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ESOL learners

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Last updated 26 October 2012 15:28 by NZTecAdmin

In the context of these learning progressions, adult English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) learners can be broadly described as those adults who use a first language other than English at home (and elsewhere), but who have learning needs relating to English language.

The term ESOL is widely recognised in New Zealand. Some people prefer to use the term EAL (English as an Additional Language). Both terms recognise that for many learners, English may well be one of several languages they know and use.

ESOL learners are an extremely diverse group with widely varying experiences and proficiencies in language, literacy and numeracy. While many may be literate and/or numerate in their first language, many others may not, or may have specific areas of competence that can transfer to learning in English. Furthermore, the varying degrees of “distance” between languages make it impossible to generalise about the needs of adult ESOL learners in relation to learning progressions.

The two most critical variables that distinguish new learners of English from their English-speaking peers are differences in prior knowledge (including cultural knowledge) and differences in English language proficiency.9

A number of hypotheses and theories10 have been developed to account for the relationship between what one knows and can do in a first language and what one then subsequently knows and can do in a second or additional language. Three of these, which apply to all aspects of learning, are summarised below. They can be taken into account as the learning progressions are used and adapted to meet the varying needs of adults who are learning English.

The linguistic threshold hypothesis suggests that learners require a certain amount of ability in the new language in order to use their existing (first language) reading or listening skills to aid learning. For example, learners may be able to predict the next words when reading in their first language, but they may not have enough knowledge of English to use this skill when reading in English.

The linguistic interdependence hypothesis suggests that the reading and listening skills that learners have in their first language will be available to them as they learn a new language. Research shows that learners who are literate in their first language can transfer the knowledge and strategies they have to literacy in a second language.

An important factor that will influence how easily ESOL learners can transfer their existing literacy knowledge is that of language distance.11 This term refers to the degree to which languages are similar. Similarities or differences may be found in many aspects of written and spoken languages, such as the alphabet used, the word order, the use of tonal distinctions, word derivations and the conventions of print.

Finding similarities to one’s first language is part of the task of acquiring a new language. For example, Samoan is not as distant from English as Japanese would be, but it is more distant from English than Spanish in terms of a number of grammatical and discourse-related language variables. There are strong dependencies and connections between the learning progressions and these have implications for ESOL learners.

The learning progressions have not been developed specifically for ESOL learners. However, tutors can take the needs of these learners into account by carefully examining the challenges of the texts and tasks that the learners (as individuals or groups) need or choose to engage with. The knowledge, skills and strategies used by competent adults are the same for first-language English speakers and ESOL learners.

ESOL learners are likely to have an uneven spread of needs in different strands. For example, an adult who can communicate effectively when speaking and listening may still need to spend considerable time learning about the spelling and grammatical aspects of written English. Similarly, a learner who has excellent mathematical skills may still need support in tasks that require reading in English.

Why the learning progressions are not ESOL progressions

While the steps in these progressions describe knowledge and skills relevant to all learners, they do not account for all of the related learning and development of specific groups of learners. They do not, for example, specify all the elements we might consider to reflect development in ESOL learning. Some of these elements might be:

  • a detailed analysis of developmental sequences
  • typical processes that ESOL learners demonstrate, for example, over-generalisation
  • metalinguistic development
  • the development of language learning strategies
  • communication strategies.

The progressions describe steps in the development of listening, speaking, reading and writing for adult learners. This means they can include but are not restricted to use with native speakers of English. The beginning steps, therefore, potentially apply to all learners, including:

  • learners who speak English as their first language, and
  • learners who speak English as a second or additional language (referred to as ESOL learners).

They do not reflect steps in pre-literacy development for either group.

The low steps of the listening and speaking progressions do, however, reflect the development of ESOL learners’ oral skills. As such, the steps may appear to be quite low but they are well aligned with the lower steps in the reading and writing progressions for these learners. This is because we can assume that many ESOL learners will have developed at least some reading and writing expertise in their first language.

See also Appendix A: Second language learning of reading and writing for further information.

9 Ministry of Education, 2006, pages 128–129.

10 Vandergrift, 2006; Franken and McComish, 2003.

11 Elder and Davies, 1998.



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