Language needed for academic success
Many students may find it challenging to cope with the language they meet in academic subjects since this language is different from the everyday language they use outside school, with friends and family.
In 1979, Jim Cummins defined two types of language to illustrate the difference: Basic interpersonal communication skills, BICS, and Cognitive academic language proficiency, CALP. BICS refer to the language used in familiar, here-and-now situations. BICS often develop rapidly in a second language because it is used when interacting with friends, peers etc. CALP, on the other hand, is the language students meet in a subject lesson at school. It is more abstract, often in a written form and it is context-impoverished (Leung 2003). Recently, these two registers are rather perceived as different uses of language in a continuum (e.g. Snow & Uccelli 2009). The current trend seems to be using general terms academic language as opposed to ordinary language (Scarcella 2003), social or conversational language (see e.g. Fitts & Bowers 2013).
Characteristics of language of schooling
Especially for ‘vulnerable’ learners, the language used at school is in many ways a barrier to reach their potential (Cummins 1979). Describing, comparing, evaluating, analysing etc. are examples of discourse functions that students must master in subject classes. The importance and content of different functions may vary from subject to subject. For example, in history it may be important to describe events and to explain causes and effects. In mathematics on the other hand, it sometimes necessary to describe processes, for instance a step-by-step description of how to add fractions with different denominators, as well as to define abstract terms.
Mary Schleppegrell (2006) underlines that in school students are expected to display knowledge, organise information and express knowledge and views in an authoritative voice. Schleppegrell also stresses that dense information, abstractions, technicalities, multiple semiotic systems, conventional text structures are factors which characterise the language of schooling. When teachers are not aware of the language challenges encountered in subjects like science, history, mathematics etc., learning may become very problematic for some students.
Integrating content and language
Teachers know that until the age of 9 or 10, most students can follow what goes on in the classroom. As learners progress in school, the subjects and the language of the subjects become increasingly more abstract and academic because of subject-specific vocabulary, complex texts, and the need to express their knowledge and to show understanding in different subjects in a more academic manner. In sum, learning a subject implies more than learning facts. To build knowledge, it is therefore necessary to acquire control over the more academic functions of the language in which that subject is delivered. This is what makes learning possible.
Closely connected to the language of schooling is a method, which integrates content and language learning (CLIL). CLIL is often used in connection to English, for instance teaching mathematics to Finnish students (in Finland) in English or French or another foreign language. The idea is that subject teaching and language teaching go hand in hand, and that students get the best of both, building knowledge at the same time as learning a language. In the Canadian immersion programs, English native speakers are taught most subjects in French. In the European context, CLIL is often a matter of teaching a subject or parts of a subject in a foreign language for a limited period.
CLIL teaching is always a voluntary choice made at some level in the educational system. Very seldom, CLIL teaching is the only option for teaching a subject. Sometimes, a motivated teacher, together with the school administration and the parents, decide on whether to use a CLIL method when teaching a subject or a topic and for how long students are to be exposed to CLIL teaching. In contrast, immigrant children (or parents) cannot choose whether students must relate to the language of schooling. Neither can they freely choose the language of schooling.
Even though foreign language learning and teaching have existed for thousands of years, CLIL is a relatively new phenomenon in Europe. The modern roots of this teaching method are to be found in the Canadian immersion programs and studies. Since the 1960s, students with an English mother tongue have been able to choose specific immersion programs where they receive tuition in most subjects in French, from kindergarten to upper secondary school.
In the European context, CLIL is a less dramatic and more flexible approach to language immersion. The interest for CLIL is found on two completely different levels in Europe (Dalton-Puffer, 2009). At the school level, individual schools/teachers, in consultancy with students and parents, decide on CLIL teaching in specific subjects (or parts of subjects). On the other hand, different EU agencies have produced political documents from the early 1990, which have made it clear that CLIL is seen as an important tool to make more European citizens speak more languages (Marsh, 2002; Commission of the European communities, 2003). In Europe, there are few CLIL initiatives at regional or national levels.
The language needed to meet academic challenges
In order to know what students know or have learnt about a subject/topic they must express their knowledge in some way, i.e. to speak or write about it. This means that there is a relationship between knowledge and language proficiency. Competent language users can express their knowledge more fluently and in more detail than weak language users. At the same time students with a high level of language proficiency will have a higher chance of learning in subject classes. Their language “mastery will have a positive effect on their knowledge gains and help them to develop the desired attitudes and approaches” (Beacco et al, 2015).
Beacco (2010), Vollmer (2010), Pieper (2011) and Linneweber-Lammerskitten (2012) discuss the language students need to cope with to meet academic challenges at the end of compulsory education, at the age of 15-161. The particular linguistic and semiotic competences students ought to have at this point include strategic competence, discourse competence and formal (linguistic) competence. The strategic competence implies that students have the ability to plan, execute, evaluate and correct the linguistic activities they are involved in in school. Having discourse competence means being able to understand and cope with the different types of discourse that students encounter in school subjects. Textbooks, lectures, reports, articles, news items and documentaries are examples of types of discourse students may be confronted with in different school subjects. Formal competence is, according to the same researchers, both the ability to formulate sentences and texts with correct spelling, morphology and syntax as well as using different discourse functions, such as to argue, classify, compare, explain, define, illustrate etc. All these functions, and more, are typical functions used in most school subjects.
1In most European countries, compulsory education is the period from when the students are 5 – 6 until they are 15 – 16 years old (European Commission/Eurydice, 2015).
In many countries, basic skills are in all subjects integrated in competence aims and curriculum goals. Competence aims in subjects like history, physics and other subjects indicate language goals as well as knowledge goals. For example, according to the Norwegian science curriculum for 10th graders the students should be able to
- formulate testable hypotheses, plan and conduct investigations and discuss observations and results in a report.
- explain how electrical energy can be produced from renewable and non-renewable energy sources and discuss the environmental impacts that accompany different ways of producing energy.
Each subject teacher is responsible for opening up his or her subject to students in a way that gives them an opportunity to build knowledge and make meaning of the different topics of the subject. This means focusing on knowledge and language. “The language dimension in teaching and learning subject-matter is of equal importance as in language as subject itself” (Beacco et al, 2015).