To understand my view on ELL (EAL, ESL) and why I believe that Academic English should be placed at the forefront for any school wishing to assist students in accessing the curriculum, one must consider that I lived what many ELL students are experiencing as they enter a school and try to navigate their classes firsthand, albeit my experience occurred in a more unconventional way.
From the time I was in kindergarten and up until grade 9, I was in the French Immersion program and although my conversational English was excellent, it was academically weak, which is something I didn’t realize until I attended an English high school. Suddenly, I found myself sitting in Math, Science, Social Studies, etc., classes and struggling to understand many of the terms being used as I had never heard them in English. I also experienced difficulties writing essays in English because I was thinking in French and therefore my sentences and paragraph structures didn't come out quite right. As a result, my marks dropped significantly and I found myself struggling to maintain honors in my classes – not because I wasn’t capable, but because my academic English was weak. And it wasn’t just me: when I spoke to my former classmates, I discovered that we had all experienced similar issues to varying degrees as we struggled to adjust to switching from the French Immersion to the English program. I am not sure that ‘ELL’ would have been the right term to describe our issues since we were all native English speakers, but I do know that we all could have benefited from some form of Academic-English language support.
And so, if you ask me what I deem more important when setting up an ELL program where the goal is helping students access the curriculum – conversational or academic English – I would argue academic. Conversation can always be learned during recess, lunch breaks, play dates, social outings, movies, etc., but if your team isn’t supporting the Academic English being taught in mainstream and specialist classes you aren’t really doing your students any favors, as their inability to understand and communicate their ideas in class will ultimately impact their success at school.
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