Theory into Practice 1
Theory of Language into Practice Paper
Dr. Genzuk – Educ 409
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In order to see the theories we study in class be put into practice, I observed in Mr. B’s third grade classroom at Weemes Elementary. Weemes is very near campus, so it is
obviously located in a large urban area. According to the Ed Data website, 90.2% of all enrolled students are on free or reduced lunch, so the data would suggest that the surrounding community is relatively low-income (2007). The Ed Data website also reports that a majority of the students, 71.4%, are identified as Hispanic, with 27.8% of students identified as African American, and white, American Indian, Asian, and Pacific Islander students combined account for less than one percent (2007). With this demographic in downtown Los Angeles, it is not surprising that almost half of the students at Weemes are considered English Learner (EL) Students (Education Data Partnership, 2007). Despite the low-income neighborhood, the general school environment and Mr. B’s classroom in
particular are well-supplied, decorated, welcoming, and displays of student work and lesson topics are proudly displayed everywhere. The environment as a whole, especially Mr. B’s classroom, seems positive and conducive to learning.
One theory of language education that was evident in Mr. B’s practices and interaction with his students was Cummins’s ideas about increasing language proficiency through contextual support. As discussed in class lecture, Cummins’s theory can be modeled through a graphic organizer entitled, “Range of Contextual Support and Degree of Cognitive Involvement in Communicative Activities,” which shows how a student’s progression towards language proficiency is affected by a gradual increase in cognitive challenges and a decrease in blatant contextual clues (M. Genzuk, EDUC 409 lecture, March 7, 2007).
In the initial stage, labeled “show” during lecture, activities contain much contextual support and are relatively cognitively undemanding. The next stage, labeled “try”
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in lecture notes, continues to provide context clues for more cognitively demanding tasks. The idea of context embedded instruction correlates with Krashen’s input hypothesis, which emphasizes that as “comprehensible input” is provided in the target language, “speaking fluency emerges on its own over time” (Krashen, 1994, p. 41). This theory relies on lessons that include contextual clues to ensure that the input provided to the students is comprehensible to them and will, therefore, allow gradual and natural gains in proficiency. There are two more stages of Cummins’s model, both in context reduced situations, first with cognitively undemanding subject matter, and finally with more difficult and abstract concepts. However, space prohibits my elaborating on these stages, as they were not extensively observed in Mr. B’s class.
Over the course of two days, I observed a hands-on math lesson using Skittles to teach a variety of skills. Students were broken into groups and given a bag of Skittles. They counted and tallied the number of each color Skittle, created corresponding bar graphs from the data, and wrote the colors as fractions of a total bag. They discussed these fractions as representing statistics; for example, if there were 13 green candies in a bag of 42 total candies, then the chances of picking a green are 13 out of 42. The class also translated these statistics into phrases such as “very likely,” “likely,” “not likely,” and “impossible.”
While observing Mr. B’s class, I didn’t notice any students having trouble with
English fluency; however, Cummins noted the separation between conversational fluency and academic proficiency, so I might have overlooked limited proficiency in school-related usage because of an ability to use conversational English (1984, p. 17). In any case, Mr. B explained to me that the theory and techniques he uses to instruct EL students are the same practical and useful methods he uses to present difficult or new material to any student. As
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for this lesson, the Skittles activity clearly belongs in the “try” category of Cummins’s
Quadrants. Fractions, graphing, and statistics are all complex and cognitively demanding mathematical concepts. However, the entire activity was infused with contextual support. The group work allowed students to construct knowledge cooperatively, and peer-level discussion is likely to follow Krashen’s ideal “comprehensible input.” The Skittles provide a visual representation of the subject matter concept that can be understood without language and then used to understand the language that is spoken. Also, the vocabulary that was introduced (“likely,” “not likely,” etc.) is helpful both in developing English proficiency and mathematical knowledge.
By following Cummins’s model of language proficiency, Mr. B presented his
students with a cognitively challenging task, but provided them with plenty of contextual support. By grouping his students and including hands-on, project based learning through visual aids, students at all levels of English speaking (and math) proficiency were accommodated and able to learn from this activity. The only criticism that I have is that while the group work is beneficial, I feel that Mr. B could have been more involved in providing comprehensible input to his students and scaffolding their learning. Also, since such a high percentage of students at Weemes are considered English Learners, I worry that this activity might be lost on those students whose English is severely limited. Some form of pull-out or reiteration of the lesson content in Spanish might be necessary. However, I was very impressed and excited about this Skittle activity, and I would love to see it extended to include the next stages of Cummins’s Quadrants (“tell” and “do”) by eventually reducing the context clues and increasing the cognitive difficulty.
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Brown, H.D. (2007). Age and Acquisition. In Principles of Language Learning and
Teaching (pp. 54-83). White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.
Cummins, J. (1984). Language Proficiency, Bilingualism, and Academic Achievement.
In P. A. Richard-Amato & M. A. Snow (Eds.), The Multicultural Classroom:
Readings for Content-Area Teachers (pp. 16-26). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. Education Data Partnership. (2007, February 28). Lenicia B. Weemes Elementary School
Report. Retrieved March 22, 2007, from http://www.ed-data.k12.ca.us. Krashen, S. D. (1994). Bilingual Education and Second Language Acquisition Theory. In
C.F. Leyba (Ed.), Schooling and Language Minority Students: A Theoretico-
Practical Framework. Los Angeles: LBD.