Language Acquisition Theories

Language Acquisition Theories


In an article Bridging two worlds: Reading comprehension, figurative language instruction and the English-language learner, the authors focus on the importance for the English-language learners (ELL students) to master the ability of decophering the meaning of figurative language. In order to investigate this issue from both theoretical and practical perspectives, they turn to the real life classroom situation with an adolescent ELL student of a Spanish-speaking origin, Alejandro Alvarez (names are pseudonyms). Moreover, Alejandro is not only an ELL student, he is also a language-broker. According to MacGillivray and Rueda (2001), language brokers help monolingual family members interact with the English-dominant environment (p.98) (as cited in Palmer et. al, 2006, p. 259). When analyzing this situation, Palmer et. al turn to the works of other researchers in the field aiming to take an objective and rational stance and come to competent conclusions.

When encountering such challenging figures of speech as figurative language, ELL students experience difficulties due to the obvious divergence between the figurative and literal meanings. Palmer et. al (2006) explain this by the fact that translation of idioms from language to language is very complicated. However, they also underline the imortance of the students mastering such language, because it is crucial for decoding social and academic phrases. In is crucial to include the figurative language when designing instruction for ELL students because they will often hear it from teachers in class, from their schoolmates, and in numerous conversational phrases in all spheres of communication.

Direct and extensive teaher instruction is utterly important in developing the students figurative language comprehension. In order to provide such guidance effectively, teachers must take into consideration various background experiences occuring among linguistically and culturally diverse learners. In their article, Palmer et. al (2006) paid particular attention to specific strategies of perception of figurative language, which teachers can apply in classrooms.

Given the fact that native speakers learn the meaning of figurative phrase through experience and inference, the teacher who worked with Alejandro developed a specific plan to assist hiw. The plan included explicit instruction and scaffolding aimed at learning how to comprehend figurative language in the context in which it is used. Firstly, the teacher would explain instructional goals of the figurative language. Then it was necessary to create a model of the thinking processes that takes place when interpreting figurative language units and determining their meaning from context. This strategy was used repeatedly and accompanied by various illustrative materials to guide Alejandro. At first, he and his teacher practiced the process together with the teacher providing the questions Alejandro would need so he could begin asking himself similar questions. Then, Alejandro, with his teachers assistance, practiced the steps that had been modeled. Thus, a gradual transition from teacher-assisted performance to self-assisted performance took place (Palmer et. al, 2006, p. 261).

Palmer et. al (2006) suggest that the reading teacher should follow the three-step problem-solving process for interpreting figurative language:

1. Find the figurative language

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2. Try its literal meaning

3. Find its intended meaning (p.262).

They also argue that it is important and useful to help the ELL student find the way in which certain figurative phrases may relate to their lives. It is utterly important to make sure that the student realizes the significance of figurative language in English-speaking environment, so they get motivated to learn it. Moreover, the students motivation should be both extrinsic and intrinsic. Hence, they should both get the encouragement to study from external sources, and have their own, inner desire.

In the case with Alejandro, the teacher provided him with constant and versatile guidance in learning the figurative language. The student was encouraged to illustrate the intended and literal meaning, as well as life application of figurative phrases, by simple drawings. Palmer et. al (2006) state that this visual representation assisted him with comprehension of the figurative language (p.262) . Eventually, Alejandro was offered to measure his own perception of his progress; he was encouraged and provided possibilities for self-evaluation. The student began to show learning initiative and ambitions, he started a notebook of figurative language which he encountered in every day life. The teacher would always discuss Alejandros learning process with him and provide competent assistance as often as necessary. It it utterly important to always discuss the difficulties experienced by the student in the learning process.

Another valuable technique mentioned in the article implies suggesting the student to write his or her feelings down in their native language and then try to express them in English. This should help the student feel more at ease with the foreign language while confronting the feelings of insecurity and frustration. Gradually, the student will become able to fully engage in audible conversation, as well as initiate and support verbal interaction in English language.

The article by Palmer et. al (2006) examines instructional strategies used by a teacher to enhance the students understanding of English figurative language. Those strategies are connected and imply explicit instruction, relation to the real life, dialogue in context, teacher-guided modeling and independent practice, visualization through illustrations, and the use of the native language. Such techniques are aimed at creating a comfort zone for the student, in which he or she could avoid frustration, misunderstanding, and the feeling of insecurity in an English-dominant environment.

Palmer et. al (2006) utilize a three-step process of interpreting the meaning of figurative language units, recommended by Simmons and Palmer. This process includes identifying figurative language in written text, determining if literal meaning in the text makes sense, and finding the intended meaning of the figurative language expression (p. 262). They also note that it might be easier to perceive figurative language in more natural situations, and thus suggest an additional fourth step. Tompkins (2002) also recommends using student-created and concrete tools, such as figurative language posters that illustrate the literal and figurative meaning of the sayings (as cited in Palmer et. al, 2006, p. 263).

Keeping in mind that the skill to use figurative language directly depends on experience and exposure, teachers should supplement their instructions with visualization by means of context clues. It is important to ensure that the students have sufficient practice of their figurative language abilities, and increase their command and awareness of those skills. Teacher-guided access to a variety of oral and written language should be complemented by decent opportunities for the students independent practice. Moreover, the teachers must assume that all students are capable of learning English given the proper support, appropriate instruction, and adequate time. [...] Teachers instruction must be coordinated for the specific students language lever, as well as analyze and understand the cultural context of figurative expressions. (Palmer et. al, 2006, p.265).

Palmer et. al (2006) argue that students who develop the ability to interpret figurative language not only expand their capabilities for creative thought and communication, but also acquire insight to expressive forms of language, allowing them to comprehend both text and speech on a deeper and more meaningful level. (p. 265).

The acknowledged aim of this article is to explain and promote the importance of the issue of figurative language comprehension by the ELL learners in the United States. In order to provide an empirical illustration for their argument, they use a practical situation with a Spanish-speaking ELL learner Alejandro. Eventually, the authors identify further areas of interest for researchers and practitioners.

The methods, techniques and approaches described in an article by Palmer et. al have an exquisite theoretical and practical value and may be harmoniously integrated in every teachers practice. They provide fruitful ground for further investigation and may help the teachers improve their classroom experiences with ELL students.

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