Saturday, April 29, 2017

Understanding the Language Acquisition Process: The First Step in Understanding the Needs of ELs

What is the Language Acquisition Process?

When exploring the needs of English Language Learners, we must review the development of language acquisition. Students are expected to learn two types of language, conversational language and academic language. “The distinction between academic and conversational proficiency was first articulated by Jim Cummins, who coined the terms basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) years ago and has written extensively about them…” (as cited in Goldenberg, 2010). Conversational language is informal and acquired more easily than academic language. Academic language is the language used in textbooks, writing, and academic conversations. Students can acquire conversational language in a couple of years, but take much longer to master academic language. “Research in language acquisition supports the hypothesis that we all acquire language the same way-by understanding messages” (Krashen & Biber, 1988). The messages that are understood and that the brain receives, referred to as “comprehensible input,” make the acquisition of language inevitable (Krashen, 1988). The more background knowledge a student has, the more comprehensible the input. Having background knowledge increases comprehension, therefore increasing language acquisition. The acquisition of language takes time; it is a slow process that occurs in a relaxed and nurturing environment. In other words, pressure from a parent or teacher to learn the language “now” will not speed up the process!

Cummins (1986) reports that it takes five to seven years to approach proficiency in tests of academic English. He explains that native English Speakers are not standing still while our English Learners are trying to catch up. Native speakers are building academic language quickly, gaining subject matter knowledge and language ability. Advocates of immersing kids in the language feel that this is a non-issue, while advocates of using primary language for instruction do not believe it’s that simple (Goldenberg, 2010).

Educating English learners will never be a one-size-fits-all model but successful programs should be continuously analyzed and used as a foundation to develop curriculum, teaching strategies, and authentic assessments for ELs.  With limited resources and guidance, many districts are simply avoiding the issue or taking approaches that fail, as substantiated by the consistent achievement (opportunity) gap.  Understanding the Language Acquisition process is a first step in understanding the academic needs of English learners.

The needs of English Learners cannot be wished away or ignored. Educators must have patience and an understanding of the English language acquisition process, literacy, and language proficiency, especially those who have an opportunity to work with English Language Learners. Classrooms should be a place where information is comprehensible and accessible to all students, regardless of their English proficiency level.

Cummins, J. (1986). Bilingualism in education: Aspects of theory, research, and practice. New York: Longman Inc.

Goldenberg, C., Coleman, R. (2010). Promoting academic achievement among English learners: A guide to the research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Krashen, Stephen D. (1988). Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Prentice Hall International.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Understanding the Benefits of a Student's Home Language- as shared in EdWeek Q&A with Larry Ferlazzo

This post was originally posted in Education Week, Classroom Q&A with Larry Ferlazzo, 1/31/17

Question: What is the role, if any, of an ELL student's home language in the classroom?

“It is hard to argue that we are teaching the whole child when school policy dictates that students leave their language and culture at the schoolhouse door” (Cummins, 2005)

The number of English Learners has dramatically increased over the last two decades. Current research indicates an extraordinary boom in our English learner student population in the United States. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 4.5 million English learners are enrolled in public schools across the U.S. (CDE, 2016). The growth is evident across the nation, but especially in California where “…one of every four students is an English learner” (Goldenberg, 2010). For many educators, English language learners ARE the majority student population in our schools. Clearly, educators have the responsibility of addressing the needs of this growing student population, including nurturing the precious linguistic and cultural diversity they bring into the classroom. The validation of a student’s culture, home language, as well as the development of academic identity, should be a priority for every educator who has the privilege of working with language learners.
Home Language and Academic Identity
The home language of our English Learners plays a major role in the development of their academic identity and overall educational success. Researchers have found that validating a student’s culture and language in a safe and encouraging environment will help students develop a positive and confident student self image. “Students perception of how the majority culture accepts or rejects the culture and language they bring to school are extremely important for their eventual success” (as cited in Walqui & van Lier, 2010).  
Culture and Home Language: English learner Assets
The linguistic and cultural diversity offered by our English learners has not been valued as an asset or a resource by many in the educational community. Linguistically diverse students often have no choice but to adapt to an English-only culture and assimilate to the dominant language, English, as quickly as possible. In the process of attempting to immerse our students, educators create a subtractive schooling experience for students where their culture and language is seen as a challenge to overcome. This type of experience hurts the overall confidence and academic success of English learners, students who are trying to accommodate their ideas, feelings, and position in school. In life.
Home Language in the Classroom
We cannot completely address the needs of our English learners if we don't consider their culture and language and use that knowledge as a teaching tool. How can educators support the home language of English learners in the classroom? We can support students in the classroom by:
  • Affirming a student’s home language and culture- talk about it, ask about it, establish a genuine connection with students
  • Inviting student to share similarities and differences between the students home language, second language, and cultures
  • Seek opportunities to incorporate home language in projects, celebrations, lessons
  • Give students an opportunity to use home language in the classroom
  • Provide materials in primary language: books, resources, websites, apps
  • Model strong language use in both home and second languages
  • Promote education about diversity, equity, and tolerance within the community
  • Encourage parents and families to continue to speak and preserve language and culture at home
  • Create opportunities for families and teachers to celebrate and share language and culture with the school community

There are many benefits to embracing and drawing from a student’s home language. Connections to a student’s primary language encourages bilingualism, preserves language and culture, helps develop a solid academic identity, and promotes overall academic literacy. Understanding these benefits and the monumental role culture and language play in the academic identity and success of English Learners must be a priority for all educators.

Resisting an Oppressive Banking Concept of Education for SOC: Evolving and Becoming

Research and history indicate that English learners are part of a group that has been culturally marginalized and economically disenfranchised. “For too long, the histories, experiences, cultures, and languages of students of color have been devalued, misinterpreted, or omitted within the formal educational setting” (Delgado-Bernal, 2002).  English learners have dealt and continue to deal with issues of race, culture, and language in our schools.  Those issues negatively affect the overall learning experiences of English learners and many other students of color.
As an Educational leader, reading Freire's (Freire, 2010) work on oppression was a transformational experience. Freire's ideas about the banking concept of education as an instrument of oppression deeply resonated with me.  This concept critiques the student-teacher relationship as narrative, with the teacher feeding the students simple facts and “sonority of words’ that lack the power to educate or transform (p. 71).  When this occurs, education becomes a banking system “…in which students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor” (p. 72).  Freire concludes that knowledge is more than a mechanical transferring of facts and information.  Knowledge is a process of inquiry in which the teacher and student communicate and share knowledge; in the world, with the world, and with each other. 
This banking system mirrors the oppressive systems that exist in our society. It “serves the interest of the oppressor,” maintaining a dominant role while imposing a passive role on the student.  It dismisses the student’s ability to construct knowledge from the knowledge they possess, depriving them of the opportunity to develop critical consciousness, or conscientização, and undermine the oppressor (Freire, 2010).  In analyzing current program practice in our school districts, the banking concept is evident in many classrooms today.  Students, including students with limited English proficiency, are expected to listen attentively as the teacher teaches, never acknowledging the student as an equal partner in the teaching and learning process. The teacher teaches, but whether the student is learning is almost a mystery that can only be solved or proven with standardized testing results, once a year.  The student becomes a passive participant in the learning process.

Education is a democratizing process that should be constantly evolving and becoming.  Freire’s critical educational theory views education as a problem posing process that requires all to become one with the world and develop critical consciousness.  Conscientização is needed in order to achieve praxis, the knowledge required to change an oppressive educational system.  Without praxis, the much needed social transformation of current oppressive systems for many students of color will not occur. Our students can no longer wait. We are in desperate need of that transformation today.
Delgado-Bernal, D. (2002).  Critical race theory, Latino critical theory, and critical raced gendered epistemologies: Recognizing students of color as holders and creators of knowledge. Qualitative Inquiry, 8 (1), 105 -126 

Freire, P. (2010). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Passive Oppression in Education: Fueling the Achievement Gap

Many students in districts across the nation are faced with issues of poverty, racism, and oppression in their communities and schools.  Educators and administrators are uncertain about how to meet the needs of  students, especially students of color, living in poverty. The fact is that too many educators, for a variety of reasons, have simply surrendered to the forces of poverty and racism. In the process they have also surrendered our children’s future (Yes We Can, 2005).  This sad submission contributes to the academic achievement gap for our Hispanic, Native American, and Black youth. According to the 2013 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP):
The test scores indicate that Black, Hispanic, and Native American students in the fourth and eighth grades scored significantly lower than their White peers in reading and math. Moreover, Black, Hispanic, and Native American students demonstrate proficiency in reading and math at much lower levels than White students and perform below basic in these subject areas at much higher rates than White students. 
The issue of surrendering to the forces of poverty and racism is referred to by Allen G. Johnson (2009) as passive oppression in our educational system. Passive oppression fuels the achievement gap for our poorest and neediest students. It contributes to a culture of power and privilege for certain school communities, leaving our underserved students of color and their communities behind. 

Privilege and a System of Oppression
Johnson speaks of passive oppression as a form of racism and privilege, and defines it as "making it possible for oppression to happen simply by doing nothing to stop it” (Johnson 2009, p. 106).  I have witnessed this issue of privilege and power in my communities, and believe it greatly impacts schools across the nation. After discussing these issues with many of my colleagues, I have come to believe that the lack of action and indifference on the part of many educators is indeed a result of passive oppression.  The majority of school administrators and teachers care about students and seem to be overwhelmed with the task of meeting a variety of social, emotional, and educational needs.  Many lack the skills, resources, and even the will to deal with many of those unique needs.  The problem is in their failure to understand that this power of silence, “promotes privilege and oppression” and that racism and other forms of privilege depend on this type of day-to-day, real world oppression (Johnson 2009, p. 105).  The key is to help educators begin to see themselves as enablers of an oppressive system every time they choose to explicitly ignore dealing with the problems that lead to the achievement gaps faced by students of color and students living in poverty.  We can begin to change this system of inequity and oppression by acknowledging it's existence and our role in the system.

Serving All Students
            Our underserved students of color living in poverty continue to fall behind their peers in school districts across the nation. Educators and educational leaders must embrace this reality and make themselves accountable for the learning and academic success of all learners.  This begins by acknowledging the privilege, power, and racism that exist in our educational system. Passive oppression in our schools is a form of racism and privilege that must be overcome.  If we continue to remain silent about these issues, we are communicating to our students and communities living in poverty that they are not worth serving. 

“Although reforming public schools will not eliminate poverty or racial discrimination, education continues to be the only legitimate source of opportunity available to the poor."- Pedro Noguera

Johnson, A. (2006). Privilege, power, and difference. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Noguera, P. (2008). The trouble with black boys: Race, equity, and the future of  education. San Francisco: Wiley & Sons.
The Education Trust. (2006, September). Yes we can: Telling truths and dispelling myths about race and education in America. Retrieved from: myths-about-race-and-education-in-America