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Essay: Learning a new language

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  • Published: 23 January 2019*
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  • Words: 1,612 (approx)
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When someone is learning any language, they go through three levels of language proficiency which are conversational fluency, discrete language skills and academic language proficiency.

The first face of language proficiency is conversational fluency. This is the ability to have a conversation face to face with another individual. Children who are native English speakers will have this level of proficiency when they start going to school around the age of 5. The conversations use very basic sentence structures and high frequency, elementary words. Conversational fluency is supported with visual cues such as body language and gestures. For a student that is an English language learner will develop conversational fluency in about one or two years to exposure of English. (65)

The second face of language proficiency is discrete language skills. This is the language learned through instruction such as the alphabet, the sounds of each letters and combinations of letter along with grammar knowledge. Students at this level can read a written text aloud and comprehend what they said. Punctuation, capitalization and spelling rules are also understood in the discrete language skills proficiency level. This type of language can be taught early on in the English learning process along side with vocabulary words. (65)

The final face of language proficiency is academic language proficiency. This language involves more complex words both written and oral. This type of language is typically only used in academic classes such as math, science, and social studies. Expressions like “that was a close call” and idioms like “a chip on your shoulder” are also learned in this phase of language learning. (66)

There is confusion and misconceptions about English language learners that connect to these proficiencies. When a student is learning English, the conversational fluency develops quickly and pretty proficiently. When a student can speak English well, a teacher might assume that they are proficient in English all together. When that student is tested in a written manner, they may not perform well because their academic language has not yet been achieved. A teacher could miscompute the results of the test as the student has a learning disability. This could result in the student being put into special education where their learning will only continue to be hindered. (66)

Another misconception is something that I experienced myself. In my first year of Spanish in high school, we did many worksheets and vocabulary work that my discrete language skills were pretty developed. I could work through my workbook writing prefixes and vocabulary words for my homework. When the final came around, I had to have a conversation with my teacher and when he asked me the first question, I already had no idea what he was saying. I wasn’t able to understand the words when I heard them, even though I may have written them in my workbook about 100 times.

It is important to be aware of these levels for the exact reason I stated above. Fluency in one face of a language does not mean the other language proficiencies are mastered as well. When a student is put into an English language learning program, it is important that they understand all three faces of language proficiency to ensure maximum success when moved into an all-English class. When a student is in an English language learning program, they may be quickly able to pick up conversational fluency. If a teacher does not understand these different dimensions, the student could be moved into an all-English class too early and will not be able to understand written assignments, and then can be labeled with a learning disability.


Gee’s notion of primary and secondary discourse can be related to conversational fluency and academic language. Primary discourse is the language that is learned through interactions at home with family. Communicating with siblings and parents helps develop the ability to carry on a conversation. Secondary discourse is the language that is learned outside of the home, such as the store, the doctor’s office and at school. The conversations had in these situations are more complex than having a conversation with your siblings. The vocabulary is more specific and the cognitive demand is higher.

Gee stated that most students come into school with a high level of primary discourse and that it continues to develop naturally through talking with more advanced peers and other people at their school (70). Secondary discourse should not be overlooked due to proficient conversational skills and English language learners should still be brought through the process of the framework that I will explain in the question 3.

External context is the instructional presentations or characteristics of language that a student is provided. The PowerPoint lecture or a worksheet are examples of external content. Internal context is what the individual relates information due to life experiences and memories. I like to think of internal context as relating to Piaget’s theory on schemas. When a student has more background on a topic from previous experiences, they will be able to understand more and be able to elaborate on their knowledge.

It is important to think about these contexts in the classroom while you are teaching because you can use them to help your students learn. When introducing a new topic or concept, help the students relate it to prior knowledge of something they learned in a previous unit. In my special education P.E. class, I start my students off with tossing bean bags underhand into a hula hoop that I place at a variety of differences distances away. After my students have figured out the back swing is important with the distance that you want the bean bag to go, I move onto badminton. When I hand my students the rackets and toss them a ball or a birdie, I tell them to swing their arm just like the simple task of tossing the bean bag. The relation to the simple task that they have previously mastered, helped them with a more complex skill. (66,67)


Cummin’s described a continuum of language development in a way for teachers to follow the path of how cognitively demanding they should make their activities. Refer to diagram below. The horizontal like represent the contextual support for understanding material. The left side of the horizontal line is the context embedded side of the continuum where communication is interpreted though meaningful outside world relations and situational cues. This side is easier because students relate to prior knowledge and life experiences outside of school. The right side of the horizontal line involved the context reduced communication. This part of the continuum relies heavily on background knowledge and ability to decode vocabulary words.

The vertical line of the continuum represents the cognitive demand of the communication. The upper part consists of communication that is cognitively undemanding. This type of communication comes naturally to the student and it does not require the student to actively think like performing the task or communication. The lower part of the vertical line is the communication that is cognitively demanding. In these activities or communications, active cognition is required to perform them.

The two continuum lines make up 4 quadrants. The first one is quadrant A, context-embedded and cognitively undemanding. Communication that would call into this category is a casual conversation, or students who have conversational fluency. This is the easiest level of communication because it uses context from the outside world and cues and does not require active cognition. Quadrant B is context-embedded and cognitively demanding. Examples of this quadrant is wri
ting an essay. Academic development is high in this quadrant because of the challenge it puts on students. Group work and role playing fall into this category because the students are still able to work with others to help support their understanding while still challenging them to actively think. The third quadrant is quadrant C and this in the context reduced and cognitively undemanding communication. This quadrant really supports and helps develop the discrete language skills because it does not require much cognition but the context of the work is high. This includes working on vocabulary and spelling. Notetaking and working on worksheets fall under this category as well. As noted before, it is not wise to stick to this type of instruction like it was in my Spanish class in high school. This type of instruction does not support fluency in a language, on in discrete language skills. The last quadrant is quadrant D which is context reduced and cognitively demanding. Debating and writing essays are examples of activities that fall into this quadrant. It is important not to go to this quadrant too early in the language learning process because students may not have acquired the academic language skills to success perform the tasks that are given.

To maximize learning, teachers should start with activities in quadrant A, like having students discuss what they did over the weekend before drawing a picture and writing a few words on it. Then move onto quadrant B once conversational skills have developed adequately and then onto quadrant D. Quadrant C is used for reinforcement of discrete language skills and make sure students understand words, sounds and combinations of sounds when written or orally said. Sticking to quadrant C doesn’t challenge the student much but is important for language learning nonetheless.


The common underlying bilingual proficiency model or CUP is a principle that represents the relationship between a first and second language. The CUP explains that knowledge of language benefits both L1 and L2 because both languages involve conceptual skills and factors. Instruction and learning in one language can support the development of the other language when both languages are being exposed regularly,

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