructivism attributed to Jean Piaget and

2) social constructivism associated with Lev Vygotsky. …

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