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How Oral Language Proficiency Impacts Writing

I teach seventh grade English-language arts in Elk Grove, California. I have a wonderful mix of students, including Filipino, Mexican, Hmong, Mien, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, Ukrainian, Cuban, Colombian, and Korean children, each with varying degrees of proficiencies in their primary languages. These are not “newcomers,” or L1 or L2 classified students, but are L3, L4, and L5 students. This means that they have more than just “playground” familiarity with English, but some will have significant struggles with the academic language of the classroom. Each language brings special challenges to the world of expository writing.

Reading impacts writing. The reading-writing connection is more important than many of us realize. The Mien and Chinese primarily use a logographic written language, based upon the Chinese characters. Some of my students can write some of the symbols; some can’t. Most can read some of the more common characters because their parents still use them. The Hmong developed an alphabetic system only in the last last fifty-five years. Many of my Hmong parents would be considered illiterate in English. Russians and Ukrainians use the Cyrillic alphabet. The symbols are significantly different than those of our alphabetic code. Students are particularly adept at code-switching between languages; however not everything regularly “translates.”

Oral language proficiency most significantly impacts expository writing ability. The language of the playground is conducive to the narrative form. Students are more likely to ask “What did you do at lunch, which requires a narrative response, rather than “Tell me two reasons why you like this school and explain,” which requires an expository (informational, here) response. Additionally, even though our school does mix friendships across ethnic lines more than some, the predominant groupings are by languages. A mix of English and primary languages constitutes “out of classroom” talk. Primary language is even more emphasized when “newcomers” or L1-L2 students are part of the groups. This fact is often ignored in language acquisition research, because even if students have demonstrated L5 or full English proficiency, they still “hang-out” with friends with less English proficiency.

Compounding the challenges or teaching students of mixed primary languages is the issue of dialect. My Spanish-speakers have significantly different dialects and idioms. Mexican, Colombian, and Cuban speakers share the mother tongue of Spanish, but their pronunciations and expressions are different. Add to this mix my African-American students with mixed dialects.

All of my developing writers bring different degrees of oral language proficiencies and dialectical influences that will impact their ability to appropriate English vocabulary, diction, grammar, syntax, and usage. For example, Asian students struggle with singulars and plurals and articles. African-Americans struggle with double negation and the misplaced “to-be” verbs. Spanish-speaking students struggle with adjective placement. Even punctuation differences affect writing abilities.

In the mixed salad bowls of our classrooms, each culture and language contribute a distinctive flavor to our learning environment. Teachers reading articles such as this one are taking important steps to meet the instructional challenges of this diversity. Being aware of how oral language proficiency impacts writing is the first step. Differentiating instruction, accordingly, is the next step.

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