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Meeting the Needs of Second Language Learners

What are the three dimensions of language proficiency described by Cummins (2015)? Why are educators frequently confused in the assessment of English Language Learners due to these proficiencies?  Why is it important to be aware of the different language dimensions?

The three dimensions of language proficiency described by Cummins (1996) include conversational fluency, discrete language skills, and academic language proficiency. Conversational fluency is the ability to carry on a conversation in familiar face-to-face situations (Cummins, 1996). It involves high-frequency words and simple grammatical constructions. Communication is highly dependent on the physical and visual context, and on gesture and body language. Discrete language skills are comprised of specific phonological, literacy and grammatical knowledge that students acquire as a result of direct instruction and both formal and informal practice such as in reading (Cummins, 1996). This includes conventions about spelling, grammatical rules, etc. Academic language is the knowledge of the less frequent vocabulary of English as well as the ability to interpret and produce increasingly complex written and oral language (Cummins, 1996). Students are required to understand linguistically and conceptually demanding texts in the content areas of math, science, social studies, reading, etc. Academic language proficiency is achieved when students can perform higher-order thinking skills such as hypothesizing, evaluating, inferring, generalizing, predicting, or classifying.

There are two misconceptions about the nature of language proficiency that I think greatly influence educators when they assess English language learners with their language proficiencies. Both involve a confusion between the surface or conversational aspects of children’s language and deeper aspects of proficiency that are more closely related to conceptual and academic development. The first misconception entails drawing inferences about children’s ability to think logically on the basis of their familiarity with and command of standard English. The second misconception is in many respects the converse of the first. In this case, children’s adequate control over the surface features of English (i.e. their ability to converse fluently in English) is taken as an indication that all aspects of their “English proficiency” have been mastered to the same extent as native speakers of the language. In other words, conversational skills are interpreted as a valid index of overall proficiency in the language. Misconceptions about language on the part of educators have clearly contributed to student’s difficulties.

It is important to be aware of the different language dimensions as they are the basis or the main components of many decisions that affect learners. These decisions include educational policies, funding, assessments of students, supplementary programs, bilingual education, etc.

What is Cummins’ (2015) continuum of language development? What are the different quadrants and their cognitive demands and context embedded dimensions? 

The framework outlined in the figure above is designed to identify the extent to which students are able to cope successfully with the cognitive and linguistic demands made on them by the social and educational environment in which they are obliged to function (Cummins, 2015). These demands are conceptualized within a framework made up of the intersection of two continua, one relating to the range of contextual support available for expressing or receiving meaning and the other relating to the amount of information that must be processed simultaneously or in close succession by the student in order to carry out the activity (Cummins, 2015).

The extremes of the context-embedded/context-reduced continuum are distinguished by the fact that in context-embedded communication the participants can actively negotiate meaning, and the language is supported by a wide range of meaningful interpersonal and situational cues. Context-reduced communication, on the other hand, relies primarily on linguistic cues to meaning, and thus the successful interpretation of the message depends heavily on knowledge of the language itself. In general, context-embedded communication is more typical of the everyday world outside the classroom, whereas many of the linguistic demands of the classroom reflect communicative activities that are close to the context-reduced end of the continuum.

The upper parts of the vertical continuum consist of communicative tasks and activities in which the linguistic tools have become largely automatized and thus require little active cognitive involvement for appropriate performance. At the lower end of the continuum are tasks and activities in which the linguistic tools have not become automatized and thus require active cognitive involvement. Persuading another individual that your point of view is correct, and writing an essay, are examples of quadrant B and D skills respectively. Casual conversation is a typical quadrant A activity while examples of quadrant C are copying notes from the board or filling in worksheets.

Examples of activities in each quadrant that can help maximize students’ learning: Quadrant A – total physical response, demonstrations, illustrations, following directions, art, music, physical education, face-to-face conversation, simple games, and songs; Quadrant B – mathematics computations and/or with manipulatives, science experiments, social studies projects, map activities, role-playing, and drama; Quadrant C – telephone conversation, notes, written directions (without diagrams or examples), copying notes from the board/computer, texting, and spelling words; Quadrant D – subject content explanation (without diagrams or examples), math word problems (without illustrations), explanations of new abstract concepts, standardized tests, and other assessments (without illustrations or visual support).

Cummins, J. (1996) Negotiating identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society.

Cummins, J. (2015) Cummins, J. (2015) Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework.

Wenning, C. (2016). Working with english language learners in illinois: Science instruction. Retrieved from:

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