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Connecting Language Brokering to Academic Literacies

Next, we present a unit plan that is designed to leverage everyday language brokering skills toward the development of academic literacy, specifically the writing of persuasive essays (California Language Arts Standards for 9th/10th grades: Writing Applications 2.4; Speaking Applications 2.5). The goal of the unit is for students to write a persuasive essay on the same topic to two different audiences, and to identify how they change their essays to make their arguments appropriate and convincing for each audience.

We begin with lessons that help students see how they adapt their language for different audiences in language brokering situations. The point here is that translation/interpretation is never exactly “verbatim” (especially in language brokering situations, where the focus is on helping people to understand, not approximate literal translations). The goal is to help students see both how and why they modify their language for different speakers.

Following this, we extend from “translation” across languages to changes in register within language, and then help students to apply this to the development of persuasive essays. 

These lessons are designed to work in classrooms with a mix of students (those with language brokering experiences and those who do not have such experiences). They could be modified for younger students, but are probably most appropriate for students in grades 6-12.

Introduction to the Unit

  • OBJECTIVE: Students will be able to see how they adapt the ways they talk when they interact with different kinds of people in language brokering situations.
  • Begin by explaining the eventual goal of the unit: to write persuasive essays that are effective for different audiences. Encourage students to begin thinking about issues they are concerned about and arguments that they would like to make for someone to voice their ideas about those issues. Emphasize that we will be building on the linguistic virtuosity (language skills) that they display everyday in language brokering situations; they are already very skillful in making effective arguments for different audiences, and this unit will build on their translation/interpretation skills.
  • Show examples of youth reflecting on how they shift their language as they speak to different people in language brokering situations  (Samy's journal entry)
  • Working with the chart of language brokering experiences, call attention to the “who” column. Ask students to think and talk about how they change the way they talk when they interact with different people.
  • Using the list of the class’ language brokering experiences, ask for volunteers to act out situations. These can be recorded (either with audio or video recordings) for students to be able to slow down the process and see the same event several times. Have the class listen and identify how the message was modified for each audience.  i.e. Did the translator/interpreter say exactly the same thing in each language? If not, what changed? Why might s/he have done this? Have the translator/interpreter explain why s/he thinks she changed the message. NOTE: These re-enactments of actual language brokering situations are inauthentic, and thus students probably won’t speak or feel as they did in the actual encounters. Talk with students about those differences. How did it feel when you were speaking to the actual bank manager/principal/doctor/etc.?
  • Have students work in small groups to act out additional language brokering situations. Each situation will involve a language broker and two or more “audiences” (the people for whom translation is needed). Other students can listen in as an extended audience, and help to identify how the message changes.

Lesson I

  • OBJECTIVE: Students will be able to see how written translations are also shaped by assumptions about audiences (ELA-Listening & Speaking 1.1) (i.e. to connect from the oral language brokering situations of Lesson I to writing)
  • Show the class this highway sign (English only version -- download the large files by clicking on the thumbnails). nullnullAsk students if they have ever seen this sign. (Invite personal experiences.) Unpack the message. What is it saying? Who is it directed to? Where might it be located? (on the highway near the U.S./Mexico border) Why does it say “Caution”? How are some different ways this sign could be understood or read by different people?
  • Ask students: How would you translate this into Spanish? (Elicit translations; refer to Spanish-English dictionary to substantiate translations).
  • Uncover the “translation” (“prohibido”). Ask the class: Does this mean the same thing as “caution”? Who is this message intended for? Why does the sign say “Caution” in English and “Prohibido” in Spanish? NOTE: This lesson could lead to some important discussions about relations between immigrants and the English-speaking public. In our own work we used to elicit students’ ideas about immigration reform, which they then developed further in their persuasive essays. (See Pacheco, 2009.) For the purposes of this introductory lesson, the focus is on the fact that translations/interpretations invariably are never verbatim and are shaped by many contextual influences, especially assumptions that the speaker/writer makes about who their audience is. 
  • Another activity could involve having students look at video clips in which the same message is constructed differently for different audiences. Advertisers do this all the time when they want to sell the same product to a different target audience. Here is one example of a lesson for this. Look for lesson 3D, “Ads R Us: Understanding Target Marketing” (available in English and Spanish).

Lesson II   

  • OBJECTIVE: Students will be able to see how they change the ways they talk and/or write when they interact with different kinds of people in other everyday situations (not just language brokering).
  • Have students brainstorm their activities over the last 24 hours. What did they do? Who did they do it with? What kind of talking/writing was involved? 
  • Students may draw “maps” of their activities: sketching what they did, who they did it with, and how they used language in each activity (See this example of a student map). 
  • Ask students to think about how they shift the way they talk with different people and in different situations. Help them to identify specific ways they do so, and why. NOTE: Students may readily identify vocabulary shifts. Help them to consider why they use different words with different people, and what those differences imply. Does it mean the same thing to say “dilapidated” and “messed up?” When would you use one kind of word? When would you use the other? But it is also important to help students identify ways they shift language that go beyond vocaulary, such as grammar and tone.
  • Help students to identify ways they shift language that go beyond vocabulary.They might say they speak “more proper,” “more correct” or “more formal.” Help them to identify just what they mean by these notions of correctness/formality:
  1. Do they speak in longer/shorter sentences?
  2. What information do they make explicit for each audience, and what information do they assume their audience already knows?
  3. Do they change their positioning? (i.e. what pronouns do they use – “we,” “they,” “you,” or “them”?)   
  4. Does their body language change? Where do they more freely, use more gestures, or feel more relaxed? How does this body language map onto the language they use, and how they feel in each situation?
  5. Does their tone of voice change? Do they use different inflexions and different volume levels as they speak with different people or in different situations?
  6. Why did we change voice/inflexions, volume levels in these different situations

Lesson III

  • OBJECTIVE: Students will be able to understand the California State Standards for writing persuasive essays, and be able to “translate” the standards into “everyday” language. A secondary goal is for students to be able to recognize different genres of writing by working with both explanations and argumentation.
  • Show students the California State Standards for persuasive writing that are relevant for their grade level. Explain that these standards are written for teachers, and are designed to guide instruction. (Discuss the shaping effect of standards on instruction.) Ask students to work with a partner to “translate” this standard for a friend or a younger brother or sister – i.e. a familiar audience who doesn’t understand the standards. This “translation” is really an explanation. Think about how you are going to reword this standard to make sense for this person.
  • After explaining the standard to this person, have students construct an argument for why this is (or is not) an important standard. How would they argue that to their friend/brother/sister/parents? Have volunteers deliver their “translations” and arguments orally to the class.  
  • DISCUSS: Do you think your friend/sibling would understand the explanation you provided? Do you think s/he would be convinced by the argument? How could you make the explanation clearer for this person? How could you make the argument more convincing?

Lesson IV

  • OBJECTIVE: Students will be able to identify an issue and take a stance in a written argument.
  • Remind students of what we have done so far (summarize).
  • Tell students that we are now going to focus more on how to write effective arguments. Write “argument” on the board and invite discussion of what it means. Accept all ideas and discuss the differences between argument as a fight and argument as taking a stance. Clarify that we are focusing on “taking a stance” and emphasize that this is an important skill for speaking up about things that are unfair in the world. Give a few examples or ask for examples when this has helped people. Emphasize that there are a few things that are very important in building arguments: having something to say, being able to back up your ideas, and knowing who you are trying to convince.
  • Brainstorm with students things that they feel are wrong or unfair, that they want to change, or that they feel really strongly about. Students may work with partners or in small groups to generate a list of issues. Share back with the whole group.
  • Students choose one of these issues to develop over the next few days. Begin by thinking about the people or groups they want to direct their argument to. Emphasize that these should be real audiences – people to whom we can send the letters that we will write. Students should choose two different audiences to direct their argument.
  • Model presenting the arguments to specific audiences.
  • Choose an issue, and audience, and model speaking to that audience.  
  • Model arguing the same issue for a different audience. 
  • Students may work with partners to practice arguing their positions (orally) to two different audiences.

Lesson V

  • OBJECTIVE: Students will be able to continue building persuasive writing skills by focusing on what constitutes good evidence for claims.
  • Introduce the idea that it’s not just how we use our voices but what we say that matters as we speak to different audiences. Introduce the concept of “evidence” and ways of backing up one’s claims.
  • Have students brainstorm at least three reasons that each audience should take their position on this argument. Are these reasons the same for each audience? Would each audience find the evidence equally convincing? Share these with a partner and discuss how to make the arguments even more convincing. What might this person say in response if s/he did not agree? How could these counter-arguments be taken into account?
  • Have students review and discuss two arguments (take arguments written by other classes or in other lessons or included in these lessons). Have students discuss why these arguments are more or less effective. Have students rate these arguments by responding to the questions above.  What could they have added or removed to make these arguments more or less convincing for the audience.

Lesson VI

  • OBJECTIVE: Students will be able to write persuasive essays and “translate” them for different audiences.
  • The next step in this unit of study involves having students write their persuasive essays for two different audiences. (See Martínez et al for examples).
  • Students will benefit from having time to workshop their writing with peers, where they can focus specifically on how to make their arguments more effective for each audience. Help students to identify where and how they shifted their language across the essays and where and how they did not. How could they stretch further and make each essay even more appropriate for each audience? Use the guiding questions in Lesson X (above) to focus students’ attention on the many different kinds of shifts that can be involved, at the level of lexicon (vocabulary), syntax (grammar), content (i.e. evidence for claims), positioning (i.e. level of familiarity that they assume with each audience, and how this is signaled through pronoun use), and form (i.e. what mode of presentation is most convincing for each audience?)
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