Why Dolores’ Essay Isn’t Academic English...

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 19, 2008 1 min read
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Yvonne S. Freeman and David E. Freeman, who are popular speakers about English-language learners at education conferences, have published a book to help educators recognize “academic language,” the language of school, and help ELLs to acquire it. The husband-and-wife writing and speaking team are bilingual education professors at the University of Texas-Brownsville.

Their new book, “Academic Language for English Language Learners and Struggling Readers,” is written in a way that I find engaging. For example, they publish an essay,"Problems with Minorities,” by an English-learner named Dolores and explain why her essay doesn’t show a mastery of academic English. Dolores is a 17-year-old senior who moved to the United States when she was 14.

Here’s an excerpt of Dolores’ essay:

There is a big problem with minorities. In this essay I will discuss and explain why students Latinos, Hmong and African Americans cann't attend universities. Second I will write what I think needs to be done so that more Hmong, Latinos and Africans can attend and graduate from universities and college. First reason that minorities cann't attend universities and college, is because some of them are illegal aliens. sometimes this is because they don't have the much money to pay, universities. The second reason that Latinos, Hmong, and Africans cann't attend universities is because their is to many descrimination. People are raices, sometimes teachers. They low grades.

The Freemans note that Dolores shows she “was trying to follow the organizational plan her teachers had taught her in class.” For example, she states her topic in the introduction and lists what she will do in the paper.” But they also point out some problems with the essay: “Dolores makes claims without supporting them. She provides no evidence in the form of data or specific examples to back up what she says. In addition, there are serious problems with her vocabulary, grammar, and mechanics.”

With this example, I realize the problem for educators: It’s not so easy to help students such as Dolores rise to a higher level of academic English.

But the Freemans spell out a lot of strategies for helping students who don’t yet know academic English. One way to help Dolores, they say, would be to teach her to develop paragraphs that state a topic and then develop it. Another would be to help her learn how to write a cohesive paragraph. This may include teaching her how to used conjunctions and prepositional phrases, such as “however” and “as a result.”

The authors include tons of additional ideas for helping students such as Dolores. (OK, for those of you who are sticklers, I’m well aware that “tons of” is not exactly “academic English”).

Heinemann, the publisher of the book, provides a sample chapter online, which contains Dolores’ complete essay.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.