Publication of the Illinois Philological Association
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Standard English Immersion for Native English Speakers
We propose that native speakers of English who do not speak the Standard Dialect should be taught Standard English using a curriculum based on the model of foreign-language immersion programs. While attempting to devise a method for teaching grammar in today's schools, we discovered that the debate over grammar instruction is not really about grammar at all; it is about language, specifically Standard American English. Many students reach maturity and leave school without a strong-or even a basic-level of facility and comfort with using and understanding the Standard Dialect. The inability to use the Standard Dialect leaves students unable to internalize and apply the rules of prescriptive grammar. If we assume that it is valuable and important that students learn to write, speak, read, and understand Standard English-if we believe it is the goal and responsibility of the schools to provide students with this kind of basis for success in their lives, then we must change the ways in which the schools teach language and literacy skills by creating a working curriculum for the Standard American English immersion classroom.
Traditional curricula in grades K-12 teach and evaluate reading, writing, speaking, listening, and grammar as five discreet skills or sets of rules within and confined to the language arts, English, and speech classrooms. Not surprising to most teachers is that this method of teaching is not reaching our students. We may take grammar as an example of this fragmented approach to teaching English language skills. Research in grammar and ESL instruction has shown that teaching language in the abstract, separated from meaningful content and actual use, does not improve students' language skills. In "Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar," Patrick Hartwell states that knowledge of formal grammar rules does not correlate with the ability to compose grammatically correct essays (115). A student who completes a unit on punctuation is not likely to carry that knowledge over to a unit on mystery writing. One of the explanations for students' failure to transfer knowledge of grammar rules to other language activities is provided by Irene Brosnahan and Janice Neulieb. They feel that the primary reason why students do not demonstrate an understanding of grammar is because teachers are not teaching it affectively--that is, in an emotionally positive context. By and large, teachers do not like to teach grammar. They teach English and language arts because they enjoy literature and writing. Brosnahan and Neulieb suggest a more affective environment to help ease students (and teachers) into grammar's complexities (204). After conducting a study in which they taught grammar in an affective environment to student teachers, they confirmed their hypothesis that teachers who like what they teach will help motivate their students to learn (212). Unfortunately, even enthusiastic instruction in grammar will not improve students' general facility with Standard English. Brosnahan and Neulieb do not suggest that teaching discreet skills, such as knowledge of grammar rules, even when those skills are taught by motivated and enthusiastic teachers, accomplishes the goals of language arts education. Furthermore, isolated grammar instruction can even hinder language development because prescriptive, cumulative instruction isolates students from their peers. Since grammar instruction involves gradually acquiring a continually growing set of rules, students become isolated from one another when some have not yet mastered basic rules and skills, and their peers move on to more advanced grammar lessons. This isolation reduces the amount of time that could be dedicated to reading, writing, and conversation (Weaver 48).
Traditional grammar instruction has at least three major deficiencies: first, it is not taught affectively; second, instruction in discrete sets of rules and conventions does not help students learn broader language skills; and third, such instruction does not address students' failure to acquire the Standard American dialect. However, even if the current teaching methods change, we would still have a strong need for direct instruction in Standard American English.
As opposed to conventional instruction in grammar, immersion has been shown to be the most effective way to acquire a second language (Krashen 50). For most Americans, Standard English is, in essence, a second language because they do not use it in everyday conversation. In immersion programs, students do not study language directly but learn a second language as a byproduct of using that language in studying other content areas. Only after students have acquired some facility with the second language do they begin to study language itself and to refine their usage and style. Students are not expected to perfect their grammar skills until early or mid-adolescence. Jean Sanborn's article explains that delaying prescriptive grammar instruction until eleventh or twelfth grade coincides with an individual's cognitive development. Until students are fifteen or sixteen, they cannot understand abstract relationships between words. For example, understanding the rules of semi-colons often requires that students determine what the semantic and pragmatic relationships are between clauses. At fifteen or sixteen some students reach the formal operations level of cognitive development, where individuals can separate themselves from situations and focus on abstract, complicated relationships. The formal operations level is only reached by approximately fifty percent of all adults, so postponing grammar education until the last two years of high school is the best way to prevent unnecessary frustration for many students (Sanborn 76). Stephen Krashen echoes Sanborn with evidence from a study with foreign language students. Typically, students acquiring a second language lag behind same-age native speakers in spelling, punctuation, and vocabulary initially, but these students tend to catch up to and even surpass native speakers in these skills after they have attained a firm foundation in conversation and use of the second language (Krashen 58).
Immersion would succeed as a method for teaching native English speakers the Standard Dialect because immersion imitates the process by which children acquire their first language skills in their home dialect: children do not acquire language by discreet lessons, assignments, and examinations; rather, children acquire language holistically, through immersion in the home, through parents' gentle and persistent coaching and correction, and through children's own desire to understand and communicate ideas about the world and themselves. Noam Chomsky explains the language acquisition process:
Language learning is not really something the child does, it is something that happens to the child placed in an appropriate environment, much as the child's body grows and matures in a predetermined way when provided appropriate nutrition and environmental stimulation. (134)
Immersion attempts to simulate a child's natural acquisition of a first language through continual stimulation. Children in an immersion classroom pick up words more quickly than infants and toddlers because these school age children already have the experience of learning a language and can use their primary language to communicate about the newer, second language (Mendez 49).
Immersion education in Standard English would consist of a variety of interconnected speaking, writing, listening, and reading activities. Independent reading would be a daily activity in any classroom. Stephen Krashen's immersion research has found that reading for pleasure increases reading comprehension, vocabulary development, grammatical development, and writing style (3). As the amount of comprehensible input increases, a student will begin to grasp grammatical concepts subconsciously (Krashen 59). Teachers can read to students if students are too young to read for themselves (Fitzgerald 32). The important thing is that students are getting comprehensible input. In addition, literature circles and reading conferences can help bring students' independent reading together in an environment of guided and intellectual activity. In literature circles and reading conferences, the teacher places students in groups and assigns a book for the students to read independently. Students can either discuss the book as they read or wait until they have finished the assignment. Usually, the teacher groups students according to their abilities. If students have mixed abilities, high proficiency students can help guide low proficiency students (MacGillivray, Tse, and McQuillan 39). Both written and oral activities work together to stimulate students in an immersion class, since all comprehensible language contributes to second language learning (Mendez 50). Moreover, conversation with native speakers outside of the classroom has been found to be more effective than a language laboratory for improving students' vocabulary and usage (Call and Sotillo 121). All of these activities could easily be applied to an immersion curriculum in Standard English for native speakers of non-standard dialects.
Another way of promoting language acquisition in immersion classrooms is a teacher/ student dialogue journal:
First, the student makes an entry into a spiral notebook. If at all possible, the entry should be initiated by the student so that the student has responsibility for controlling and directing the conversation. The teacher might prompt entries by suggesting an array of events that happened during the day . . . Partners can question, react, challenge, or otherwise express themselves as freely as possible. (Fitzgerald 643)
Students in lower grades would not correct each other's grammar. Once students were introduced to basic grammar and punctuation, they could use their journals to practice editing and proofreading.
Dramatic performance is perhaps the most exciting activity that teachers can incorporate in an immersion classroom. Drama has the ability to manipulate an outside context to suit the needs of the student. Instead of using language as an end in itself, language is used as a means of communicating a message, telling a story to an audience (Wilburn 67). Drama empowers the students as it allows them to be the medium in which the message is carried and, "builds confidence and social competence among participants through purposeful work with others" (Wilburn 67). Working from a perspective similar to that of Brosnahan and Neulieb, drama proponents suggest that drama's greatest strength is that it harnesses affective development. Most times, drama will also foster an emotional attachment between the students and the language. Once this attachment is created, students begin to enjoy the learning process (Wilburn 79). Versions of drama activities such as role play and mimicry can be added to keep the focus on the message and not the process of language acquisition (Jones 183).
As students complete written activities and projects, teachers should help them keep a portfolio so that parents and future teachers can see a record of each student's accomplishments (Fitzgerald 342). These portfolios could also include video and/or audio recordings. Once students achieve intermediate fluency in the Standard Dialect-by about grade four-- all activities would be accompanied by teachers gently and persistently offering Standard dialect alternatives to non-standard usage (Krashen 59).
An important underlying premise of instruction would be made clear to students as they progress in their studies: they should value their own home dialect; but they would be shown that their home dialect is less appropriate in the larger world than it is at home. Moreover, as students mature and recognize the difference between their own dialect and Standard American English, they will also be able to recognize that facility with the Standard dialect of English is directly linked to success in school and professional employment, and therefore linked to economic and social class advancement. Because it does not threaten the home dialect, immersion instruction can promote students' success in the larger culture without wrenching them away from their home life.
Implementing immersion in schools would take a great deal of commitment from the faculty and administrators. One consideration that a school would have to make before adding an immersion program would be whether or not they could facilitate a cross-curricular immersion environment; in immersion use of Standard Dialect must be an explicitly emphasized part of all subjects of study. Cross-curricular immersion has been shown to increase student motivation, to provide more opportunities for acknowledging and exploring prior knowledge on issues and to provide meaningful, contextualized language-learning situations (Crandall, as cited in Fitzgerald 645). Myriam Met asserts that a second language can most easily be introduced in classes like physical education, art, math, and science because the focus for communication is not language itself; rather communication focuses on content (8).
Teachers in an immersion curriculum should expect to work in teams. Team teaching allows both students and teachers to work on a continuum; where one class leaves off, another class can pick up, and teachers can work together in the student's best interest (Mendez 46). When learning a new language, Fitzgerald states that rules and routines that are easy to understand and remember help keep the students working in a positive direction (642). When teachers work together in teams, their cooperation provides the students with a common set of rules and a routine for every class.
Immersion will not benefit all students. Immersion programs are most beneficial for students who do not live in an environment where Standard American English is used. Though we do not have full statistics as to who would benefit most, we can propose that students of certain types will benefit most from a Standard American English program. These students certainly include the one third of all students in our nation's largest districts whose parents are not native English speakers (Fitzgerald 639). These students also include those from homes where the English spoken predominantly is not the Standard Dialect (e.g. Black English, Hispanic English, strong regional dialects). We recognize that the program we are proposing is based on classist assumptions about the strength or appropriateness about a particular variety of English. Nonetheless, success in the educational system in the larger society remains based on facility with Standard English. Students who are entering primary school without a foundation in Standard American English are the ones who are playing "catch up" with the others. An immersion program is a way to help these students get on track with their peers, and immersion programs can be instituted in preschool; literacy instruction does not have to wait until a student has gained considerable listening and speaking proficiency, nor does a student need reading proficiency to begin writing (Fitzgerald 644).
Students are in need of a language arts curriculum that will help them achieve success in their classroom and in future employment. Current grammar instruction fails to provide students with the skills they need in Standard English. Discreet lessons in prescriptive grammar do not cross over to composition, nor do they improve oral communication skills. Through its emphasis on conveying content and modeling Standard English usage, an immersion program will help students bring literacy, composition, and communication together, leading students to master Standard American English.
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Chomsky, Noam. Language and Problems of Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1988.
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Mendez, Carolyn. "How Many Wednesdays? A Portrait of Immersion Teaching Through Reflection." Life in Language Immersion Classrooms. Ed. Elizabeth Bernhardt. Philadelphia, PA: Multilingual Matters, 1992.
Met, Miriam. Immersion and the Language Minority Student. Milwaukee: Midwest National Origin Desegregation Assistance Center, U of WI-Milwaukee, 1984.
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Weaver, Constance. Grammar for Teachers. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1979.
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