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Stephanie Bielagus Issues in Bilingualism Learning and Not Learning English, Gaudalupe Valdés 1. Valdés documents the challenges of learning English in school. In Chapter 1, she presents the research findings that inform her work. Identify each research area and the significant findings. What are the major research questions that will be addressed in this work? Valdés begins her study interested in exploring how immigrant children, who have “zero” English, are able to acquire writing skills in English. To explore this topic she focuses on several key questions: How does writing develop in second-language learners, how long does it take, and is it realistic to expect that at some point between...sixth grade and high school graduation, secondlanguage learners who are here as young teens will be able to write like native speakers of English” (2001, p.2). During her research, she discovered that much of findings were not entirely focused on writing in English, but explored deeper and more widespread issues that affect immigrant children. In particular, she noticed that her research looked at power dynamics inherent in a school's model for teaching and supporting English language learners, the methods and strategies students adopt to function in school, and the general opportunities and barriers posed to children who do not speak English (Valdés, 2001, p. 3). To provide a baseline for understanding and interpreting her research, Valdés studies key topics in the field of English language learning: second-language acquisition, appropriate classroom contexts for teaching ELLs, methods and practices for teaching ELL, materials used in ELL classroom, and ELL students in schools. Below I outline the significant findings in each research area. Second-language acquisition: Second-language acquisition, unlike a child's first language, involves an “active construction on the part of the learner” (Valdés, 2001, p. 19). A child cannot simply absorb and unconsciously learn a second language at the first site of exposure, but must actively listen to comprehensible input and participate in dialogue. In addition, the process of learning a second language is not linear, but instead follows a complex and dynamic trajectory whereby an individual creates an inter-language that combines first language with their developing second language. While all individuals are expected to pass through various stages of their inter-language, researchers point out that it is very rare and not 1


expected for a person to develop native-like fluency in a second language. Lastly, researchers have not agreed upon an ideal time-line for learning a second language, but generally believe that there are pros and cons for learning a language at each age. Classroom context: ELL theorists have stressed different classroom variables as key components to affective second language acquisition. Krashen (1985) argues that ELL learners must be exposed to comprehensible input in the classroom, or rather meaningful language with native English speakers (Valdés, 2001, p. 21). Long (1983) on the other hand believes that acquisition stems from comprehensible production of language and interaction. Lastly, there is also a much debate on what is the best form of instruction offered to students. There are some researchers who believe explicit instruction of grammar and form is a necessary and helpful teaching tool in the classroom; however, this philosophy is not widespread and many feel that this teaching practice should be incorporated only as a tool in a more meaningful communicative based classroom (2001, p. 22). Methods and practices for teaching ELL: Teachers tend to think English language acquisition is an academic subject, and so consequently, most student assessment is based on projects, test grades, state frameworks; rather than actual proficiency in the language. In addition, the focus of ELL as an academic subject has led many teachers to impart methods of teaching that are based on old and established methods for teaching language. Some of these methods include grammar-translation, audio-lingual method, which bases its instruction around drills and choral responses, and the communicative method, which focuses on promoting communication and task-based activities (Valdés, 2001, p. 24). Another approach which is gaining ground in some schools is the natural approach, which focuses on Krashen's theory (1985) of comprehensible input and natural order hypothesis (Valdés, 2001, p. 24). Valdés points out that despite improvements in teaching strategies, often due to the demands of assessments, teachers feel limited in their ability to incorporate the teaching style that is best suited for the students (2001, p. 25). Materials used in ELL classrooms: Textbooks for ELL in the United States are distributed solely in English; unlike, foreign language textbooks that provide descriptions and guidelines in the child's first lanauge. In addition, US textbooks do not provide reading, listening, and studying techniques that would be helpful for understanding and 2


working through the text. The lack of first language and learning tips in texts is problematic because for many teachers the textbook is the main source of the syllabus. ELL students at school: Research has revealed that in order for an ELL student to be successful in learning a second language in a school setting multiple variables must be present. Students need to be able to understand the teachers' lectures and the academic language used in text (Valdés, 2001, p. 28). Wong Fillmore (1999) also argues that students need to be motivated to learn the target language, teachers must be adequately proficient in the target language and have skills to teach it, and lastly, the second-language learners must be in a setting that offers ample exposure to the target language (Valdés, 2001, p. 28). As Valdés will demonstrate throughout her book, these necessary requirements were not met at Garden Middle School and as a result, the four immigrant children highlighted were left behind. 2. How did the students experience the school? Consider each student's opportunities to learn English skills necessary for school success? While each of the four children had unique experiences at school, they all dealt with challenges and set-backs that made learning a second-language and succeeding at school quite difficult. To understand each child's experience at school, it is important to understand the educational context at Garden Middle School. Unlike JFK Middle school, the teachers and administrators at Garden Middle School were not as accepting of the influx of immigrant children at their school. Many of the mainstream teachers and community members were reluctant to accept the new students into their classrooms and saw the student's inability to speak English as a burden, rather than as a temporary roadblock to success. Consequentially, the school had trouble training their mainstream teachers to teach ESL students and the ESL program in general was not well designed to motivate and foster academic success. The school only had only two ESL teachers resulting in 35 – 40 students per class and there was limited knowledge of the cultural and social backgrounds of their students. The lack of support and understanding of the ESL students was evident in Valdés research of Lilian, Elisa, Manolo, and Bernardo. In Lilian’s case, she was a beautiful girl who came from a tough, poor family and had little educational background prior to her schooling the US. As a result, Lilian came to school with little knowledge of English and the school structure was unable to foster adeqaute growth. In her ESL classroom, Lilian was isolated from her native-speakers and was given little time to actually speak and 3


work on developing applicable English skills. In addition, instruction did little to foster regular academic thinking skills like “reading for gist, guessing details from context, skimming, [and] scanning”, so Lilian was left to focus on very rote vocabulary excercises and simple grammar exercises (Valdés, 2001, p. 78). The school also did little to get to know Lilian’s personal life and the difficulties she was having at home. This lack of attention to Lilian’s personal needs stunted Lilian’s desire to engage in school and ultimately Lilian turned towards what Valdés coins as “not-learning”. As a survival mechanism and a way to protect her self-esteem, Lilian showed little investment in the class and developed a tough attitude that prohibited anyone from teasing her. Elisa was a bit of a different child in the sense that she had much more support from her mother and showed a strong desire to learn English. In school, Elisa followed all the lesson plans dutifully and while not always vocal in class, she was an active listener. At home, Elisa was consistently encouraged by her mother to study hard in school and was given more opportunities than Lilian to practice English outside of school. Yet, the attention of her mother gave her was not enough. In school, despite the progress and growth Elisa made by end of her first year, the school was unwilling to recognize the progress she had made and kept her in the same ESL class for the second time. Valdés comments, that this choice was not done out of a sincere belief that Elisa could not manage herself well in the mainstream classroom; but, was due to the mainstream teachers inability to support ESL students and the ESL teacher’s desire to have stronger English speakers in the classroom (2001, p. 99 - 101). While eventually, Elisa was given an opportunity to join a mainstream math class, she did not have much success because the ESL class did not provide her with the proper academic background to keep up with the teacher and students. Even after middle school, Elisa continually faced difficulty moving ahead despite her personal achievements in English. Her story is important because it demonstrates the power teachers and assessment policies have over children’s chance at success. Manolo came from a wealthier and more educated family than both Lilian and Elisa. Manola was bright and eager to learn, but his curriculum did not give him a lot of access to interesting content or native-English speakers. Even when Manola was in a mainstream classroom, there was little interaction between him and his peers and the content was not well comprehened because his ESL class had not prepared him to interpret academic language. By the end of his second year, Manolo left and was given an opportunity to learn at the high functioning JFK school. This school was drastically different from Garden Middle school and revealed what possibilities were out there for ESL students. AT JFK, most of the students, who were language-minorities, were from professional middle – upper class families and were seen as bright capable students. Instead of discouraging the students from 4


moving into mainstream classroom, this was seen as a necessity. The students were given personal tutors to help with their English and mainstream teachers were supportive of the ESL learners. While the school provided a positive environment for Manolo he was unable to make a lot of progress due to his poor education at Garden Middle school. Similar to Lilian, Manolo struggled to adjust to his new school and the achievements of his peers and as a way to protect his identity became disengaged and less eager to strive for success. Lastly, Bernardo came into school with the most academic background in Spanish than any of the other students in the study. Yet, the Garden Middle School did little to capitalize on his strengths. With little access to English-speaking peers and a lack of knowledge on how to process a new language, Bernardo struggled to keep up in school. For example, in his sheltered math class Bernado already had knowledge of how to do fractions, but he was unable to follow the teachers academic English because as Valdés explains he was never taught to “continue to listen…guess intelligently at meaning from all cues, and listen for known elements”, etc… (2001, p. 137). As a result, Bernado did poorly in class, but teachers did little to take notice. He was only switched out of his class late into the year, when it was too late to make a significant difference in his learning. What Bernardo’s case demonstrates is that there schools can and should be more strategic in utilizing the strengths and abilities of the ESL students. If the school had better assessment tools and had given him better scaffolding, he could have continued to develop his previous academic skills. Instead, Bernardo became bored in his ESL class because it didn’t challenge him and overwhelmed in his sheltered and mainstream subject classes because he was not adequately prepared.

3. What are the implications of Valdés findings for policy and practice in language minority education? Valdés research offers seven recommendations for policy and practices in language minority education for middle and high school students. Her recommendations focus on educational program design, teacher preparation, testing, and “the role of English in the education of newly arrived children” (2001, p. 146). First, ESL programs need to focus on the development of academic language. The focus on academic language will help ensure that students are able to properly adjust to the lack of English support in a mainstream classroom. Without the basic knowledge of academic terminology and concepts, students will otherwise not have a fighting chance in keeping up with their peers in a mainstream curriculum. This was evident in the case of Bernardo. Even though Bernado had a strong 5


foundation in math, as soon as he was placed in the mainstream math class, his lack of academic language in English prohibited him from excelling in the class. Second, it is imperative that the entire school community be actively involved and engaged in the education of immigrant students. Conversations need to take place between all the stakeholders, so that the school community can collaborate and agree upon a school wide initiative for supporting ESL students. As demonstrated by the success at the JFK School, if a community is able to uniformly agree that language minority students deserve a chance at a great education and believe these students are smart and capable of excelling in school; the students will be more motivated and have greater success in the mainstream classrooms (Valdés, 2001, p. 149 – 150). Third, all school officials must be able to offer academic and interpersonal opportunities to ELL students. It is no longer acceptable that the responsibility for teaching ELL students falls solely on the ELL teachers. Mainstream teachers need to interact and teach ELL students, so that language-minority students can have the opportunity to learn real academic material, rather than just basic skills in English. Fourth, schools must find more ways to encourage and allow for interactions between native English speakers and language-minority students. The importance of interaction is evident in the case of Bernardo and Lilian. Both these children were isolated from English speakers and as a result, they had little incentive to learn the target language. Fifth, schools must recognize and capitalize upon the strengths of their immigrants students. For instance, Bernardo came into the school with fairly strong academic background from his education in Mexico; yet, his strengths were not adequately used at Garden Middle School. Valdés points out that if Bernardo had been taught some simple learning tools, such as using context to guess intelligently, listening past fatigue, and deciphering between important and non-important information, Bernardo would have been able to effectively apply his Spanish background knowledge in math to his class in Garden Middle School. Instead, Bernardo got overwhelmed by his inability to understand English and ended up being unable to keep up with the academic material (Valdés, 2001, p. 152). It is interesting to point out that the inability to capitalize on the Bernardo's strengths is not an isolated case. For instance in the “Cultural Modeling: Leveraging Bilingual Skills for School Paraphrasing Tasks” article, Orellana and Reynolds describe how bilingual children who have useful skills translating and interpreting across languages; find paraphrasing in school very difficult. The authors argue that the bilingual youth's difficultly is not due to the youth’s lack of academic skill, but because the school is not effectively utilizing the talents the youth already have (2008, p. 48). 6


Six, students must be given an opportunity to keep “up with the curriculum while they are learning English” (Valdés, 2001, p. 152). By only teaching the students as grammar, basic sentence structure, and vocabulary in English, the children are left at a huge disadvantage for communicating in real social and academic settings. Learning language in isolation does not give students proper opportunity to expand their minds, to keep up with mainstream students, or to stay motivated. Lastly, ESL programs need to create more unified assessment tools and standards across the country, so students are not faced with the “revolving-door policies and practices that release Englishlanguage learners from ESL programs in one school only to place them in such programs once again in another school”(Valdés, 2001, p. 154). As was the case with Elisa, this can be very discouraging for bilingual youth because it prevents the youth from developing a strong sense of confidence and security in their ability to speak English. The lack of clear standards and constant inconsistency in assessment, leaves bilingual youth at the whim of each institution, company, or individual’s personal opinion. 4. How will you use what you learned through these case studies in your work (classroom teacher, administrator, researcher) with language minority students? When Valdés mentioned that her book would not be encouraging or particularly optimistic, she was right. Reading her book, I felt outraged at the injustices and hardships each individual student faced; yet, I could also sympathize with many of the challenges and difficulties the school faced in trying to adequately adjust to the rapidly changing demographics in the community. Yet, despite the sadness in the book, I was also left feeling that there are plenty of ways I can help make the lives of ESL students better. While I do not know what kind of school environment I will be in when I'm a teacher, there are several strategies and ideas I would be interested incorporating at the school. One, I would try my best as an ESL teacher to keep the students up to speed with the mainstream curriculum. Ms. Gordon was so overly focused on grammar and form, the students never got the chance to adequately learn real academic content. Ideally, if the mainstream teachers are willing, it would be great to collaborate with them so that when the students move from an SEI class to the mainstream class, the students are able to easily adjust to the differences. Two, I would start a buddy system whereby a new ESL student is paired with a native- English speaker. My hope is that through daily interactions, the ESL student would feel more encouraged to use English, would have increased exposure to social English, and would be able to find friendship and connection with someone at the school. 7


Third, I think it could be great to hold various “What's it Like” workshops throughout the year to help foster cultural appreciation and more empathy for the experiences and challenges of learning a second language. For example, one workshop might make the English speakers take an entire math class in Spanish and at the end of the class, the students would have to reflect upon the challenges and surprises they faced during the class. Another workshop might have both ESL and mainstream students and teachers work together to overcome an obstacle, such as getting an entire group over a 10 ft. log. These kinds of challenges would force the group to work together and would also help the two groups see the humanity and “normalness” present in everyone. The ideas I presented above are more specific strategies and guidelines I will keep in mind when I am teaching English at school; but more importantly, what this book has taught me is that language-minority youth are real students and need to be valued and treated like any other student at the school. While learning about the individual experiences of the four students, I couldn’t help but be surprised to discover how simple the curriculum was and how constricted the students were in expressing themselves as individuals. While I know it might be difficult to teach the kids exactly the same content, I hope that I can do my best to make sure that I am challenging the kids while giving them enough scaffolding support to ensure 5. What are some remaining questions? Below I’ve listed out two questions I still have: 1. How important should grammar and spelling be when assessing a student’s proficiency in English? I felt like often times the four students at Garden Middle School were held back because their spelling or grammar was not up-to-speed, even when their comprehension was there. I also wonder if the strong focus on grammar impeded the development of the students’ identities and English abilities. Students at Garden Middle School were often forced to limit their expressions to 1-10 phrases and I can imagine that over time this would get boring and demotivating. 2. What kinds of classroom management and discipline techniques have been the most successful in ESL classrooms? Are there major differences between regular mainstream classrooms and ESL classrooms? If it is different, should teachers modify their classroom management and discipline techniques for ESL students? I am left with this question because I was surprised to learn about the different reactions the students had to the various teachers at Garden Middle School. I would have thought the children would have gravitated towards the substitute teacher; 8


however, the students preferred the more strict and rigid teacher. I wonder why this is and in what ways I could structure the classroom to make it the most effective for learning and cooperation. References: Krashen, S. (1985). The input hypothesis. Oxford, UK: Pergamon. Long, M. (1983). Native speaker/non-native speaker conversation in the second language classroom. Applied Linguistics, 4, 126 – 141. Orellana, M. & Reynolds, L. (2008). Cultural modeling: Leveraging bilingual skills for school paraphrasing tasks. Reading Research Quarterly, 43(1), 48 – 65. Wong Fillmore, L. (1991). Second language learning in children: A model of language learning in social context. In E. Bialystock (Ed.), Language processing in bilingual children (pp. 49 – 69). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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Writer's Workshop  

Valdes Reading Response

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