Language or language arts?
At the very end of an intensive summer of methodology and language analysis courses one of my students, who I will call Alice, confessed that it had taken her until that point to realize that TESOL is ‘different.’ “You need to understand that I come from a language arts teaching background,” she told me. “It seems that teaching English language learners is not the same”.
On reflection, this insight explained a lot about the struggle Alice had been having, both in her practical teaching classes and in her written assignments, especially those that required an understanding of how texts could be exploited in class. In her classes she had often used her energetic and engaging manner to focus her students’ attention on unusual or literary features of language, such as idioms and the use of figurative language – irrespective of her students’ level, and at considerable cost to their comprehension. When her display questions elicited blank stares she seemed to assume it was because they lacked knowledge of the topic, not that they lacked the necessary language – particularly the vocabulary – with which to understand her or to respond. And, in her written assignments, she chose texts or topics for classroom exploitation that were way beyond an average ELL’s capacity to process.
Alice’s ‘epiphany’ made me think that perhaps we don’t do enough – at the outset of the program – to distinguish between these two very different disciplines, i.e. language arts teaching and language teaching. Because they both involve language, and, specifically, the English language, it is tempting to assume that they share the same goals, methods, and learner profiles. And that the experience of teaching one would be ideal preparation for teaching the other.
But I would argue that there are more differences than similarities.
To start with the most obvious: students of language arts are, generally speaking, already fluent in the language of instruction, for most of whom it is their first language. What’s more, they come to class with a receptive vocabulary of several thousand words. They are equipped to understand most everything their teacher says to them, or gives them to read.
ELLs, on the other hand, are seldom already fluent (that’s why they have enrolled in classes in the first place), and have a limited lexicon: the average low-intermediate student may have a sight vocabulary of fewer than a thousand words. Apart from anything else, this makes reading and listening of anything but the most simplified texts an enormous challenge. Hence they need help – not in appreciating the writer’s style, or inferencing the text’s covert message – but in cracking the code and releasing its literal (not literary) meaning. And they need a teacher who is able to grade her language appropriately to ensure understanding.
Moreover, the kinds of texts they will need to unpack are unlikely to be expressive or poetic ones, but utilitarian, even prosaic ones, such as instruction manuals, legal documents, academic abstracts, and so on. This doesn’t mean that there is no room for expressive and imaginative writing in the ESOL classroom, but that there is little point in having learners engage with ‘higher order’ texts until their basic reading strategies are in place.
Likewise, the goal of language production, whether speaking or writing, is first and foremost, intelligibility. Again, this will require a core vocabulary and a basic grammar – not a style-guide grammar (as in Never use the passive voice when you can use the active) but a nuts-and-bolts grammar (such as Adjectives generally go before the noun and To make a question, invert the subject and the auxiliary verb). And, of course, they will need pronunciation and spelling that are comprehensible even if they are unlikely ever to be native-like.
To sum up, then: here are some of the major differences between teaching language arts and teaching language. Is this perhaps something we should introduce to MA TESOL students on Day 1?
Scott Thornbury is an associate professor on the MA TESOL program at The New School. His previous experience includes teaching and teacher training in Egypt, UK, Spain, and in his native New Zealand. His writing credits include several award-winning books for teachers on language and methodology. His most recent book is Big Questions in ELT, available as an ebook from The Round. He is series editor for the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers. The picture on the left was taken by Martin Seck during the New School MATESOL summer intensives in 2015.