Promoting academic language skills in non-native and native students

Cognition and Student Learning
Application Submitted December 2004

The broad, long-term objectives of this proposal are to apply cognitive theory in the promotion of academic language skills in English as an Instructional Language (EIL), English only (EO), and English-language learner (ELL) students at university and in school. Cognitive scientific, psychological, corpus linguistic, educational, and second-language acquisition theories will inform the development, evaluation and refinement of materials, instructional technology resources, and practices.

Academic study puts large demands upon students because cognitive academic language proficiency is quite different from the language required for basic interpersonal communicative skills. This gap is well-established as a cause of difficulties for bilingual ELL students in school, for international students using EIL at university, and even for native language speakers as they undergo the transition to post-secondary education, enter a new discipline, and have to learn the new languages of the academy.

Analysis of target texts and registers using the new technology of corpus linguistics informs what these learners need to know. The language of general academic studies requires a specialist vocabulary of 570 word families to increase coverage from 78% provided by the 2000 most frequent words of the language to a level of 87% sufficient for understanding general academic argument. Academic language makes frequent use of particular lexical bundles, formulas, and idioms too: There’s more to it than this, but the thing is that talking the talk is a strong basis for walking the walk in the halls of academe.

This project will help students learn English for academic purposes. Corpus analyses will be used to determine what is relevant for students at different levels of different disciplines. Cognitive analyses inform us of the different aspects of knowing a word in terms of the probability distribution of what it means, how it is used in different contexts, and how knowledge of lexical bundles, collocation patterns, and formulaic language is crucial. Testing theory will inform the proper assessment of students’ language knowledge across these dimensions. Courses grounded in the theoretical understanding of second language acquisition processes and which make use of the latest instructional technology will be developed to provide students with materials and resources that afford active learning of relevant and therefore motivating materials. The flexible shell of these resources will allow case-by-case tuning to the particular language content pertinent to each student. Different components of instruction will be evaluated by randomized control trials and quasi-experimental evaluation designs for their effectiveness, using classroom-based and individual laboratory testing. Outcome measures will include standardized educational tests of reading and vocabulary, vocabulary tests of our own development, computerized psycholinguistic measures of knowledge of lexical and grammatical constructions and their processing, eye-movement indices of processing, and feedback from students, instructors, and users. This evaluation strategy tries to combine empirical rigour, educational realism, and scientific sophistication in its range of complementary approaches The three-year project will involve the development of these resources, implementation, evaluation, testing and refinement for EIL, ELL and EO students studying at university, community college, and school levels. It will be based in the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Henry Ford Community College, Dearborn, and local public schools in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw county, Michigan.