Literacy--academic and non

My weekly NCTE email included two interesting articles this week. They both dealt with literacy (not surprising for the National Council of Teachers of English), specifically the idea of literacy from non-native speakers.

The first, in the Pueblo Chieftan, states quite boldly that:

Students learning the English language don't have to struggle through school if educators learn to teach "academic language," two experts told teachers Thursday.
I'm not sure if I agree with this. I do agree that teachers must deliberately teach academic language. It would be foolish to assume that even native English speakers would automatically understand scholastic language specific to a subject. What I am not so sure about is the idea that this "academic" language will somehow bridge the gap between understanding and confusion that besets so many second language learners in a classroom. There are so many other blocks (including, in middle and high school, a lack of background in the subject, not just in its vocabulary). Many teachers have noticed how much faster students pick up the "casual" conversation that happens among peers--I certainly think that a deliberate teaching of academic language would benefit all students, but ELL students, and the teachers that teach them, will never have their problems solved by one method or one lesson.

The second article, in the Contra Costa Times, discusses a reading program that is finding success in the Bay Area. Most of the credit is given to the ratio of tutors to students: 1 to 1. This article is much more of the "feel good story" type, but it is worth mentioning because of the realities it presents. Some students need 1:1 attention, all students need better than 40:1 attention. It may not be efficient to have teachers' loads at 90:1 instead of 200:1, but the difference in the teachers' work and the students' educations cannot be discounted.

Both of these articles presented "fixes" that are only part of a working, excellent education system. Neither answer "all" the problems. As always in education, schools and teachers must pick, choose, and do the best they can with what they have.