What Teachers Need to Know
About Language
Lily Wong Fillmore
University of California at Berkeley
Catherine E. Snow
Harvard Graduate School of Education
August 23, 2000
This paper was prepared with funding from the U. S. Department of Education’s
Office of Educational Research and Improvement, under contract no.
ED-99-CO-0008 to the Center for Applied Linguistics. The opinions expressed do
not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of any office of the
Department of Education.
Special Report
Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics

Page 2
Why Do Teachers Need to Know More About Language? ..........5
1. Teacher as Communicator......................................................... 5
2. Teacher as Educator .................................................................. 7
3. Teacher as Evaluator ................................................................. 8
4. Teacher as Educated Human Being......................................... 10
5. Teacher as Agent of Socialization ............................................11
What Should Classroom Teachers Know About Language?.....13
Oral Language............................................................................. 14
Written Language........................................................................ 25
Courses Teachers Need to Take..................................................32
Language and Linguistics ........................................................... 32
Language and Cultural Diversity ................................................ 33
Sociolinguistics for Educators in
a Linguistically Diverse Society .......................................... 33
Language Development .............................................................. 33
Second Language Learning and Teaching .................................. 33
The Language of Academic Discourse ....................................... 34
Text Analysis and Language Understanding
in Educational Settings......................................................... 34
Conclusion ..................................................................................34
Notes ...........................................................................................40

Page 3
oday’s teachers need access to a wide range of information to
function well in the classroom. The competencies required by the
various state certification standards add up to a very long list indeed.
Perhaps because this list is so long, teacher preparation programs often do
not make time for substantial attention to crucial matters, choosing instead a
checklist approach to addressing the various required competencies.
The challenge of providing excellent teacher preparation and ongoing
professional development for teachers is enormous at any time. At a time
like this, when the nation’s teaching force is encountering an increasing
number of children from immigrant families—children who speak little or
no English on arrival at school, children whose families may be unfamiliar
with the demands of American schooling—the challenge is even greater.
The U.S. teaching force is not well equipped to help these children and
those who speak vernacular dialects of English adjust to school and learn
joyfully: Too few teachers share or know about their students’cultural and
linguistic backgrounds, or understand the challenges inherent in learning to
speak and read Standard English. We argue in this paper that teachers lack
this knowledge because most have not had well-designed professional
preparation for their current challenges.
The challenges of preparing teachers to work with immigrant and
language minority children have been addressed previously. A book by
Josué González and Linda Darling-Hammond (1997) entitled New Concepts
for New Challenges: Professional Development for Teachers of Immigrant
Youth provides an excellent discussion of professional development models
that have been shown to work and the kinds of adaptations teachers of
immigrant youth need to make. But the book deals only in passing with
issues of language and literacy.
Language and literacy have been foregrounded by changes in
educational policy and practice occurring over the past decade. Society has
raised by quite a few notches the educational bar that all children in the
United States—including newcomers—must clear in order to complete
school successfully and, ultimately, to survive in the economic and social
world of the 21st century. The adoption of Goals 2000 has raised curricular
standards to levels that are more consistent with those in other societies. We
have also adopted a system of benchmark assessments to evaluate the
progress schools and students are making towards meeting those goals. In
many states, policymakers have become impatient with the apparent failure
of schools to educate students adequately at each level: They have ended the
practice of “social promotion” whereby students are passed to the next
grade each year whether or not they have met academic expectations during

Page 4
the previous year. Policymakers in more than two dozen states have adopted
high school proficiency examinations, tests of English language and literacy
and of mathematics, with high school diplomas at stake. And finally, there
are signs that “race” and ethnicity, language background, and gender will no
longer be considered in admissions decisions in higher education or in
hiring. The assumption is that everyone will be judged strictly on their own
merits and in comparison to universally applied norms. For university
entrance, this means scoring at an acceptable level on standardized tests.
For advancement in the university, it means passing writing proficiency
assessments. Increasingly in the workplace, it means being a competent user
of Standard English and being fully literate (Murnane & Levy, 1996).
These policies place tremendous pressures on children to become
skilled users of language in school and to achieve the levels of language and
literacy competence required for the various assessments that constitute
gateways to completing school successfully, getting into college, and
finding jobs. As it stands now, language minority students are not faring
well under these pressures—but then, many other students are not doing so
well either. Does this mean that the new standards and assessments are
unreasonable? Are students not motivated or smart enough to handle higher
levels of instruction? Do teachers lack the knowledge and skills necessary
to help students? What do teachers need to know and be able to do? We will
argue in this paper that teachers need a thorough understanding of how
language figures in education, and for that reason they must receive
systematic and intensive preparation in what we will call educational
linguistics. A thorough grounding in educational linguistics would support
teachers’ undertakings overall, and in particular teaching literacy skills (see
Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) and working with English language learners
(see August & Hakuta, 1997). If approached coherently, such preparation
would also, we contend, cover many of the items on that long list of desired
teacher competencies, relating as it would to skills in assessing children, in
individualizing instruction, and in respecting diversity.
We undertake here to present a rationale for why current and
prospective teachers need to know more about language, and then we turn
to a brief specification of what sorts of knowledge teachers need. This
section, which constitutes the heart of this paper, discusses first requisite
knowledge about oral language, then oral language used in formal and
academic contexts, and then written language. In the final section, we
suggest courses that teacher preparation programs should offer to teacher
candidates. At the same time, this course list might be seen as specifying

Page 5
aspects of an integrated, in-depth professional development program for in-
service teachers.
Why Do Teachers Need to Know More
About Language?
We distinguish five functions for which the prospective educator needs
to know more about language than most teacher education programs
1. Teacheras Communicator
Clearly, communication with students is essential in effective teaching.
To communicate successfully, teachers must know how to structure their
own language output for maximum clarity and have strategies for
understanding what students are saying—since understanding student talk is
key to analysis of what students know, how they understand, and what
teaching moves would be useful. In a society that is creating increasingly
diverse classrooms, teachers are more and more likely to encounter students
with whom they do not share a first language or dialect and a native culture.
An understanding of linguistics can help teachers see that the discourse
patterns they value are aspects of their own cultures and backgrounds; they
are neither universal nor inherently more valid than other possible patterns.
Without such an understanding, teachers sometimes assume that there is
something wrong with students whose ways of using language are not what
they expect. Geneva Smitherman (1977) relates a poignant example of how
teachers who do not recognize the validity of other ways of speaking can
undermine their students’ confidence in their own communicative abilities:
Student (excitedly): Miz Jones, you remember that show you tole us
about? Well, me and my momma ’nem—
Teacher (interrupting with a “warm” smile): Bernadette, start again. I’m
sorry, but I can’t understand you.
Student (confused): Well, it was that show, me and my momma—
Teacher (interrupting again, still with that “warm” smile): Sorry, I still
can’t understand you.
(Student, now silent, even more confused than ever, looks at floor, says

Page 6
Teacher: Now Bernadette, first of all, it’s Mrs. Jones, not Miz Jones. And
you know it was an exhibit, not a show. Now, haven’t I explained to
the class over and over again that you always put yourself last when
you are talking about a group of people and yourself doing something?
So, therefore, you should say what?
Student: My momma and me—
Teacher (exasperated): No! My mother and I. Now start again, this time
Student: Aw, that’s okay, it wasn’t nothin.
(Smitherman, 1977, pp. 217-218)
Studies of discourse patterns in American Indian (Philips, 1993),
Native Hawaiian (Boggs, 1972), Puerto Rican (Zentella, 1997), and African
American (Heath, 1983) homes and communities have shown that the
speech patterns that children bring to school from their homes can be quite
different from the ones that are valued at school. These speech patterns are
nonetheless essential to functioning effectively in their home communities.
Acquiring the academic discourse patterns of school is an important part of
the educational development of all students, but it is neither necessary nor
desirable to promote it at the expense of the language patterns children
already have. In fact, Mrs. Jones’ pedagogical approach to language
development is more likely to sour children like Bernadette to the whole
experience of schooling than it is to instruct them.
In as diverse a society as ours, teachers must be prepared to work with
children from many different cultural, social, and linguistic backgrounds.
Many students in the average school are learning English as a second
language, and understanding the course of second language acquisition
(including such matters as what sorts of mistakes they are likely to make
and how much progress can be expected in a unit of time) helps teachers
communicate with them more effectively. Even advanced speakers of
English as a second language may use conversational patterns or narrative
organization that differ from those of the mainstream. Understanding how
their language use might di¶fer from that of the native European-American
English speaker is crucial for effective teaching. In their function as
interlocuter, teachers need to know something about educational linguistics.

Page 7
2. Teacheras Educator
Teachers are responsible for selecting educational materials and
activities at the right level and of the right type for all of the children in their
classes. This requires a reasonable basis for assessment of student
accomplishments and the capacity to distinguish between imperfect
knowledge of English and cognitive obstacles to learning. In order to teach
effectively, teachers need to know which language problems will resolve
themselves with time and which need attention and intervention. In other
words, they need to know a great deal about language development.
Language is a vital developmental domain throughout the years of
schooling, whatever the child’s linguistic, cultural, or social background.
Textbooks on child development often claim that by age five or six children
have already mastered the grammar of their native language, and that
although they expand their vocabularies in school and add literacy skills, for
the most part children have acquired language before they go to school.
Such a characterization of language development is far from accurate. All
children have a long way to go developmentally before they can function as
mature members of their speech communities (Hoyle & Adger, 1998). As
they progress through the grades, children will acquire the grammatical
structures and strategies for the more sophisticated and precise ways of
using language that are associated with maturity, with formal language use,
and with discussing challenging topics.
Teachers play a critical role in supporting language development.
Beyond teaching children to read and write in school, they need to help
children learn and use aspects of language associated with the academic
discourse of the various school subjects. They need to help them become
more aware of how language functions in various modes of communication
across the curriculum. They need to understand how language works well
enough to select materials that will help expand their students’ linguistic
horizons and to plan instructional activities that give students opportunities
to use the new forms and modes of expression to which they are being
exposed. Teachers need to understand how to design the classroom language
environment so as to optimize language and literacy learning and to avoid
linguistic obstacles to content area learning. A basic knowledge of
educational linguistics is prerequisite to promoting language development
with the full array of students in today’s classrooms.

Page 8
3. Teacheras Evaluator
Teachers’ judgments can have enormous consequences for children’s
lives—from the daily judgments and responses that affect students’sense of
themselves as learners to the more weighty decisions about reading group
placement, promotion, or referral for evaluation. American school culture is
greatly concerned with individual differences in learning ability, and
judgments about ability are often based on teacher evaluations of children’s
language behaviors. American educators take seriously the idea that people
differ in abilities and aptitudes, and they believe that such differences
require different treatment in school.[1] A lot of attention is given to sorting
children by ability as early as possible. Children entering kindergarten are
given readiness tests to determine which of them meet the developmental
expectations of school and which do not. Some schools have “junior
kindergartens” for children who are not quite ready for school according to
their performance on these readiness tests. In many kindergartens, children
are grouped for instruction by “ability” on the basis of such tests. If they are
not grouped in this way in kindergarten, they certainly are by first grade
(Michaels, 1981). Thus, well before children have had a chance to find out
what school is about, they can be declared to be fast, middling, or slow
learners (Oakes, 1985). Such grouping is pernicious if it sorts children
globally into differentiated groups. Once sorted this way, children typically
receive substantially different instructional treatment and materials,
reinforcing any initial differences among them in speed of learning and
eagerness to learn. Later on, students who have been in classes for
academically talented children behave like gifted and talented children:
They are bright, verbal, and enthusiastic about school. Those who have been
in low group classes behave precisely as one would expect low-ability
students to behave: They are poorly motivated, low achieving, and less
enthusiastic about school than they should be.
We do not mean to suggest here that children should never be sorted for
any purpose. It is very effective for teachers to form small groups of
children who need more time with particular instructional foci (e.g.,
digraphs or vocabulary enrichment or long vowel spellings). It can also be
helpful to group children who read at a similar level so they can discuss
their books with one another. But the key to such grouping is that it is
targeted (i.e., used for particular instructional purpose), flexible (i.e., as
soon as individual children have acquired the targeted skill they leave that
group), and objective (i.e., based on well-specified criteria directly related
to the instructional target, not on global measures of readiness).

Page 9
A serious worry about global tracking decisions is the questionable
validity of the original assessments on which these placement decisions
were made. Judgments of children’s language and social behaviors weigh
heavily in these assessments (Oller, 1992). Guided by a readiness checklist,
kindergarten and first grade teachers answer questions like the following
about the children in their classes: Do they know their first and last name?
Can they follow simple instructions? Can they ask questions? Can they
answer them? Do they know the names of the colors in their crayon boxes?
Can they produce short narratives? Do they know their mother’s name?[2]
Can they count to ten? The assumption is that all children at age five or six
should have the abilities that are assessed, and anyone who does not is not
ready for school. In reality, such abilities and skills are hardly universal nor
are they indicative of learning ability. There are rather great differences
across cultures in the kinds of linguistic behaviors believed to be
appropriate for children at any age. The kinds of skills that children bring
from home reflect those differences in belief. In some cultures, for example,
children are encouraged to listen rather than to ask questions of adults. Only
rude and poorly reared children would chatter away in the presence of an
authority figure like the teacher. When children do not perform as requested
on a test, it does not necessarily mean that they are lacking in ability—
particularly so if they do not know the language in which the questions were
asked. Given the diversity in our society, it is imperative to recognize that
young children may differ considerably in their inventory of skills and
abilities, and these differences should not be treated as reflecting
deficiencies in ability.
To make valid judgments about students’abilities, teachers also need to
understand the different sources of variation in language use—whether a
particular pattern signals membership in a language community that speaks
a vernacular variety of English, normal progress for a second language
learner of English, normal deviations from the adult standard that are
associated with earlier stages of development, or developmental delay or
disorder. The over-representation of African American, Native American,
and Latino children in special education placements suggests that use of a
vernacular variety of English or normal second-language learner features is
often misinterpreted as indicating developmental delay (Ortiz, 1992).[3]
Considering the potential harm of misconstruing children’s language
use, investing in educational linguistics seems a wise use of teacher
preparation resources.

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4. Teacheras Educated Human Being
Teachers need to have access to basic information about language for
the same reasons that any educated member of society should know
something about language. Understanding the basics of how one’s own
language works contributes to skillful reading and writing. Recognizing the
difference between nouns and verbs, consonants and vowels, oral and
literate forms is as basic for the liberally educated human being as is
knowledge about addition and subtraction, evolution, or the solar system.
For students educated in the United States, basic knowledge should include
knowing something about differences between the structure of English and
that of other languages just as surely as knowing about the tripartite
organization of the U.S. government. It used to be the case that English
grammar and at least one foreign language were included in the core
curriculum of middle and high school. That has changed over the last few
decades. Not only are such subjects no longer required; in some places they
are not taught at all.
By now several generations of teachers have gone through the public
schools having had little opportunity to study the structure of English or to
learn another language, and as a result, they do not feel very confident
talking about language. English is the language of the society; it is the
language most teachers use exclusively in their teaching; and it is the
language that many teachers teach about to some extent. But how much do
they know about it? Do they know its history? Do they know what
languages are related to it? Do they know how it has changed over time,
especially since the advent of the printing press? Do they know why there
are so many peculiar spellings in English? Do they know how regional
dialects develop? Teachers have practical, professional reasons to know
these things, but we suggest that the attention to grammar and rhetoric that
was characteristic of the trivium (the lower level of a classical education)
was neither premature nor exaggerated. Everyone should understand such
matters, and they will not learn them unless teachers understand them.
Throughout the United States, there is a real need for research
knowledge about language teaching and learning and about other issues of
language in education, and for educational leadership to ensure that this
knowledge is widely shared. Several recent events involved public
discussions (with participation by teachers and other educators) that were
largely uninformed and uninsightful about language issues. These events
include the passage of Proposition 227 in California and subsequent
attempts in other states to limit or eliminate bilingual education. Discussion
of Proposition 227 revealed a dismaying lack of understanding about the
facts of second language learning and the nature of bilingual education.

Page 11
Similarly, the Ebonics controversy raised issues that most people were ill-
prepared to discuss in an informed way. Finally, the willingness of school
districts and parent groups to embrace inappropriate methods for teaching
reading, in response to low performance on reading tests, and to abandon
theoretically sound methods for teaching English in the face of
disappointing language achievement scores reminds us that too few people
know enough of the basics about language and literacy to engage in
reasonable discussion and to make informed decisions.
5. Teacheras Agent of Socialization
Teachers play a unique role as agents of socialization—the process by
which individuals learn the everyday practices, the system of values and
beliefs, and the means and manners of communication of their cultural
communities. Socialization begins in the home and continues at school.
When the cultures of home and school match, the process is generally
continuous: Building on what they acquired at home from family members,
children become socialized into the ways of thinking and behaving that
characterize educated individuals. They learn to think critically about ideas,
phenomena, and experiences; and they add the modes and structures of
academic discourse to their language skills. But when there is a mismatch
between the cultures of home and school, the process can be disrupted. We
have discussed some ways in which mismatches between teachers’
expectations of how children should behave communicatively and how they
actually do behave can affect teachers’ability to understand children, assess
their abilities, and teach them effectively. In fact, what teachers say and do
can determine how successfully children make the crucial transition from
home to school. It can determine whether children move successfully into
the world of the school and larger society as fully participating members or
get shunted onto sidetracks that distance them from family, society, and the
world of learning.
For many children, teachers are the first contact with the culture of the
social world outside of the home. From associations with family members,
children have acquired a sense of who they are, what they can do, what they
should value, how they should relate to the world around them, and how
they should communicate. These understandings are cultural—they differ
from group to group and even within groups. Children of immigrants and
native-born American children from non-majority backgrounds may
encounter a stark disjunction between their cultural understandings and
those of the school. For example, Mexican children, generally have a sure
sense of self within the world of the home. The center of this universe is not

Page 12
the individual but the family itself. Each member is responsible for
maintaining, supporting, and strengthening the family; its needs come
before the needs of any individual (Valdés, 1996). For Pueblo Indian
children, the central unit is the community, and its needs and requirements
take precedence over those of the individual (Popovi Da, 1969).[4]
When children from these cultures begin school, they encounter a
culture that has a very different focus, one that emphasizes the primacy of
the individual and considers family, group, and community needs subsidiary
to individual needs. They soon discover that the school culture takes
precedence over the home culture. Administrators and teachers do not
accept as excuses for school absence the need to care for younger siblings
when the mother is sick or to participate in a religious ritual in the
community. Children learn that at school, work and progress are regarded as
individual endeavors, and they are rewarded for the ability to work
independently, without help and support from others.
In the area of language and communication, children who enter school
with no English are expected to learn the school’s language of instruction as
quickly as possible, often with minimal help. Children discover very
quickly that the only way they can have access to the social or academic
world of school is by learning the language spoken there. The messages that
are conveyed to children and their parents are that the home language has
no value or role in school if it is not English, and that parents who want to
help their children learn English should switch to English for
communication at home. For parents who know and speak English, this
would not be difficult; for parents who do not know English well or at all, it
is tantamount to telling them they have nothing to contribute to the
education of their children.[5]
The process of socialization into the culture of the school need not be
detrimental either to the child or to the family, even when there are
substantial differences between the cultures of the home and school. When
teachers realize just how traumatic the assimilation process can be for
immigrant and native-born children from non-majority backgrounds, given
the adjustments and accommodations they must make as they move from
the world of the home to the one at school, they can ease the process
considerably. Teachers who respect their students’ home languages and
cultures, and who understand the crucial role they play in the lives of the
children and their families, can help children make the necessary transitions
in ways that do not undercut the role that parents and families must continue
to play in their education and development.[6]

Page 13
What Should Classroom Teachers Know
About Language?
In this section, we outline a set of questions that the average classroom
teacher should be able to answer, and we identify topics that teachers and
other educators should have knowledge of. We focus first on questions
about oral language and then on questions about written language. These
questions and topics are not arcane or highly technical. We are certainly not
proposing that all educators need to understand Universal Grammar,
Government and Binding Theory, Minimalist Phonology, or other topics of
interest to the professional linguist. Rather, we are identifying issues of
language use in daily life, issues that require only a basic understanding of
the descriptive work that linguists engage in and the concepts that they use.
Nor do we propose a systematic way of preparing teachers with the requisite
linguistic knowledge: Decisions about how to segment the information we
call for—how to distribute it over preservice courses and inservice
learning—and how to ensure that it will be acquired go well beyond our
brief. We simply provide a (no doubt incomplete) listing of issues, and a
brief justification for the relevance to classroom practice of each, in the
hope that those with greater expertise in teacher education can think about
how to make this knowledge available to classroom practitioners.
Attention to educational linguistics might be assumed to be of
particular importance to the educator specialized in dealing with language
learners—the bilingual or English as a second language (ESL) teacher. We
certainly agree that prospective ESL and bilingual teachers would benefit
from better, more intensive, and more coherent preparation in educational
linguistics. But we contend that such preparation is equally important for all
classroom practitioners and, indeed, for administrators and educational
researchers—though of course the specifics of more advanced preparation
will vary for these groups. Expertise on language issues related to teaching
and learning is important for all educators, increasingly so as the percentage
of English language learners and speakers of vernacular dialects increases
among American students.

Page 14
Oral Language
We begin by attending to oral language since children develop oral
proficiency first in their native language (and often also in a second
language). Oral language functions as a foundation for literacy and as the
means of learning in school and out. However, despite its importance for
learning, many teachers know much less about oral language than they need
to know.
1. What are the basic units of language? Teachers need to know that
spoken language is composed of units of different sizes—sounds (called
phonemes if they function to signal different meanings in the language),
morphemes (sequences of sounds that form the smallest units of meaning in
a language), words (consisting of one or more morphemes), phrases (one or
more words), sentences, and discourses. Crucial to an understanding of how
language works is the idea of “arbitrariness.” Sequences of sounds have no
meaning by themselves—it is only by convention that meanings are
attached to sound. In another language a sequence of sounds that is
meaningful in English may mean nothing at all, or something quite
Furthermore, each language has an inventory of phonemes that may
differ from that of other languages. Phonemes can be identified by virtue of
whether a change in sound makes a difference in meaning. Thus, in English
ban and van constitute two different words, showing that [b] and [v] are
different phonemes. Similarly, hit and heat are two different words, showing
that the short vowel sound [I] of hit is different from the long vowel sound
[i] of heat. In Spanish, of course, the difference between [b] and [v] and
between [I] and [i] does not make a difference in meaning. Native Spanish
speakers may be influenced by the phonemic inventory of Spanish when
they are speaking English. They might say either very good or bery good to
mean the same thing. Similarly, it is little and eet eez leetle have the same
meaning. Dialects of English show different phonemic patterns as well. In
southern U.S. varieties, for example, the vowels in pin and pen sound the
same, but in northern varieties they are different. It is clear that such
contrasting phonemic patterns across languages and dialects can have an
impact on what words children understand, how they pronounce words, and
also how they might be inclined to spell them.
The next language unit is the morpheme. The morpheme, the smallest
unit that expresses a distinct meaning, can be an independent or free unit,
like jump, dog, or happy, or it can be a prefix or suffix attached to another
morpheme to modify its meaning, such as –ed or –ing for verbs (jumped,

Page 15
jumping), plural –s or possessive –s for nouns (dogs, dog’s), or –ly or –ness
added to adjectives to turn them into adverbs or nouns (happily, happiness).
These units are called bound morphemes because they do not occur alone.
The relevance of bound morphemes to teachers’understanding emerges
most strongly in the domain of spelling, discussed below. But it is worth
noting here that English, reflecting its origin as a Germanic language,
features many irregular forms (see Pinker, 1999) that can cause problems.
Children may produce ungrammatical forms using regular morpheme
combinations, such as past tense bringed and plural mans. And just as it is
informative to study contrasts in phoneme patterns across dialects, teachers
should also be aware of dialect variation in morpheme combinations. For
example, in African American Vernacular English, the plural form of man
can be mens.
Teachers need to understand that grammatical units such as bound and
free morphemes, words, phrases, and clauses operate quite differently
across languages. The locative meanings expressed by prepositions such as
in, on, and between in English are expressed by noun endings (bound
morphemes) in Hungarian, but they are often incorporated into the structure
of the verb in Korean. In Chinese, plurality and past tense are typically
expressed by separate words such as several and already rather than bound
morphemes (-s and –ed), but these words may be omitted if these meanings
are obvious in context. The native Chinese speaker who treats plurals and
past tenses as optional rather than obligatory in English is reflecting the
rules of Chinese. Of course such a learner needs to learn how to produce
grammatical English sentences. But understanding the variety of structures
that different languages and dialects use to show meaning, including
grammatical meaning such as plurality or past tense, can help teachers see
the logic behind the errors of their students who are learning English.
Finally, teachers need knowledge about larger units of language use—
sentence and discourse structure—that is fundamental to understanding the
unique features of academic language. We have pointed out that teachers’
expectations for students’ participation in classroom talk may be based on
their own cultural patterns. Such simple rhetorical tasks as responding to
questions require making a hypothesis about why the question is being
asked and how it fits into a set of social relationships that may be specific to
a culture. Can you open the door? might be a question about physical
strength or about psychological willingness, or it might be a request. If a
child gives a puzzling response to a question, the teacher who knows
something about cross-linguistic differences in the rules for asking
questions and making requests might well be able to analyze its source. It is

Page 16
critical that interpretations of language use in terms of politeness,
intelligence, or other judgments about the student be informed by this
understanding of language differences.
Trouble can occur at the discourse level when students do not
understand teachers’ expectations about academic discourse patterns that
they themselves learned in school. For example, in the interactive structure
typical of direct instruction, the teacher initiates, often by asking a question;
a student responds; and the teacher evaluates the response. Asking a
question in the response slot can risk teacher censure (Zuengler & Cole,
2000). It is unlikely that teachers are aware of their expectations for
students’ participation in classroom discourse. Implicit norms for language
use are part of what it means to know a language well. When teachers have
explicit knowledge of rhetorical structures, they have the tools for helping
children understand the expectations associated with school English.
2. What’s regular and what isn’t? How do forms relate to each
other? By virtue of being proficient English speakers and effortless readers,
most adults take for granted language irregularities that can be enormously
puzzling to younger and less fluent learners. Is there any difference between
dived and dove? Can one similarly say both weaved and wove? Why do we
say embarrassment, shyness, likeliness, and likelihood, not embarrassness
or embarrasshood, shyment, shyhood, or likeliment? Such questions may
seem anomalous, but they arise naturally during children’s language
development. Answers lie in principles of word formation rooted in the
history of English.
An important part of acquiring a vocabulary suitable for academic
contexts is learning how to parse newly encountered words into their
component parts, rather than simply treating complex words as “long
words.” In many cases, the context in which a word is used and the
recognition of familiar morphemes assist in interpreting and remembering
words. There are probably thousands of words that most people learn in
context without help—for example, disinherit, pre-established, and
decaffeinated. The key here is that there are regular patterns for how word
parts (morphemes) can be combined into longer words.
Teachers should be aware of the principles of word formation in
English since such knowledge can aid their students in vocabulary
acquisition. They should be aware, for example, of such patterns as the D/S
alternation in pairs of related words like evade and evasive, conclude and
conclusive: When they know this principle, students can learn two new
words at once. Teachers should be aware of certain accent-placement
regularities involving the suffixes written -y and –ic, so that they can help

Page 17
students learn groups of words together: for example, SYNonym,
syNONymy, synoNYMic; PHOtograph, phoTOGraphy, photoGRAPHic;
ANalog, aNALogy, anaLOGic, and so on. A mastery of the connections
between the patterns of word formation and the rhythms of English speech
should equip teachers to point out such patterns in academic language and
enhance students’ vocabulary growth.
Spanish-speaking children can be taught to use correlated
morphological structures in Spanish and English to understand sophisticated
English lexical items and to expand their English vocabularies. Consider the
advantages for Spanish speakers who discover that a Spanish noun that ends
in -idad almost always has an English cognate that ends in -ity (natividad
and nativity, pomposidad and pomposity, curiosidad and curiosity) or that
nouns ending in -idumbre relate to nouns ending in -itude (certidumbre and
certitude, servidumbre and servitude). If they already know the Spanish
words, the parallel to English can be pointed out; if they do not know the
word in either language, the parallel Spanish and English words can be
taught together.
Students who come to English as native speakers of other Indo-
European languages may find it helpful to be aware of the international
vocabulary of science and technology (e.g., fotosíntesis, photosynthesis;
computador, computer). This could involve learning basic correspondences;
the notion of cognate and how to distinguish cognates from false cognates
and loanwords; enough about the history of English to be able to judge
whether an English word is likely to have a cognate in Spanish, in Hindi, or
in German; and cross-linguistic comparisons. In order to teach these
matters, teachers must understand them deeply and know how to support
their students’ explorations when the teacher does not know the other
language involved.
3. How is the lexicon acquired and structured? Almost every
classroom teacher recognizes the need to teach vocabulary (the lexicon),
and most teachers do so. Usually, technical or unusual words used in texts
are targeted for instruction. Definitions for each one are solicited from the
students or are supplied by the teacher before the text is read in interactions
along these lines:
Teacher: Digestion: Who knows what digestion means?
Student: I know, I know. When you eat.
Teacher: That’s right! When we eat, we digest our food. That’s digestion!

Page 18
Often, the definitions given are rather superficial and sometimes even
misleading, as in this example. The definition offered here would work
better for ingestion than for digestion. Presumably the text itself and the
ensuing class discussion would clarify the meaning of digestion, but the
initial instructional effort probably added little to the children’s
understanding. It takes many encounters with a word in meaningful contexts
for students to acquire it.
What does it mean to acquire a word? What do we know when we
know a word? Knowing a word involves knowing something of its core
meaning. In the case of digestion, the core meaning is the process by which
the food one eats is converted into simpler forms that the body can use for
energy. But few words are unidimensional in meaning or use, so knowing a
word goes well beyond knowing a definition of it. Knowing a word requires
also an understanding of how it relates to similar forms (e.g., digestion,
digest, ingest, digestive, indigestion), how it can be used grammatically
(i.e., its word class and the grammatical constructions it can be used in), and
how it relates to other words and concepts (e.g., food, nutrient, stomach,
digestive juices, esophagus, intestines, digesting facts, Reader’s Digest).
Vocabulary instruction could be more effective if teachers understood how
words are learned in noninstructional contexts, through conversational
interactions, and through encounters with written language. Knowing
individual words more deeply is as important as knowing more words.
For children growing up in English-speaking families, rapid English
vocabulary acquisition is the rule: According to George Miller (1976; 1987),
between ages 1 and 17 children add 13 words per day to their growing
vocabulary, adding up to around 80,000 words by the time they are 17, and
very little of this is achieved with the help of teachers or dictionaries.
Vocabulary acquisition happens most easily in context and related to topics
that children care about. The teacher’s responsibility lies mainly in setting
up exposure to language in a vivid way and encouraging reading of material
that children care about.
For second-language learners, it is perhaps most valuable to stage
exposure to new vocabulary items in related groups, since many words are
more meaningful when they are understood in connection with other words
related to the same general topic (for an accessible discussion of how the
mental lexicon is thought to be organized, see Aitchison, 1994; for a
discussion of how bilinguals and monolinguals differ in their treatment of
words, see Merriman & Kutlesic, 1993). Thus talk about mothers and
fathers should include talk about brothers and sisters, grandfathers and
grandmothers; talk about buying should include talk about selling, paying,
money, and getting change. Some understanding of how translations can

Page 19
differ from one another in subtle aspects of meaning and use can aid in
supporting the lexical acquisition of the second language learner.
4. Are vernacular dialects different from “bad English” and if so,
how? Whether they are practitioners or researchers, educators who work or
study teaching and learning in schools must have a solid grounding in
sociolinguistics and in language behavior across cultures, given the
diversity in social and cultural backgrounds of the students they serve. Like
other languages, English has dialects associated with geographical regions
and social classes, and distinguished by contrasts in their sound system,
grammar, and lexicon. Standard dialects are considered more prestigious
than vernacular dialects, but this evaluation is a matter of social convention
alone. Vernacular dialects are as regular as standard dialects and as useful.
These facts about normal language variation are not widely known, as
demonstrated by the misunderstandings about language, language behavior,
and language learning behind the national response to the Oakland,
California, School Board’s Ebonics proposal. The School Board’s proposal
amounted to a declaration that the language spoken in the homes of many of
its African American students should be regarded as a language in its own
right, and should not be denigrated by teachers and administrators as slang,
street-talk, or “bad English.” It further declared its support of the school
district’s efforts to seek funds for the Standard English Proficiency Program,
which uses children’s home language to teach school English. This idea was
certainly not radical, but the Ebonics story continued to be news for nearly
two months. It was the focus of talk shows on radio and television. It was
featured in front-page newspaper stories for nearly a month, and even
longer in editorial pages, political cartoons, and news magazines. The U. S.
Senate held special hearings. The Oakland School Board’s proposal was
denounced, ripped apart, and ridiculed. Why was it controversial? As Lisa
Delpit (1997) put it, when asked, “What do you think about Ebonics? Are
you for it or against it?”:
My answer must be neither. I can be neither for Ebonics nor against
Ebonics any more than I can be for or against air. It exists. It is the
language spoken by many of our African-American children. It is the
language they heard as their mothers nursed them and changed their
diapers and played peek-a-boo with them. It is the language through
which they first encountered love, nurturance and joy. On the other
hand, most teachers of those African-American children who have
been least well-served by educational systems believe that their
students’ life chances will be further hampered if they do not learn
Standard English. In the stratified society in which we live, they are
absolutely correct. (p. 6)

Page 20
Schools must provide children who speak vernacular varieties of
English the support they need to master the English required for academic
development and for jobs when they have completed school. The process
does not work when the language spoken by the children—the language of
their families and primary communities—is disrespected in school. This is
as true for a vernacular variety of English as it is for another language such
as Navaho, Yup’ik, Cantonese, or Spanish. A recognition of how language
figures in adults’ perceptions of children and how adults relate to children
through language is crucial to understanding what happens in schools and
how children ultimately view schools and learning.
How do dialect differences affect language learning and literacy
development? Even if practitioners have enough knowledge to keep
speakers of vernacular dialects from being misdiagnosed and misplaced in
school programs, they need a good understanding about language variability
in order to make educational decisions that ensure effective instruction.
Knowledge of the natural course of language acquisition and of the capacity
of the individual to maintain more than one dialect is crucial in making such
5. What is academic English? Although there is a lot of discussion
about the need for all children to develop the English language skills
required for academic learning and development, few people can identify
exactly what those skills consist of or distinguish them from general
Standard English skills. To the extent that this matter is examined at all,
observers have usually pointed to differences between written and spoken
language. However, academic English entails a broad range of language
proficiency. We must ask what linguistic proficiencies are required for
subject-matter learning. Is academic language proficiency just a matter of
vocabulary learning, or is it more? Cummins (1981b, 1984) has described
academic language as cognitively demanding, its most obvious feature
being that it is relatively decontextualized. It relies on broad knowledge of
words, phraseology, grammar, and pragmatic conventions for expression,
understanding, and interpretation.
A recent study of prototype test items for a high school graduation
examination for one of the 26 states that require an exam for graduation
revealed that whatever else was being assessed, competence in the register
that we refer to as academic English is necessary to pass (Wong Fillmore,
1999). The language used in this test was the language ordinarily used in
textbooks and discussions about science, mathematics, literature, or social
studies. To pass this test, students have to be able to do the following:

Page 21
Summarize texts, using linguistic cues to interpret and infer the
writer’s intentions and messages;
Analyze texts, assessing the writer’s use of language for rhetorical
and aesthetic purposes and to express perspective and mood;
Extract meaning from texts and relate it to other ideas and
Evaluate evidence and arguments presented in texts and critique the
logic of arguments made in them;
Recognize and analyze textual conventions used in various genres
for special effect to trigger background knowledge or for
perlocutionary effect;
Recognize ungrammatical and infelicitous usage in written language
and make necessary corrections to grammar, punctuation, and
Use grammatical devices for combining sentences into concise and
more effective new ones, and use various devices to combine
sentences into coherent and cohesive texts;
Compose and write an extended, reasoned text that is well developed
and supported with evidence and details;
Interpret word problems—recognizing that in such texts, ordinary
words may have specialized meanings (e.g., that share equally
among them means to divide a whole into equal parts); and
Extract precise information from a written text and devise an
appropriate strategy for solving the problem based on information
provided in the text.
Production and understanding of academic English is an issue for
English language learners and for native speakers of English alike. Few
children arrive at school fully competent in the language required for text
interpretation and for the kind of reasoned discourse we assume is a key to
becoming an educated person. Possible exceptions are the children of
academics and other highly educated professionals who use this register
even at home, read a lot to their children, and engage them in discussions
about a wide range of topics. For the most part, however, academic English
is learned at school from teachers and from textbooks. Written texts are a
reliable source of academic English, but they serve as the basis for language
development only with instructional help. Teachers provide the help that
students need to acquire this register when they go beyond discussions of
content to discussions of the language used in texts for rhetorical and
aesthetic effect.

Page 22
What do teachers have to know and do to provide such instructional
support? They need to know something about how language figures in
academic learning and to recognize that all students require instructional
support and attention to acquire the forms and structures associated with it.
This is especially true for English language learners. Often explicit teaching
of language structures and uses is the most effective way to help learners.
Teachers must recognize that a focus on language—no matter what subject
they are teaching—is crucial. They must engage children in classroom
discussions of subject matter that are more and more sophisticated in form
and content. And they must know enough about language to discuss it and
to support its development in their students. Academic language is learned
through frequent exposure and practice over a long period of time—from
the time children enter school to the time they leave it.
6. Why has the acquisition of English by non-English-speaking
children not been more universally successful? It appears that non-
English-speaking students may be having a harder and harder time learning
English. Although it used to take them from five to seven years to learn
English (Cummins 1981a; Klesmer, 1994), recent studies suggest it is now
taking seven to ten years (Ramírez, Pasta, Yuen, Billings, & Ramey, 1991).
There are students who begin school in kindergarten classified by their
school district as limited English proficient (LEP) and who leave it as LEP
students 13 years later. Even highly motivated students can have
considerable difficulty mastering English. The public, the press, and many
educators have blamed bilingual education for the slow rate of English
learning by LEP students, but the problem exists irrespective of the type of
program the students are enrolled in.
California, with its current 1.4 million LEP students (California State
Department of Education, 2000), has the highest concentration of such
students in the nation. One out of every four students is classified as LEP.
They comprise 41% of the total LEP students in the country.[7] Many of
these students have had difficulty learning English at school, and as a
consequence have difficulty making academic progress. In 1998,
California’s voters passed Proposition 227, essentially banning bilingual
education in that state. Many people who voted for this initiative believed
that bilingual education made it possible for LEP students to avoid learning
English (Fillmore, in press). However, there is no evidence to support that
belief. Several studies (e.g., Collier, 1992; Collier & Thomas, 1989;
Ramírez et al., 1991) have found that students in well-designed bilingual
programs master English more rapidly (5 to 7 years) than do students in
English-only programs (7 to 10 years). In 1997, slightly less than 30% of

Page 23
the 1.4 million LEP students in California were receiving any form of native
language support in the schools.
It is often assumed that students who do not learn English rapidly or
well are mostly Spanish speakers, whose everyday interactions, even in
school, are with other Spanish speakers. These students do not thrive
academically, we are told, because they are not motivated to learn English
or to do the work that school requires. A close look at these students
suggests that this assumption is not valid. There are as many non-Spanish
speakers among the group that does not learn English well as there are
Spanish speakers. Many are Asians who have been in English-only classes
since the time they entered school. Many of these students no longer speak
their first languages even at home with family members, who may speak
little English (Schmida, in preparation; Schmida & Chiang, 1999).
These students are highly motivated to learn English, and some, in fact,
have done well enough in secondary school to be admitted to university.
However, once they are there, it soon becomes clear that their English
proficiency does not allow them to handle the language demands of
university work. Robin Scarcella, who directs the English as a Second
Language Program at the Irvine campus of the University of California,
reports that in 1997, 60% of the freshmen who took the Subject A Exam, a
competency test of English composition, failed it—a third of them because
of major problems with English language skills. Some 90% of these ESL
students were Asian Americans who had attended American schools for
more than eight years, nearly always in English-only programs. Despite
rather serious problems with English, most of them had done extremely well
in school before entering the university. These were students who had
earned honors in high school, ranking among the top 12% of their high
school graduating classes; 65% of them had taken Honors and Advanced
Placement English courses. Nevertheless, their English writing indicated
that they did not have a sure sense of how English works, and consequently
they had serious problems in meeting the language demands of university
level work (Scarcella, n. d). What was the problem?
It appears that these students and others like them who entered school
speaking little or no English have not been receiving the instruction they
require to master English language structures and patterns of use. Some
manage to perform well enough academically to get to the university. Most
do not. They languish academically, and many drop out of school or are
pushed out well before graduation (Olsen, Jaramillo, McCall-Perez, &
White, 1999).

Page 24
Whether or not LEP students manage to survive in school, few can
learn English at the levels required for success in higher education or the
workplace without instructional intervention. But for many years, teachers
who work with these students have been unclear about what instructional
role they should play in second language learning. Over the past two
decades, some teacher education programs and in-service workshops have
suggested that there is no need to teach English directly. Instead teachers
have been told by experts that they should speak to children in ways that
help them understand, and teach them subject matter using simplified
English. They should use pictures, gestures, demonstrations and the like to
allow children to acquire English naturally and automatically, and avoid
indicating that they notice students’ English language errors so that learners
will not be self-conscious and immobilized in using the language. The
message is this: Direct instruction can do nothing to change the course of
language development, which is determined by internal language-
acquisition mechanisms that allow learners to sort things out eventually.
Are these approaches effective? Examining how children acquire
English in a variety of settings, Fillmore (1982; 1991) found that certain
conditions must be met if children are to be successful. They must interact
directly and frequently with people who know the language well enough to
reveal how it works and how it can be used. During interactions with
English learners, expert speakers not only provide access to the language at
an appropriate level; they also provide ample clues as to what the units in
the language are and how they combine to communicate ideas, information,
and intentions. Learners receive corrective feedback as they negotiate and
clarify communicative intentions (Long, 1985; Pica, 1996). The acquisition
process can go awry when the conditions for language learning are not met,
especially when learners greatly outnumber people who know the language
well enough to support acquisition, as in schools and classrooms with high
populations of English language learners.
When there is no direct instruction in such situations, children can
either make little progress learning English, or they can learn it from one
another (Fillmore, 1992). The outcome is “Learnerese”—an interlanguage
pidgin (Schmida, 1996) that can deviate considerably from Standard
English. Students who speak this variety, sometimes called “ESL Lifers,”
have settled into a variety of English that is fairly stable and that many of
them speak fluently and with confidence. They are no longer language
learners, because they are no longer working out the details of English. The
following text, produced in an exchange between Schmida and a student she
calls “Ti-Sang,” exemplifies Learnerese. Ti-Sang had said that she does not

Page 25
find it easy to communicate with her parents because she can hardly speak
Khmer and they do not speak English. Asked about her cousins who had
immigrated not long before from Cambodia, Ti-Sang responded,
Hmm...they—they, like, speak Cambodian more because they more
comfortable in it. They don’t want to talk English sometime because—
when they go to school they don’t, like, really talking, right? But when
at home they chatter-talk. ’Cause they kind of shy, you know, like,
when the teacher call on them and they don’t know the answer,
sometime they know the answer but they shy to answer. If you ask
them, ask them so quietly, they answer.
At age 12, Ti-Sang had been in English-only classes for eight years,
from the time she entered school.
Educators must know enough about language learning and language
itself to evaluate the appropriateness of various methods, materials, and
approaches for helping students make progress in learning English.
Written Language
Written language is not merely oral language written down. Teachers
need to know how written language contrasts with speech so that they can
help their students acquire literacy. Here we discuss questions about written
language that teachers should be able to answer.
7. Why is English spelling so complicated? Since the first sound in
sure and sugar is different from the first sound in sun or soup, why aren’t
these words spelled differently? Why don’t we spell the /s/ sound in
electricity with an S? Why are there so many peculiar spellings among
highly frequent words like have, said, might and could? How can OO spell
three different vowel sounds, as in the vampire’s favorite line that
mosquitoes say when they sit down to dine, “Blood is good food!”?
These and other peculiarities of English spelling reflect two facts about
English orthography:
Unlike French, Spanish, Dutch, and many other languages, English
has never had a language academy charged with regular review and
reform of spelling to eliminate inconsistencies and reflect language
English generally retains the spelling of morphological units, even
when the rules of pronunciation mean that phonemes within these
morphological units vary (e.g., electric, electricity, electrician)

Page 26
These two forces have led to what is called a “deep orthography” for
English—an orthography in which the match of sound and spelling is
complex and dependent on many factors. This is not to say that English
spelling is illogical, irrational, or impossible to teach. However, some
insight into the forces that have generated English spelling patterns can help
teachers teach more effectively and understand children’s errors.
It is helpful to consider the wide array of writing systems that exist in
the world’s languages (see Daniels & Bright, 1996). Some languages, such
as Chinese, represent morphemes or semantically meaningful units with
their graphemic symbols. Others, such as the Japanese katakana system,
represent syllables instead. Both of these systems (morphemic and syllabic)
have the advantage of being rather easy for young children, since
morphemes and syllables are psychologically more accessible units than
phonemes, which are simply sounds and often are difficult to segment. In
alphabetic writing systems, letters typically represent phonemes.
Representing sounds alphabetically is fairly straightforward in languages
that have experienced spelling reform, such as Spanish, and those that have
adopted writing rather recently, such as Hmong. English, though, like
Danish and German to some extent, often ignores phoneme identity to
preserve the spelling identity of morphemes. For example, in English the
spelling S is used for plural morphemes whether they are pronounced /s/ or
/z/—even though in other contexts, such as at the beginning of words, the
/s/ and /z/ sounds are spelled distinctively. Compare the spelling and
pronunciation of dogs and cats to that of zoo and Sue. Similarly, the root
form electric is retained even in forms where the final C represents quite a
different sound from the /k/ in electric, including the /s/ of electricity and
the /‰/ of electrician.
The fact that the spelling electric is retained in all related word forms
actually makes reading and inferring word meanings easier. Similarly, there
is an advantage to writing T in both complete and completion, or in both
activity and action, even though the sounds that it stands for vary. The
spelling makes it easier to see that the two words are morphologically
related. For the same reason, it is probably good that we use the same letter
for the three different vowel sounds between P and T in the words compete,
competitive and competition.
Other aspects of English spelling are less helpful. For example, GH in
words like night, through, and thought is left over from a sound that has
long since disappeared from English. Such spellings signal etymological
relationships with words in other Germanic languages. English also tends to
retain spellings that indicate the source of borrowed words, e.g., PH for /f/

Page 27
and Y for /ai/ in Greek origin words (phone, hypothesis). Such patterns
increase the information available to the reader, but they do exacerbate the
problems of decoding and of spelling.
Some understanding of such complexities in English orthography can
help teachers take sensible approaches to teaching the alphabetic principle
in English. Teachers should know about the sound system of English and
the history of language contact and development that has affected our
writing system, because these factors can make simplistic phonics
approaches inadvisable in teaching English reading.
Errors in spelling English can result from writers’ inclination to write
what they hear. Second language speakers’spelling errors can reflect
inadequate exposure to written English forms, lack of adequate instruction
in the nature of the English orthographic system, or transfer of general
spelling strategies from another language. Some languages with alphabetic
systems, such as Arabic or Tigrinya, are basically syllabic in their written
representation: They focus on spelling the consonants in syllables,
designating the vowels sketchily or omitting them entirely. Some languages,
such as Spanish, with spelling systems that are quite phonemic, adjust
spellings to reflect pronunciation even in closely related words (compare,
for example, the related forms saco and saqué). Other languages represent
historical facts in their spelling, retaining information about the source
language of borrowed lexical items. Japanese is one of these. Knowing how
the orthographies of different languages are organized can help teachers
figure out why English spelling is so complex, precisely what is hard about
English spelling for learners, and why students make certain types of errors.
Understanding that there can be substantial differences in how symbols are
used to represent sounds in different languages will help teachers be more
effective in working with students who have had some prior literacy
instruction in their native languages—students who have learned to read in
Spanish, Vietnamese, French, etc., before entering an English reading
program. The relationship between sounds and symbols can be relatively
simple and straightforward in one language and much more complex in
Knowledge about language is crucial in helping teachers do a better job
of teaching initial reading as well (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). Effective
reading instruction requires integrating attention to the system of phoneme-
grapheme mappings with attention to meaning. Children may encounter
difficulties because they do not understand the basic principle of alphabetic
writing—that letters represent sounds—or because they cannot segment the
sounds reliably, or because they don’t know the words they are expected to

Page 28
be reading. Second language learners are particularly likely to find
difficulties in producing, remembering, and distinguishing the target
phonemes and to lack the knowledge of how words are pronounced that
would help them in decoding (Ruddell & Unrau, 1997).
An additional problem arises when teachers who do not understand the
complexities of English orthography give tutors or teacher aides the
responsibility for teaching reading to children who need the most help (i.e.,
those in the lowest reading groups). These individuals are far less qualified
to teach reading than are teachers. Even more problematic, teachers may
assign LEP children to peer-tutors for help with reading on the grounds that
children can communicate more effectively with other children than adults
can. It takes a solid understanding of language to teach reading effectively,
especially to children who are having the greatest difficulty grasping the
abstract and complex relationships between sound and print, and the ideas
they represent. Teachers cannot make the learning of English orthography
effortless, but they should be clearly aware of where and why the
difficulties exist.
8. Why do students have trouble with structuring narrative and
expository writing? All students need to learn the rhetorical structures
associated with story-telling and the various kinds of expository writing in
English. However, some students bring to this task culturally based text
structures that contrast with those expected at schools. The emphasis in
mainstream English stories is on getting the order of events correct and
clear. This emphasis can seem so obviously right to an uninformed
monolingual speaker of English that the narrative of the Latino child, which
emphasizes personal relationships more than plot, or of the Japanese child,
who may provide very terse stories rather than recounting all of the events,
can be dismissed as incomprehensible (McCabe, 1995). Different cultures
focus on different aspects of an episode. Understanding a child’s story
requires knowing what information the child considers most important; such
knowledge can help teachers guide students in acquiring the story structure
valued at school.
Similarly with expository writing, argument structures vary
considerably across cultures. There is no best way to make a point:
Different ways make sense in different cultures. The topic sentences,
paragraphs, and compare-and-contrast essays that are staples of English
prose may be more difficult to learn for students whose language experience
includes other structures. Understanding the absence of some of these
concepts in literacy traditions associated with other languages, or the
extremely differing conceptions of how any of them should be structured,

Page 29
can prevent teachers from mistakenly attributing language or cognitive
disorders to students who have transferred a native language rhetorical style
to English.
9. How should one judge the quality and correctness of a piece of
writing? Educators must have a solid enough knowledge of grammar to
support children’s writing development. English grammar used to be taught
to students beginning in about the 5th grade and continuing through 8
grade (in what was then called grammar school). Such instruction was
largely discontinued in the 1960s (except in Catholic schools). Hence, we
have had three generations of teachers who as students had little exposure to
the study of grammar. This does not necessarily mean that today’s teachers
know nothing about grammar, but few are able to teach students
information about language structure that they could draw on in their
writing. Nor can teachers make use of this information to pinpoint the
problems many students have in writing or in interpreting text. Together
with lexical knowledge, grammatical understanding is a crucial factor in
understanding text. Every teacher ought to know enough about the structure
of English and the ways that words can combine in sentences to be able to
help students acquire such knowledge.
Partly because teachers feel insecure about their own knowledge of
grammar, and partly because teachers of writing are sometimes reluctant to
correct students’ writing, students may not get the kind of informative
feedback they must have in order to become more effective writers. The
problem is particularly acute for learners of English as a second language.
We have discussed above the problems encountered by many students
learning English at the Irvine campus of the University of California. Some
of these students reported that they had not previously received any of the
explicit help with English or writing they were getting in the university.
Few had any idea that they could not write in grammatically or stylistically
appropriate English. It was shocking for those who had been honor students
to find themselves in remedial English courses, learning some of the
fundamentals of English grammar and composition.
This state of affairs is not confined to UC Irvine or to students learning
English. Across the 22 campuses of the California State University System,
all entering freshmen take a placement test in English and math. The failure
rate on the English Placement Test across the campuses in 1998 was 47%; at
one campus, it was 80% (California State University, 2000). Students who
fail the test are required to take and pass remedial English courses that focus
on helping them acquire the language and literacy skills required for
university-level work.

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Observations in high school English classes verify that many students
do not receive the critique and help they need to become skillful writers.
The following essay was written by a high school freshman for an honors
English class. The assignment was to write an essay about the metaphoric
language used in William Blake’s poem, “Poison Tree.” The student author,
a hard-working immigrant, was not a native speaker of English.
My metaphor for “A poison tree” is—wrath is like the seed was hiding
into an apple, nobody can see it.
Wrath means very angry, very angry to somebody. It may happen on
you friend or you rival. But you can’t see that just from the outlooking
because it was hiding in your heart and just you know that. so I use
“the seed was hiding into an apple, nobody can see it.”
First of all, I made this comparison because it is the good way to show
and make people to understand the word of “wrath.” Besides, then I
can spend this metaphor to express my internal world. In my heart
there has many wraths. Something is about the teacher; something is
about my relative; and something is about love. But I almost forget it,
expect one thing was happened in XYZ High School.
This essay was returned to the student with “Great work!” written at
the top, and just one other mark indicating that it was less than perfect: The
word so in the sentence beginning “so I use” was circled, indicating that it
should have been capitalized. Does this student have any reason to think
that he is not on course and doing well? To provide the kind of feedback
that students need for polishing their writing, teachers need to understand
English structure, discuss structural features of written language with their
students, and explicitly teach them how to write effectively.
10. What makes a sentence or a text easy or difficult to
understand? Many educators associate simple, short sentences with ease in
understanding and interpretation. For that reason, texts that are prepared and
selected for English language learners and other students who have trouble
reading are often composed of short, choppy sentences. The result is
unnatural, incoherent text conveying less substance than regular texts. One
teacher described the materials being used with fourth grade ESL students
as “first grade materials, very basic—it isn’t see Spot run, but it’s close”
(Gebhard, 2000). Do greatly simplified materials help or hurt
comprehension? Examination of texts that had been modified according to
the readability formulas used by textbook publishers found that such texts
are often more difficult to interpret (Davison & Kantor, 1982). These texts
require the reader to infer meaning relations between sentences because, to

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make sentences short, words and grammatical structures that show
rhetorical or narrative connections between ideas are often eliminated.
The following text exemplifies the modifications found in simplified
textbooks for low-achieving and ESL students:
The Tea Act of 1773
In May 1773 Parliament passed a law. It was called the Tea Act. King
George wanted to help the British East India Company. The East India
Company had 17 million pounds (7.65 million kilograms) of unsold
tea. It was stored in English warehouses.
The Tea Act said the East India Company could sell the tea to
American colonists. The tea was taxed two times. It was taxed in
England. Then it was taxed again in the colonies.
The East India Company sent 1,700 chests of tea to the colonies. The
colonists were not pleased. They did not like the tax. They did not
want to buy the tea. Many people thought the king wanted to crush the
The Boston Tea Party
The ships filled with tea sailed into Boston Harbor on November 27.
The colonists were angry. They would not let the tea be brought
ashore. It had to stay on the ships. On December 16, some
townspeople disguised themselves as Mohawks. At night, they boarded
three ships. They dumped the tea chests into the harbor. The tea was
worth £15,000. The people called this the Boston Tea Party.
Text simplification is achieved by restricting the number of words used.
This text contains just 195 words, distributed among 25 sentences, including
the headings. The average number of words per sentence for this text is 7.8
words. When texts are prepared with tight constraints on length, that
becomes a greater concern than any other criteria that might guide the
preparation of such a text—such as informativeness, relevance, coherence,
naturalness, and grace. The end result is that such texts are not only
uninspiring and insulting to the reader, but often less readable than the
normal texts for that grade level.
Because simplified texts are often unnatural, they cannot serve as
exemplars of written academic English. Well-written texts with grade-level
appropriate language can give students access to the register of English that
is used in academic writing. With teachers’help, students can use these texts
to learn the vocabulary, grammatical structures, phraseology, and rhetorical
devices that are associated with that register. Learning to understand and

Page 32
produce academic English is a goal not only for LEP students but for native
speakers of English too. But teachers must call students’ attention to how
language is used in text in order to support their language development in
this domain.
Teachers and school administrators play a nontrivial role in
determining how textbooks are written. Because textbook publishers can
stay in business only if states and school districts adopt their materials, they
tend to be attuned to what educators want. In the process of designing a
series or an individual textbook, publishers produce prototype materials that
they market test on school administrators whom they hope will purchase the
texts, and on teachers whom they hope will select them. Educators need to
develop a sure sense about what is appropriate for students at different
grade levels so that they can make wise decisions in selecting and using text
materials. To do that, they need to know enough about language to assess
the appropriateness of the language used there, particularly for students who
are learning English or who are having difficulty learning to read.
Courses Teachers Need to Take
Although we are not proposing any specific curriculum for teacher
education, we offer here a listing of possible courses or course components
that together cover fundamental issues in the education of English language
learners and all students for whom literacy and language learning in school
contexts might be problematic.
Language and Linguistics
This course would provide an introduction to linguistics motivated by
such educational considerations as we have mentioned—language structure,
language in literacy development, language use in educational settings, the
history of English, and the basics of linguistic analysis. We envision a
Language and Linguistics course for educators as different in focus from an
introductory course for students of linguistics. Each area of linguistic study
would be introduced by educational situations in which language is an issue.
For example, the study of phonology could begin with an examination of
interference problems that English language learners might have with the
English sound system. It might include investigation of topics such as why
speakers of Cantonese or Spanish have problems with consonant clusters at
the ends of English words like five-sixths, which contains four consonants in
a row /sIksθs/.

Page 33
Language and Cultural Diversity
This course would focus on cultural contrasts in language use,
particularly in teaching and learning. It would address such questions as
what children learn when they acquire a language and culture, why some
groups of children appear reluctant to participate in classroom discussions,
and how differences in discourse styles can be accommodated in the
classroom. This course would also examine different types of
communication systems, including the language of deaf communities.
Sociolinguistics for Educators in
a Linguistically Diverse Society
A sociolinguistic course for educators would focus on language
policies and politics that affect schools, including language attitudes in
intergroup relations that affect students and language values. It would also
address language contact; language shift and loss or isolation; and the role
and the history of dialects and bilingualism in schools and society.
Language Development
This course would introduce issues in language development, with a
special focus on academic language development in school-aged children. It
would address language development in native speakers of vernacular and
standard English dialects, as well as those who speak other languages. The
course would address the role of literacy in the development of language
skills and the acquisition of the structures and vocabulary required for
literacy development.
Second Language Learning and Teaching
Focusing on theoretical and practical knowledge about how second
language acquisition proceeds and the factors that affect it, this course
would compare second language learning to first language learning and
examine the role of the primary language in second language learning. It
would address second language instruction and subject- matter instruction
in the language that students are acquiring. The course would address the
question of how proficient children must be in a second language before
they can learn to read and write in that language.

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The Language of Academic Discourse
This course would focus on the language used in teaching and
learning school subjects, especially the structure of academic discourse, and
how this register contrasts with that of informal communication. This
course would show how language production and language understanding
interact with content learning—science, social science, math, and so on—
and how children’s language development is promoted or not based on how
language is used in instructional activities.
Text Analysis and Language Understanding
in Educational Settings
A course like this would examine how language structures and style in
written texts affect comprehensibility. It would guide teachers in deciding
what aspects of text to target for instructional attention. Special attention in
this course would be given to the needs of English language learners and
vernacular dialect speakers in processing text.
We have sketched here the reasons that educators need to know about
language, the kinds of knowledge about language that they need, and an
inventory of courses or course topics that would cover this crucial core of
knowledge. This proposal may strike some readers as utopian. We
acknowledge that we have formulated it without thinking about the
structures and constraints of traditional teacher education programs.
Nonetheless, we are energized by the current political situation surrounding
debates about bilingual education and the rather frantic search for better
methods of teaching reading. The substance of these debates gives striking
testimony to the historical absence of relevant expertise on language among
those who are in the best position to improve public knowledge—
educational practitioners (see, for example, Pressley, 1998; Snow, Burns, &
Griffin, 1998). We must now take steps to provide this preparation.
It is clear that many of the challenges we face in education stem from
the fact that ours is a diverse society. Students in our schools come from
virtually every corner of the planet, and they bring to school diverse
outlooks, languages, cultural beliefs and behaviors, and background
experiences. Teachers in our schools have not always known what to do
with the differences they encounter in their classrooms. As a society, we
expect teachers to educate whoever shows up at the schoolhouse, to provide

Page 35
their students the language and literacy skills to survive in school and later
on in jobs, to teach them all of the school subjects that they will need to
know about as adults, and to prepare them in other ways for higher
education and for jobs. What does it take for teachers to handle this
challenge? We must be clear about what teachers have to understand about
language learning and teaching in order to work effectively with their
students. We have argued that basic coursework in educational linguistics is
essential—the bare minimum for preparing teachers for today’s schools. We
must now take steps to provide this preparation.
A word that has similar forms in related languages
A language variety in which sounds, grammar, and
vocabulary identify speakers according to region or social
A letter combination that signals one sound, e.g. TH
A language structure longer than a sentence
The history of words
The smallest unit of a written language, e.g. T
A family of related languages thought to have originated
in the Caucasus, including English
Participant in a discourse
The vocabulary of a language
A term that expresses location
The smallest meaning-bearing language structure, e.g.,
dog, -ly
Conventions for spelling
Intended effects of a stretch of language, e.g., persuasion
The smallest meaning-distinguishing structure of the
sound system, e.g. for English, [s] [‰], see, she
The sounds of a language
Typical organization of words in a particular language
into phrases and longer expressions

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The authors are grateful to colleagues who contributed comments on an earlier
version of this paper and supplied examples: Carolyn Temple Adger, Eve Agee,
Kathleen Brown, Maria Carlo, Donna Christian, Charles J. Fillmore, Peg Griffin,
Marita Hopmann, Joy Kreeft Peyton, Nicolas Zavala, and the participants in Lily
Wong Fillmore’s fall 1998 Language Studies for Educators course, especially
Nathan Keene, Laura Alamillo, Laura Ruth Johnson, Marco Bravo, Maren
Aukerman, and Betty Pazmiño.
1 This is where the problem lies. Most people recognize that there can be
considerable differences across individuals in ability, but not all cultures treat
them differently in school. In most Asian societies, for example, children are
placed in heterogeneous classrooms and are expected to learn the same curricu-
lum, irrespective of any differences in ability. Those who need more help dealing
with the materials get more help rather than an entirely different curriculum.
2 There are cultures (Wong Fillmore’s for one) in which children are not
told what their mother’s name is, and if a child were somehow to learn it, she
would never speak it or acknowledge even that she had such information. [back]
3 The high percentage of such referrals for English language learners and
vernacular dialect speakers may simply reflect teachers’ strategies for getting
these children extra help, often from a speech-language pathologist who is rela-
tively well trained in language development issues. Unfortunately, labeling and
subjecting children to pull-out programs to receive help may be counterproduc-
tive. If teachers knew more about language they could institute instructional
processes in the classroom to address these children’s needs. [back]
4 We are grateful to Mary Eunice Romero for this reference. Popovi Da, a
Pueblo leader, commenting on the relationship between the individual and the
community, wrote: “Each person in Indian [Pueblo] society is born into his place
in the community, which brings with it duties and responsibilities which he must
perform throughout his life. Each member, old as well as young, has an important
part to play in the organization of the tribe. . . . To work closely with the commu-
nity gives strength and continuity to our culture and shows itself by the individual
putting himself into the group, and putting the good of the group above his own
desires” (1969). [back]
5 Richard Rodriguez (1982) offers a revealing account of what happens
when parents are advised to switch to a language they do not speak easily or well,
for the sake of their children. He describes how the lively chatter at dinnertime
was transformed into silence and how the silences in his home grew as the parents
withdrew from participation in the lives of the children after teachers told them
that the continued use of Spanish in the home was preventing the children from
learning English. [back]

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6 In her remarkable autobiography, first published in 1945, Jade Snow
Wong (1989) describes how teachers—from elementary school through college—
helped her find her way and her voice as an American scholar, writer, and artist
without forfeiting her Chinese language and culture. [back]
7 National statistics for LEP students are hard to obtain and rarely up to
date (see, for example, Hopstock and Bucaro, 1993). State education agencies
report numbers of LEP students, but the criteria used to identify them vary across
states, making comparisons difficult. The most recent national analysis of LEP
student data reported by SEAs (Macias, et al., 1998) reports a total enrollment of
3,378,861 LEP students, with 1,381,393 reported for California (41% of the
national total). California’s State Department of Education reported a total of
1,406,166 LEP students in California out of a total national LEP student enroll-
ment of 5,727,303 (24.6%) for school year 1997-98 (California Department of
Education, Educational Demographics Unit). [back]