Linguistic Enabling

Recently my prof showed my work in class, but it wasn’t the work I was expecting him to show. Regardless, I feel like I did a good job of pulling a noncommittal face but inside I felt like a kid again. Don’t you get that glow when someone says you’ve done a good job?

Photo credit to shootingsnow via Flickr, Creative Commons

Anyway, the academic language class that all secondary students have to take is turning out to be pretty interesting. There’s a lot of academic language we use when we discuss what’s going on in each subject and teachers can easily forget that students are not as familiar with the concepts being taught as the teachers themselves are, having studied the particular subject for so long. Students can very quickly be left behind by teachers who forget that academic language in itself is a barrier that all students must work with and overcome before proceeding in actual learning.

The opposite extreme, where teachers discuss concepts at a very elementary level, can also create problems called linguistic enabling. Linguistic enabling occurs when teachers become too sensitive to the needs of bilingual or ESL students and thus cater overmuch to the students’ current level of understanding. In a science class, for example, a teacher might refer to dihydrogen monoxide only as water, because he/she believes that teaching scientific naming is too much for a student to grasp. When faced with figuring out the composition of other molecules (especially at a more advanced level of chemistry), however, the same student will be at a disadvantage because the student will not have had the chance to learn the academic language necessary in the subject.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Andrea Lai

The picture illustrates the errors I found in myself during the reading set out for this lesson. A gardener has built a house around her plant in an effort to protect and help the plant thrive. What the gardener ends up realizing though is that sometimes a simple scaffold, or in this case a stake in the ground, is all a plant needs to grow up healthy and mature. The over-nurtured plant in this case has no sunlight because of its protective housing, and is evidently over-watered because its roots are so shallow. The tree with only a stake however has deep roots and is already in flower. I don’t think that I linguistically enable students in every lesson but I know there have been times where I over-scaffold a student and so prevent my student from learning.

Instead of focusing purely on continuing the lesson or getting the answers I need to continue “teaching” a student, I am resolved to find that fine balance (indeed, my professor terms it “elusive!”) wherein I can help support a student’s language learning without overly sheltering or excusing poor academic language.


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