Research Paths into Language Learning

I have been continuing my research into my question of how English Language Learners best acquire Academic English and how they might be impacted, whether positively or negatively, by environmental influences. 

At first, I was searching on my college library’s database, and collecting numerous articles and book references. Most of my initial findings were about the behavioral aspects of peer groups or slightly related ideas. For instance, I found a research study that showed how pre-K students were already prone to conforming to their peers, especially if they were asked to perform or declare their opinion publicly. I also found many interesting articles were only tangentially related to my topic! For instance, one article looked at how to work with high school students who were low-proficiency newcomers, especially students who had had little or interrupted schooling experiences before coming to this country. Because I have worked with students in exactly this situation, it was hard to tear myself away from this article. Instead, I filed it away for future reference. 

I have been amassing a large number of articles for reading later, with little time to dig into them as much as I wished. I am learning to skim the articles and focus in on points that seem to be more pertinent to my topic, whether proving or disproving a behavioral or linguistic aspect. At the very least, I add them to my rough reference list. 

One interesting source has been the MEd. research thesis paper by Cheryl Poole at Meredith College, who looked at factors influencing Long-Term English Language Learners and their lack of progress. I find that every page has numerous useful points, but it is so long (and dense with information), that I have to put it aside every so often and allow the information to digest. 

Another source of sources is my on-going graduate readings. It takes me a little longer to get through some readings, because I frequently stop to take notes or track down a reference.

My readings have actually been an excellent jumping-off point for research, because I find many sources that have already proved useful to another researcher or writer. For instance, when reading Essential Linguistics by Freeman & Freeman (2004), I found some research by Brown & Cambourne (1987) about how using the “read and retell” method over a genre can lead to “features of the texts showing up on the students’ writings,” or what they call “spillover.” This glimpse of research inspires me to wonder if we could “seed” academic usage and vocabulary by using read and retell with academic texts with our ELLs. I am curious about the research they base their ideas on, but I can’t find their book at my institution’s library. 

I am also interested in descriptions of how focusing less on correctness of form and more on the meaning and context helps students acquire the desired language more effectively. I look forward to delving into those and similar findings by researchers/ theorists like Chomsky, Lenneberg, and Wells. 

I was also very interested in John Schumann’s research and theories of Second Language Acquisition, but the only publication I could access was The Neurobiology of Learning (perspectives of second language acquisition) as an ebook. That topic seems like it would help balance the classroom methods of Brown & Cambourne with some brain research, or exactly how the retelling part of the method engages the students’ acquisition of language patterns. I happen to believe that students do need both input and output to acquire language and content, but I’m happy to find some concrete research to support that idea. I have downloaded the ebook, so we shall see what I find. 

One way I help keep my thoughts and incoming ideas straight is to note my findings, quotes, ideas, and suppositions on index cards grouped by source. What can be frustrating is to attempt to take notes on sources that are not directly useful to my research. I am pleased that I have a few core sources that are allowing me to dig into the ideas. Right now, I maintain a list of possible sources, a list of call numbers to find at the library, a rough reference list, a few ebook downloads, and my growing stack of notecards.

Speaking of digging into ideas, I have several ideas that I am trying to tie together, among them: acquiring academic language, how ELLs acquire language from school and their surroundings such as community and peers, factors that influence effective acquisition, practices or circumstances that encourage or inhibit language learning, and more. I want to find out not only the behavioral circumstances, but the brain science that the environment supports or inhibits. A whole side topic is practices in the classroom or community that would support Academic English acquisition. Putting these ideas into practice is my ultimate goal, after all. 

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