New Concepts, New Vocabulary

As a child learns her first language, she also undergoes an enormous amount of cognitive development. The two are intricately interdependent processes. Concepts such as color, time, duty, and so on become internalized through the words and phrases used to express them. Non-English speaking children come to school in the U.S. already thinking and communicating in their native language. Their first language has served in much cognitive development and, if validated, will continue to be a tremendous asset. This parallel development --cognitive/linguistic -- continues through the elementary grades. In the early grades, the level of concept complexity is relatively low. The complexity of both concept and the language used to talk about it increase as subject matter becomes more abstract or "context reduced". ESL students who have had schooling in their native language are equipped with well formed concepts to which English language terms can be applied. This is one reason why older children tend to have an easier time learning the second language of school than do younger children -- they are at a developmental advantage. Children who have had little or no schooling, or who must develop conceptual knowledge in the second language while bypassing development in their first have the disadvantage of internalizing concepts in a language that is itself only in the process of developing (Collier, 1989). The difference between context-rich (mathmatics, language arts) and context-reduced (social studies, science) content areas accounts for ESL students' facility with the former and greater difficulty with the latter. Like with native-speaking pupils, the status of an ESL child's knowledge state/state of development must be continually assessed. New topics, themes and readings can be previewed and analyzed with the non-native speaker's status and current needs in mind. Content that is conceptually challenging and to which the student may have limited access due to limited language should receive extra attention. New words can be highlighted, discussed and defined. Native speaker assistance and/or special help from the child's ESL or Chapter I teacher can be sought. A sibling, parent or classmate can be enlisted to work with the child on new materials and the language that accompanies it. Special support must be provided so that children can meet these special developmental challenges at the same time they are learning English.