Second Language Acquisition

Which non English speaking immigrant child would be better off academically and in learning English, the student entering our school system in kindergarten, or one entering in fourth grade? The obvious common sense answer is the kindergartner, as they can begin their schooling and start learning English sooner. Like many things that seem obvious and just common-sense, it happens not to be true.

In reality it is a lot more complicated, with lots of factors that would influence which student would actually be better off—but all things being equal, the fourth grader is likely to be in a better position. Why, how could this be?

Ban bilingual educationThe main theory that explains this counter-intuitive reality is a concept called the Common Underlying Language Proficiency (CULP). This theory, developed by Jim Cummins, explains that languages are really not separate entities, but that when we learn language, we learn… language. That most of what we learn as we learn our first language is actually a base for any language we may end up speaking. And any concepts we learn in our first language we do not have to relearn in a second language, only the words that go with those concepts. In other words, the differences in languages are mostly superficial, but the underlying structures are mostly held in common.

In practice what this means is that those who have a solid base in their first language have an advantage in learning a second language. Five-year-olds do not yet have a solid base in their first language; nine- or ten-year-olds, much more so. And we are still developing our use of complex grammatical structures well into adolescence. Therefore, actually, the older you are the quicker you are likely to pick up a second language—again all other factors being equal. This means that, as Stephen Krashen has put it, the older students has had de facto bilingual education.

One thing that makes this appear not to be so is that five-year-olds only want and need to express 5-year-old ideas, which are fairly simple to express. Ten- or 20-year-olds want to express more complex ideas, and so, while they can express 5-year-old type ideas as quickly or more quickly than a 5-year-old, that does not seem adequate and makes them appear less fluent.

A second factor that can make it seem as if children learn language easier is that older second language learners are less likely to be in immersion situations. Children are more likely to be thrust into situations where there is a need to learn the new language—such as English-only schooling. Such children show early and quick language development at the basic conversational level. However they often plateau after that. Since their oral language appears fluent, when their school success starts falling it is seen as a problem of their intellect rather than language.

What the older child or adult has though, is a command of language and more sophisticated thinking. Language is our tool for that sophisticated thinking. The more developed our language is the better our tool for thought. This is one of the reasons that, in fact, schooling in a second language in the early grades is particularly difficult. Children are just trying to develop abstract thought. As Piaget showed, it is around the ages of 7 and 8 that children move into that stage of more abstract thinking. Along with that thinking is the language needed for those more complex ideas. We clearly can think, express ourselves, most easily in our first language. But much of schooling requires children to engage in decontextualized conceptual activities. This is hard enough in a first language, and even more so in one’s weaker language. This is particularly seen starting in third and fourth grade, which may explain why in many school serving immigrant students, there is a sudden test score drop at those grade levels. Up until then the tests tend to ask more concrete questions which they have the language to handle. When it gets to the more inferential and abstract questions that are asked of third and fourth graders, their language may not have developed to that extent.

All of these factors help explain the advantages of bilingual education. Bilingual education lets a student continue to use and build their primary language while developing the second language. The theory of English-only and immersion is that any time spent in the native language is time taken away from developing English. However the fact is that the two support each other, rather than compete with each other. The best and most successful bilingual programs have students still studying in their primary language into adolescence (as they simultaneously built the second language). Immersion works with adults who have already a firm foundation in their native tongue.  (And even then we rarely expect them to be studying new academic content in that language as they learn it).

Another reason bilingual education is effective is the socio-cultural one, and in fact may be at least as, if not more, important (for an excellent full discussion of why and how this works read Jim Cummin’s Negotiating Identities). Many immigrant students are part of stigmatized groups—such as Mexican immigrants in this country, where the media portrays them as inferior. They get a clear and constant message from the dominant culture that their language and culture is less than desirable. This interferes seriously with feelings of self-worth which in turns interferes with learning. In some students it makes them not want to use their native language, which also interferes with their language development (not to mention with family communication!). Schools that have bilingual/multicultural curriculum can counteract this message. The most successful of these programs have students from the dominant culture learning side by side with immigrant students. This way, at least some of the time, the immigrant students are the “experts,” putting them on a more equal footing, a position rarely found in traditional schooling.

This is, of course, also leaving out the advantages of having a populous that is bilingual! Many people argue, “Well they can learn their native language at home.” Yet we do not expect English-speaking children to learn to read and write and develop sophisticated language at home! Many immigrant children actually lose their native language if schooled in English-only settings, and very few end up being literate in their native tongue. Being bilingual is advantageous in terms of intelligence, economics, as well as socially and culturally. Why would we not want to preserve that? (Oh, I know—that might give language minority students an advantage! Can’t have that. Am I being cynical?).

I have oversimplified many ideas here, and left out other factors as well, but I hope that in this short essay, I have clarified a few of the ideas behind language acquisition and bilingual education.

Is this just a nice theory? Well, if you read my previous post, the evidence backs it up.

Bilingual Education: The Research

For those who have any doubts on the efficacy of bilingual education, below is a summary of the evidence from over more than 20 years.  I will follow up with my summary of why it works in a future blog.

———

National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth (U.S.), August, D., & Shanahan, T. (2006). Executive summary: Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the national literacy panel on language minority children and youth. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. [meta-analysis]

“The research indicates that instructional programs work when they provide opportunities for students to develop proficiency in their first language. Studies that compare bilingual instruction with English-only instruction demonstrate that language-minority students instructed in their native language as well as in English perform better, on average, on measures of English reading proficiency than language-minority students instructed only in English. This is the case at both the elementary and secondary levels” (p.11).

—————–

Rolstad, K., Mahoney, K., & Glass, G. V. (2005). The big picture: A meta-analysis of program effectiveness research on English language learners. Educational Policy, 19(4), 572-594. [meta analysis]

“Empirical evidence considered here indicates that bilingual education is more beneficial for ELL [English language learner] students than all-English approaches such as ESL [English as a second language] and SI [Structured immersion]. Moreover, students in long-term DBE [Developmental bilingual education] programs performed better than students in short-term TBE [transitional bilingual education] programs.”  (p.19)

—————-

Kellie R., Mahoney K. & Glass, G. (2005)  Weighing the evidence: A metat-analysis of bilingual education in Arizona. Bilingual Research Journal. 29(1)

Abstract: This article reviews the current policy context in the state of Arizona for program options for English language learners and produces a meta-analysis of studies on the effectiveness of bilingual education that have been conducted in the state in or after 1985. The study presents an analysis of a sample of evaluation studies (N = 4), which demonstrates a positive effect for bilingual education on all measures, both in English and the native language of English language learners, when compared to English-only instructional alternatives. We conclude that current state policy is at odds with the best synthesis of the empirical evidence, and we recommend that current policy mandating English-only and forbidding bilingual education be abandoned in favor of program choices made at the level of the local community.

——————

Hofstetter, C. H. (2004). Effects of a transitional bilingual education program: Findings, issues, and next steps. Bilingual Research Journal, 28(3), 355-377. [primary research]

“After 4 years in their respective programs, students in ALA [Academic Language Acquisition, a form of transitional bilingual education] and SEI [Structured English Immersion] classes displayed only nominal differences, at best, in their performance on various achievement indicators. ALA and SEI students… were comparable on English-language SAT–9 tests in reading, mathematics, and language arts, as well as the reading and listening and speaking portions of the CELDT, an English-proficiency test. The only significant difference among groups occurred in writing, where students in… ALA … scored lower than their peers.” (p.16)

———–

Howard, E. R., Sugarman, J., & Christian, D. (2003). Trends in two-way immersion education: A review of the literature (Report No. 63): Center for Applied Linguistics. [research summary]

“On aggregate, the research summarized in this section indicates that both native Spanish speakers and native English speakers in TWI [two-way immersion] programs perform as well or better than their peers educated in other types of programs, both on English standardized achievement tests and Spanish standardized achievement tests.” (p.30)

————

Thomas, W., & Collier, V. (2002). Executive summary: A national study of school effectiveness for language minority students’ long-term academic achievement. Washington, DC: Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence. [primary research]

“Enrichment 90-10 and 50-50 one-way and two-way developmental bilingual education (DBE) programs (or dual language, bilingual immersion) are the only programs we have found to date that assist students to fully reach the 50th percentile in both L1 and L2 in all subjects and to maintain that level of high achievement, or reach even higher levels through the end of schooling. The fewest dropouts come from these programs.” (p.7)

—————-

Snow, C., Burns, S., & Griffin, P. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children [electronic version] . Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Retrieved  March 24, 2007 from http://bob.nap.edu/html/prdyc/index.html [Research summary]

“The accumulated wisdom of research in the field of bilingualism and literacy tends to converge on the conclusion that initial literacy instruction in a second language … carries with it a higher risk of reading problems and of lower ultimate literacy attainment than initial literacy instruction in a first language.”

—————–

Greene, J. (1997). A meta-analysis of the Rossell and Baker review of bilingual education research. Bilingual Research Journal, 21(2-3), 103-122.

“Despite the relatively small number of studies, the strength and consistency of these results, especially from the highest quality randomized experiments, increases confidence in the conclusion that bilingual programs are effective at increasing standardized test scores measured in English.”

——————

Thomas, W., & Collier, V. (1997). School effectiveness for language minority students. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education. [primary research]

The first predictor of long-term school success is cognitively complex on-grade-level academic instruction through students’ first language for as long as possible (at least through Grade 5 or 6) and cognitively complex on-grade-level academic instruction through the second language (English) for part of the school day, in each succeeding grade throughout students’ schooling…. The second predictor of long-term school success is the use of current approaches to teaching the academic curriculum through two languages.” (p.16)

————–

Ramirez, J. D. (1992). Executive summary: Longitudinal study of structured English immersion strategy, early-exit and late-exit transitional bilingual education programs for language-minority children. Bilingual Research Journal, 16, 1-62. [primary research]

“Providing substantial instruction in the child’s primary language does not impede the learning of English language or reading skills.” (p.44)

————–

Willig, A. C. (1985) A Meta-Analysis of Selected Studies on the Effectiveness of Bilingual Education. Review of Educational Research

“Meta analysis results were compared with a traditional review of bilingual education program effectiveness. When controlled for methodological inadequacies, participation in bilingual education programs consistently produced differences favoring bilingual education.”

The Undermining of Democracy

I just got one of those “Surveys” from the Democratic National Party, asking my opinion about the Republican Party and Obama’s record. It also asked me to prioritize my top issues. The issue it did not include is the undermining of and attack on democracy itself in our country.

These attacks come in many forms. While the Republican party and corporate America has led these attacks, the Democrats and Obama have been complicit in most of them as well.

The influence of money on elections and the ludicrous protection of Corporations as “people” are a couple of the most blatant. The attack on public institutions in general is another.

con_democracy

There are the attacks on the public aspects of public schooling—topics I have written much about— such as NCLB and Common Core undermining the democratic running of our schools. The charter school movement (charter schools select their own boards of governance) and vouchers, and the privatization of public schooling in a myriad of other ways is another way public schools are being undermined as public democratic institutions.

The U.S. Postal  Service is another public institution being undermined. The supposed fact of the post office losing money is a complete hoax. If the post office was allowed to use the accounting methods of its competitors it would be in the black, but they are required by Congress to use accounting methods that make it appear to be losing money. The purpose—to reduce the services of the post office, slowly eroding it—as well as to undermine the union—an issue I will discuss more in a bit.

Part of the attack on the public sector is that corporations and the Republicans truly want to replace democracy with a complete “free” market economy (free meaning those with the most money and power are free to do what they want, with no one to rein them in). To do this they are undermining the main organized force against them—unions. And the only really large unionized force left is in the public sector. By undermining this force in both public opinion and in law, they leave themselves with almost no large force to oppose them. Teachers are demonized. Public employees are blamed for being greedy and ruining the economy—such a blatant falsehood, yet when repeated often enough it gets believed. As anyone who remembers our latest, and virtually all, of our economic collapses, they came directly from corporate greed and the lack of corporate and banking oversight.

One way the unions are undermined is through privatization. By privatizing public schooling or many of their services\, the teachers union is demolished. (Very few charter school teachers are in unions—and even less in private schools.) Destroying the Post Office as another major source of unionized employees goes along with this.

Where they cannot destroy public employee unions outright, they take away their bargaining power, as was done in Wisconsin and Ohio.

Then there are the attacks on voter rights, making it more difficult for students and minorities and the poor to vote. The claim is a voter fraud that there is no evidence exists. We have one of the lowest voter turnouts of any democratic nation, and the strategy is to make it even harder to vote? (Where voter fraud is most likely is in vote by mail—which the voting suppression laws do not affect—and is a population that in general is more conservative).

This is not even to mention the attacks on our civil liberties—spying by the government, changing rules on search and seizure, and on advising us of our rights being just a few of them.

The struggle for democracy is ongoing and we can never rest on the victories of past generations. We either exercise what power we do have, or lose it.

Whatever it is you do, and wherever you are, you need to join organizations that are countering these trends and to let your representatives know how you feel!

Bloom’s Taxonomy

On the theme of popular ideas that I feel a need to critique….

Bloom’s taxonomy has been around for a long time as an aid to teachers, presented as a hierarchy of sophistication of thinking. I was first introduced to it when I started teaching in the 1980s. The college where I currently teach asks all of their instructors to keep it in mind when developing and teaching their courses.

I have two central problems with Bloom’s taxonomy, both of which I will discuss. Then I will mention how it can be used positively.

First of all, when I have used Bloom’s list, or the new revised list, to analyze a lesson and to think about which categories are being tapped into, I find it hard to pigeonhole activities or questions. My teacher education students and I often find that we can put the same questions into multiple categories depending on how we interpret them. In other words, real ideas and lessons do not seem to fit neatly into these categories, and getting agreement on categories is not intuitive, making them less useful. For instance the top of the six categories is: Creating, putting information together in innovative ways. But “Applying” (third level from bottom) on one chart I am reading is listed as using the knowledge gained (level 2) in new ways. What is the difference between applying knowledge in a new way and being creative or innovative?

TeachingFads

A bigger problem I have with Bloom’s taxonomy is that they are presented as a hierarchy, and Bloom meant them that way. In this hierarchy the first stage is knowledge or remembering. In other words, rote learning comes first. The next level, understanding, is that then we learn the meaning of what we memorized. Next we learn to apply the knowledge. After that we can analyze it—break it into parts. Then we can judge it. And finally we can use it creatively. For instance, I was told by someone instructing college professors that they would not get to the highest category with undergraduates, but should reserve that for graduate students!

If Bloom’s taxonomy were used just as a taxonomy—in other words a description of different types of thinking, I can see them as interesting and possibly useful. But generally they are used in the former way as developmental steps to be gone through, as Bloom designed them to be used.

My experience in elementary school bears this out. The “low achievers” and “remedial students” we are told first need to get the basics, and they are given tasks that focus on rote memorization, factual recall and following instructions. The “advanced” or “gifted” students are given assignments that allow them to be creative and analytical. They are asked to evaluate the characters in the story, to do the creative extension activities, and in math they get to do the extra “thinking” problems in the textbook.

This hierarchical idea of thinking ignores what Piaget demonstrated so long ago. Even babies are engaged in all levels of this taxonomy, and the different forms work together synergistically not separately. Learning by rote is the most inefficient way to learn. We are more likely to remember something when it has meaning attached to it. Then even more likely when we apply the knowledge, which is why hands-on and authentic activities are so often recommended. I would want most of the activities that students are engaged in at school to have them using all of these levels of thinking as they carry them out.

Any kindergarten teacher will tell you her kindergartners are creative. In fact there is some research that shows that we actually become less creative and innovative as we progress through school, less able to see the world in new and novel ways, not more so. I hope we do not wait until our students are in graduate school before we let and encourage them be innovative again, the way they naturally were as children.

It is possible to use Bloom’s taxonomy in a positive way. For instance, we create a teaching unit (level 6). We can analyze our unit to see it if includes all the levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (level 4). We apply the unit as we carry out our lessons (level 3), for which we must have understanding and knowledge of our content and pedagogy (levels 1 & 2). As we go along and at the end we evaluate the unit and how it went (level 5).

For a full look at this whole idea of teaching children to think, one should read Franks Smith’s book, To Think.

Differentiated Instruction

One of the buzzwords in education these days is differentiated instruction. In the field of teaching this means that we create different lessons for our different types of students.

Differentiated instruction is the way in which a teacher anticipates and responds to a variety of student needs in the classroom. To meet student needs, teachers differentiate by modifying the content (what is being taught), the process (how it is taught) and the product (how students demonstrate their learning).”  (from http://education-portal.com/academy/lesson/what-is-differentiated-instruction—examples-definition-activities.html)

The idea of differentiation is that some of our students are different—e.g. some are second language learners, some have learning disabilities, some are just behind, some are “gifted” etc. These students need either different lessons, or more commonly alterations and adaptations of the lesson that the “regular” students get.  This is seen as an advance from the one-size-fits-all structure of many lesson plans and textbook lessons. In fact most textbooks now come with suggestions for such adaptations. All of this sounds very good—we are taking seriously that not all students are the same and helping teachers to support such students.

TeachingDisability

But is this really such a good idea? I am going to critique this theory on a few levels. One, is it realistic? Elementary school teachers already have a massive job on their hands making lessons for each different subject area. Now they have to multiply that by how ever many different types of student they have. An adaptation for their second language learners. But can they assume all their second language learners need the same adaptation? One might be a new comer, another an intermediate speaker. Then there are the students with learning disabilities. But again—each one of these is likely to have a slightly different disability. And we move on to the “gifted” students. And what if some students fall into more than one category? When and how does a teacher find time to create all these adaptations and manage them?

There is also the factor that this approach singles out some students as “normal” and others as “different” needing differentiation. There is a lot of evidence that labels often become self-fulfilling prophesies for students. It also sends a message about normalcy to both groups. How will this effect the self-identity of these students, and the view of them by other students?

So, should we return to the one-size-fits-all approach so as not to single out students and to make teachers jobs easier? This is one of those false choices. These two choices assume a teacher (or textbook) centered approach to learning.

Another option, that progressive educators have been practicing successfully for over a century is to have lessons and teaching units with activities that are open-ended and allow students to find their own approach that meet their individual interests and abilities while still helping them develop necessary skills and abilities. This actually mirrors how people have learned effectively outside of school since time immemorial where people of differing abilities, backgrounds and interests all work together on common tasks. Thematic instruction, project-based approaches often fit this. One common example of this approach is the Writer’s Workshop. All students work on writing a class book, maybe even within a certain genre or topic, but they all get to write what they want within that framework. They each can work at their own pace and ability, and the teacher and their peers all help each other refine their writing.

Larger projects can use this approach as well. Such a project might be the study of an ancient civilization. It might be the investigation of one’s community. It might be an examination of the physical environment. In this approach students investigate, build, write, read, observe, and create around the theme, each at their own level.

I am not going to say this approach is not a lot of work for the teacher, but it is not about creating lots of individual lessons, but rather creating a climate for learning, making the materials and resources available, and then knowing how to support each student to do their best within that framework.

To see a wonderful example of this approach at the elementary level see the video “We All Know Why we are Here”

Relationships

The more I think about education and learning, the more I see relationships as the key to what really matters. If I think about all the movies I have seen about “great teaching,” both fictional and those “based on a true story,” while the actually teaching going on in them varies enormously, what they all have in common is a teacher that builds caring strong relationships with their pupils, from “To Sir with Love” “Up the Down Staircase” of the 60s, to more recent movies such as “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “Dangerous Minds.” But of course that portrayal could just be the license of the writers and directors.

teacher_kid_off_work_459715

But I would say I have found the same in my experience as a teacher. I worked with teachers with many different pedagogical approaches. If you have read my previous columns, you will see it is clear I have strong beliefs abut which are more effective. However, the most consistent thing that I noticed of teachers that appeared to me as more effective was that those teachers all had strong relationships with their students. The students knew their teacher expected them to learn, and was there to help them succeed in doing so.

It was really much for this reason that I decided to become an elementary rather than high school teacher. I did not see it as possible to really build those relationships if every hour I had a new group of students. With elementary school kids I had the same ones all day long. (It is also a reason I have never liked “regrouping” with other teachers—I never saw the trade off as worth the loss in knowing my students fully).

One anecdote. At one place I taught, we were using the Reading Recovery program for our struggling first grade readers. Reading Recovery is a strongly researched based program giving intensive support to the lowest readers in first grade, based on some of the best research of learning to read, with a strong research record of its own, and all the practitioners of it have to be credentialed teachers who have gone through an intensive training in the model. However, as a second grade teacher, my struggling readers did not qualify. So instead we used instructional assistants, who had a rudimentary training in more traditional phonics approaches to work with them. I would argue that second graders who are still struggling with reading are probably actually more difficult candidates, as they have a longer history of failure to overcome.

Yet, in the decidedly non-random and small sample that this consisted of, my instructional assistant succeeded with every one she worked with to at least getting them to the point of breaking the code in learning to read. The same cannot be said of the Reading Recovery program that had about a two-thirds success rate with our students. I attribute it to the strong relationship she built with each of them—letting them know that she believed they each would and could learn to read.

This, maybe, is what worries me most about many of today’s’ educational reforms. They make those relationships more difficult. Scripted curriculum, larger classes and school consolidation. use of technology for instruction, and worst of all, the tactics of fear—trying to scare teachers and students into doing a better job. Each of these, in a different way, makes it slightly more difficult for teacher and students to develop strong relationships.

I am about to embark on teaching an all on-line teacher education course. I will see to what degree this mode allows for and interferes with such relationships.