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«Available online at Linguistics and Education 21 (2010) 257–281 Positioning proficiency: How students and teachers ...»

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Similar to the excerpt above, we can see the intersection of the personal, interpersonal and institutional levels play out in the discursive practices illustrated in this excerpt. Estela’s interpersonal interaction with Brenda created a context where it made sense to position herself as a Spanish-only speaker, showing how personal and interpersonal levels are recursive. The researcher intervened as a teacher at the meso-level, or level of the institution, to re-position Estela, yet this repositioning was complicated: Brenda’s use of English with the researcher reflected macro-factors of language-majority privilege and meso-factors of the school language of instruction.

During this activity and several other class activities, Estela went along with her classmates’ assumptions that she did not speak English. Estela successfully fulfilled others’ expectations and her own declaration as a Spanish-only speaker.

Because Estela was separated from the rest of the class during her ESL pull-out group, when she was speaking the most English, she rarely had the opportunity to demonstrate her developing English proficiency to members of a larger English community of practice at school. Consequently, her classmates and mainstream, English teacher maintained accommodations and discursive practices that co-constructed Estela’s language identity as a Spanish speaker with limited English proficiency.

13 Transcription conventions: The original utterance is written in the left column in the language it was spoken. When the original utterance was in Spanish I have provided an English gloss in the right column. Text in italics and brackets describes actions and gestures. Text in single quotes denotes written language.

270 M. Martin-Beltrán / Linguistics and Education 21 (2010) 257–281

5.5. The power of teachers’ discursive practices The following transcript is from ‘announcement time’ in English class when the students had asked the English teacher, Ms. Golden, to announce their grades on a social studies test. Throughout the year, students showed great interest in these announcements that compared students’ academic performance in a public forum, which often overlapped with declarations of linguistic competence. As Ms. Golden began to announce the highest grades on the test, students called out names to predict the high scorers in class. No one expected Iliana, a newcomer from Mexico, to be recognized in English class.

Transcript 3

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In Transcript 3, the construction of proficiency is played out at the interpersonal and institutional levels among several classroom players who work together using language accommodation and public declaration of ability to reify possibilities for participation in the dominant discourse community. With their choral responses, students showed that they shared well-established expectations for who was most likely to get the highest grade in the class (lines 2–5). In line 4, Ms. Golden acknowledged that she, too, expected the ranking of top students to include her English-dominant students, whose names were called out by several students. In line 8, Ms. Golden code-switched to use Spanish signaling that she wanted to ensure that Spanish speakers would understand. This utterance included Spanish speakers in the conversation, yet simultaneously positioned the students as non-members of the English speaking community.

Instead of describing Iliana as a student who was learning English, the teacher’s discourse drew attention to Iliana’s perceived deficit in English (una persona que no entiende, a person who does not understand). Discursive practices, such as accommodations through translation, promulgated assumptions that the students, for whom language must be translated, were non-participants in the English speech community. School policies that pulled-out newcomers from their English classes, separating them from the rest of the class to work with another teacher in a different room, reified their non-participation. However, within the small pull-out groups, perceived proficiencies shifted. New affordances were offered for language learning. The ESL pull-out teacher, Ms. Hawkins, assumed that each student would be able to participate in the small English community of practice they had established. Although she accepted Spanish from the students to show understanding, Ms. Hawkins contested the perception that these students did not understand English.

Like the other teachers and students, Ms. Hawkins also engaged in public declarations of language proficiencies, which is apparent in the excerpt below.

5.5.1. “She understands!” The following interaction occurred after Ms. Hawkins and her students made pancakes as part of a special hands-on reading response activity. It is interesting to notice how students take on different positions of translator/accommodator in relation to other participants. For example, in the following excerpt, Estela translated for Iliana; as seen in her interaction with Brenda (Transcript 2), this demonstrated Estella’s understanding of the teacher’s utterance in English, as well as repeating accommodation practices she had previously experienced in English class.

M. Martin-Beltrán / Linguistics and Education 21 (2010) 257–281 271

–  –  –

In this excerpt, Ms. Hawkins created a situation where Iliana was perceived as an English participant when she declared, “she understands!” This simple act of acknowledging students’ emerging proficiencies had the power to shift language practices and created new affordances for learners. This created an important space where students had the opportunity to take ownership of the language they were learning.





In line 4, Ms. Hawkins declared Iliana’s English skills as sufficient, and in line 6 the teacher transformed Iliana’s gesture into an English sentence asking for further response. As a result, Iliana appropriated Ms. Hawkins’s English words to respond in her own English phrase (line 10). This was an example of collaborative dialogue (Swain, 2000) where language learning affordances were seized in the moment and opportunities were opened for the future by repositioning Iliana as a participant in the English speaking community. However, positioning practices at different levels may also be contradictory. While at an institutional level Iliana was positioned as a non-participant in the mainstream English class occurring while she was pulled out of the room, she was re-positioned at the institutional meso-level by Ms. Hawkins, whose position of authority shaped positioning practices at the interpersonal level among the students.

She intervened and redirected language accommodation practices or avoidance strategies in interpersonal interactions, and allowed students a space to position themselves as legitimate English users.

5.6. Shifting and breaking down perceived proficiencies

After practicing English in her small pull-out group, Iliana returned to class more confident about her English proficiency. In Transcript 5 below, Iliana demonstrated her desire to use her newly acquired English with her “English buddy” who was a fluent bilingual.

Transcript 5

–  –  –

Iliana’s interaction with another student offers evidence that she was willing to create new affordances using new English words she had recently used with Ms. Hawkins. For example, she used the phrase, “for my sister” (repeated from the ESL pull-out context) with her ‘English buddy’ who was usually positioned as the informant/translator. Iliana 14 Double quotes are used to indicate English code-switching in a phrase that began in Spanish.

272 M. Martin-Beltrán / Linguistics and Education 21 (2010) 257–281 assumed a different position of power upon her return to class as she brought with her a new perception of her English proficiency, not to mention a sweet-smelling, coveted pancake.

In the latter part of the school year Iliana worked to redefine others’ perceptions of her proficiency as she began using English more conspicuously and confidently. During English class, Ms. Golden often initiated one-on-one interactions with her newcomer students in Spanish. I had never observed her calling upon Iliana to produce English in front of the whole group. However, in the face of those constraints, Iliana began to reshape her perceived proficiency in the company of Ms. Golden. In late April, Ms. Golden rushed over to me, the researcher, in excitement with Iliana and asked her to show off an English phrase she had spoken to Ms. Golden on her own. Ms. Golden told me proudly that Iliana’s spontaneous use of English had “brought tears to [her] eyes”. After that moment of official recognition or awareness of Iliana’s developing English proficiency I observed Ms. Golden’s discursive practices about newcomers’ proficiencies shifting.

Although Iliana and other newcomers were improving their English proficiency throughout the year, this improvement often went unnoticed in a context where they were perceived as non-English speakers. It is evident that perceived proficiency could shift quickly across different situations when participants, and their positioning relative to each other, changed. However, the construction of a learner’s perceived proficiency was slower to change if the positioning of participants and nature of activities remained constant. For example, as I examined patterns across students’ event maps, I found that within large-group discussions, participation patterns established early in the year remained constant. These established patterns limited the number of students who were able to gain access to the floor during public class discussions and offered few opportunities for others to be recognized as legitimate participants in this speech community. Because newcomers’ positions as non-participants in English were taken for granted, participation was treated as a great surprise rather than an expectation as evident in Ms. Golden’s teary-eyed reaction.

6. Discussion

The examples of classroom discourse presented in this paper were intended to shed light on discursive practices and acts of positioning in which learners co-construct perceptions of proficiencies and consequent language learning affordances or constraints. This analysis illustrated the ways in which speakers and those around them work together to activate perceived proficiencies. None of these students could be considered a proficient speaker on her own; rather, her proficiency was enacted, ascribed and discussed in the company of others. These examples illustrate the dialogic nature (Bakhtin, 1981; Wong, 2005) of perceived proficiency, which is constructed in response to others’ utterances and in anticipation of future responses (McDermott, 1996). The excerpts illustrated the ways that students replicate and refute discursive practices that label students as (non)participants of target language communities. For example, both Brenda and Estela replicated accommodation practices that they themselves had experienced, which ironically contradicted others’ perceptions of their limited proficiencies.

This study suggests that future research in SLA needs to attend to perceived proficiency as a construct to make visible the ways that language proficiencies are constructed and shifted throughout interactions with others. The examples of discourse presented here demonstrate the positionality and the fluidity of proficiency within shifting school contexts.

For example, in one situation Brenda and Estela were positioned as non-participants in their L2; yet, in another situation, they positioned themselves as L2 language informants and translators.

Data from transcripts highlighted the power that teachers’ subtle, everyday discursive practices have to shape students’ opportunities to participate in target language communities. Although the English classroom teacher intended to include newcomer students in large-group classroom discussions, the consistent use of the non-target language with these students and public declarations of limited language abilities created a context where newcomers’ use of English was unauthorized. Alternatively, in their small group context, proficiencies were re-perceived and their use of English was authorized when the ESL pull-out teacher publicly declared the understanding of all group participants. These perceptions of proficiency shaped the quality and quantity of linguistic input or affordances (van Lier, 2000) available for language learners in this school setting.15 15 This study does not intend to draw grand conclusions about dual-immersion programs, since I argue these practices could happen in any school.

Despite the challenges highlighted here, this school provided invaluable opportunities for bilingual language learning far beyond experiences afforded to students in mainstream, monolingual schools.

M. Martin-Beltrán / Linguistics and Education 21 (2010) 257–281 273 Part of the active construction of conditions for learning can include a resistance to participate, a reactive resistance, or a passive process of acceptance of marginalization by target community members (Block, 2003). Brenda engaged in reactive resistance, not participating as the result of others marginalizing her or naming her flawed Spanish competency.

Estela appeared to quietly accept her marginalization and to take on the identity of a ‘non-participant in the English community’, at least in public displays at school outside her ESL group. Brenda’s non-participation and her perceived proficiency had different consequences than either Iliana’s or Estela’s: Brenda could frame her potential failure in Spanish class as an attractive option, an opportunity to go to another school. The English-dominant students recognized that they could easily move to another school because their dominant language was also the societal language common in other schools. There was a tension between the cultural capital gained in Spanish, which allowed greater access to local communities, and the cultural capital gained in English that promised greater political and economic independence.

These everyday language practices and choices to participate reflect the way that societal power structures, such as the dominance of English, shape the way the students and teachers make choices about how they use language and position themselves as members of discourse communities.

7. Conclusions and implications



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