Maria De La Lus Reves

MARIA DE LA LUS REVES

Um, my name is Maria de la Lus Reyes. I am a—I was a faculty member at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Currently I am a professor emeritus there.

When I think about the term creating uh inclusive communities, I think that most teachers think of that term as creating an in—inviting environment within their classroom, making sure that all the students are participating and are part of whatever grouping occurs. To me though, uh creating an inclusive learning environment means more than that. To me it means affirming, promoting, and encouraging all the languages of the—of the learners in the classroom and it means allowing students to be able to tap into whatever linguistic resources that they have available to them in order to break the code, in order to understand the concept, and um I think it also means, to me, that the learners are able to see themselves in the literature that they read, for example, in the books and that they’re able to see themselves in the displays and in the classroom in the schools, and they’re able to see people like themselves on the staff. And um that uh—aside from that I think in order to create an inclusive learning environment, students need to—to um learn about other communities that are different then themselves so that they can have a—a global understanding of what inclusive communities are and how similar we are to people across the seas or wherever. And um that way, I think, that they—the environment for learning will be much more comfortable for all the learners, not just a particular type of learner.

By biliteracy I mean not only the ability to read and write in a sec—in two languages, but the uh—all forms of—of—in all instances of communication and construction of meaning in whatever symbolic forms that they come. Biliteracy is a very complex process. Although bilingual children when you see them and observe them and they’re able to move from one language to the other, they make it look so easy, but it’s very—a complex thing when you break it down and look at their ability to be able to tackle two lin—entirely differently linguistic systems and be able to use uh them to read or to write or to communicate. It’s really uh quite a complex uh process. Um, biliteracy that there’ll be bilin—bi—uh—lingual peers or bilingual teachers available in order for them to be able to use the two languages. It also means that (clears throat) they should have access to materials in two languages otherwise you can’t promote the—the two languages. Um, it also, to me, means that uh they should be able to use the two languages to access knowledge. I think a lot of times uh people or teachers believe that they’re promoting bilingualism, for example, or biliteracy yet they box these languages within certain domains or certain times of the day and so forth And I think that uh if you’re a bilingual learner or—and if you’re biliterate, you don’t think about which language you’re speaking, you just are accessing knowledge or—or communicating with someone and always that—comprehension is never broken between two people who know their two languages and so I think it’s a more natural and spontaneous way of developing biliteracy skills.

Well, I—I think that teachers can foster biliteracy in the bilingual uh classroom—I mean in a language arts classroom. Of course, the teacher has to be bilingual or even if she isn’t, I think if the teacher allows students to—let’s say they read an English book and they want to discuss that with students let’s say in Spanish, I think that should be allowed because what happens is that if you’re concerned about the uh understanding of the book that they’re read—that they’re reading, for example, understanding can happen in either language. And uh the production of the second language are—is uh developed at different levels at different times at rate—at different rates for different children. And uh I think that they’re—they should be able to communicate whatever they understand about the book, the children, with each other. Can we stop a minute? (pause) Let me take that second part again about how it can be fostered in the language arts classroom. OK. Biliteracy can be fostered in a language arts classroom the same as it can be fostered in a math classroom or any other classroom. Uh, it requires that the teacher be respectful of two languages, that she affirms the two languages and encourages or allow them without the children being restricted to them. Even if the teacher does not—if she herself is not bilingual, I think there are opportunities that children can be given to discuss stories, for example, in the language that they’re comfortable in even if the text was in English. And that opportunity to be able to discuss it in their native language allows them then to be able to communicate better and more effectively in second language. And so I think it’s—it’s about respecting, validating who the learner is and providing them opportunities to tap into their linguistic resources.

Some of the venerable assumptions that I believe need—still need to be challenged particularly in bilingual education and literacy for linguistically different students is the assumption that if you use two languages within one context, one language or the other will suffer, children—that children will listen only to the language that they’re stronger in and that generally the native language will suffer. Um, and that—the other part of that assumption is that if uh you don’t allow children to be grounded fully in their primary language before you expose them to the second language, that there’ll be cognitive deficits that—that they’ll uh develop. And uh I don’t believe that that’s necessarily true. I believe that children are capable of handling more then one language at—at a time and that bilingualism and biliteracy develops individually and children—if the classroom is exciting and challenging and affirming of the learners, biliteracy really occurs much earlier and it occur in—in an environment where both languages are used and both languages are promoted. The uh separation of languages to me are—are artificial boundaries. They’re very uh inflexible and they don’t really represent how bilingual speakers and bilingual learners function in the real world. So I think that it’s time to—to debunk that. Much of the research that I’ve conducted over the last 10 years shows that children are capable of reading and writing in a second language even if they’re not fully proficient and fluent in the second. I’ve had many a student in my uh studies that they were dominant Spanish speakers but they were able to read English and they were able to write some English um without having had instruction and without any of these cognitive deficits that people um assume will occur. And part of what has led to these assumptions I believe are the literal and—and narrow interpretations of Cummings theories—Jim Cummings. His two theories, one is um “The Minimum Threshold Hypothesis” which says that children need to reach a certain level, a minimum level of proficiency in the first language before going to the second one because if they don’t then they’ll uh suffer these adverse consequences. Now that’s one of them. The second one is his “Linguistic Interdependence Hypothesis” that says if a—if a student um is learning Spanish, for example, and Spanish instruction is affected in helping a student become proficient, then that student will be able to transfer whatever he learns in Spanish to English. And that’s because they have a common underlying proficiency. Well, that part of it I believe is true because I think language resides in one part of the brain. They are not separate parts of the brain where you have English, or Spanish, or French, or whatever. But the problem of—of conflating both of these theories is that in practice teachers believe that they have to separate the languages and not expose children to English until maybe the transition period, which generally occurs around 3rd grade. And when you do that, you actually slow down the natural development of bilingualism that could occur because children are curious about language, them—they’re bombarded by English in their home, on television, in books, and so forth, and they could really acquire it faster and they’re not going to want to not listen to English or listen to Spanish if the classroom environment is creative and challenging and—and authentic for them. If it’s artificial I think they will turn one of them off. But they’ll—any kid will do that in any kind of classroom. So uh that’s what I found out in my studies, that uh children can read in another language before they know it and that uh students can actually handle very complex um tasks in the two languages and they don’t get confused. And they actually can become biliterate much sooner and uh the uh—these assumptions—even Jim Cummins himself is currently talking about them and referring them as dogmatic assumptions that need to be debunked because he says now that uh it has uh hampered the biliteracy development of many kids because of the misunderstanding. So I’m happy to know that he’s thinking about that too because I’ve been challenging those assumptions in the last few years in my work.

Um, let me have a few minutes here. OK. When it comes to teachers as—assessing students, especially linguistically and culturally different students, I think they can do that fairly if they do it holistically and over time. I don’t think that any paper and pencil assessment where students have to bubble in their correct answer is appropriate for any student because I don’t think it reflects what they know and—and what they can do. I think it limits it—uh, their knowledge and it gives you a very narrow band of—of who they really are. But if you look at assessment over time, something like a portfolio, for example, where teachers put in their samples of children’s writing over time, then the teacher’s able to see that progression. Has a student learned uh the grammatical features of the language? Uh, do they know—can they write content well? Do they understand stories? Can they uh include all the story elements and so forth? And that can be seen over time and it’s a much more natural thing. Um, and I think that that kind of assessment is appropriate for culturally and linguistically different students. The problem is that there aren’t enough bilingual teachers or bilingual assessors that can really evaluate the native language. And I think the other problem is that when students who are dominant in their native language are assessed in English, then they really don’t see the true picture of their intellectual capabilities. What they’re see—seeing is really their ability to not speak English or they’re seeing something else but they’re not seeing the true abilities of this child. And um the um—so when you see it over time, I think that you—you get a better picture. Um, one of the other problems with the assessment of linguistically and culturally different students in my opinion is that the only thing that really matters in school districts across the country is English literacy or English speaking ability, English proficiency. And that’s the only thing that gets recorded. So what people read is that uh speakers of other languages are not performing well, that they don’t know how to read and so forth and I think if they were able to assess in the language that they speak, you would be getting a totally different picture. You would be able to see that these students are quite capable of performing just like any other kid. But unfortunately we’re still a country that uh is very monolithic and monocultural and we don’t appreciate um other languages. Um, it’s the only country in the world that uh views monolingualism as—as higher intelligence then being a bilingual or a polyglot. And that’s really absurd uh because um monolingualism cannot possibly be superior to bilingualism, a person who can access knowledge and handle himself or herself in two different worlds. So that’s what I believe.

The use of dialog journals and literature logs are—are a very effective way for developing literacy skills. For one thing, there are more informal ways, for example, journals. Uh, and many teachers use them as a way of students being able to select whatever topic they want to and write in whatever language they want to so that it’s a kind of motivation to write. And um the problem is, is that when teachers attempt to respond to every single child, every single day, that becomes very time consuming and most teachers have 25 to 30 students and it’s—um, it’s impossible to respond to all of them. Uh, but I think there are other ways of getting around that. Students should be able to just write their own thoughts without having to have a response or they should be able to share their—their journal with someone else and have someone else respond to it. There are many different ways of still promoting the same idea with the journal. Literature logs on the other hand, to me they mean that these are some kind of notebooks where children can write their responses to what they read—the books that they read. And the teacher is able then to see what connections children make with reading and what transfer of knowledge um they make. Um these, I think, when you’re talking about linguistically different students, I think it’s very important for teachers to be able to allow students to use the language of their choice to communicate that knowledge. Um, I have seen many students in my studies, for example, that will read an English book and prefer for whatever reason to respond in Spanish and then when they meet with the teacher they’re responding in English. And it’s just um—you—it’s difficult to predict why they do that. It’s some kind of idio—idiosyncratic response. Sometimes it’s the situation, it’s how they’re feeling at the moment, what comes out more naturally. Sometimes it springs from some kind of emotional response. And generally if it’s an emotional response they tend to revert to their native language. So I think it—it’s nothing to be afraid of if they’re writing in their native language because I think the teachers will be able to find a way to see what students are really thinking and what kind of connections they’re making with—with uh literature. Um, so that’s what I think about that.

The um most important instructional strategy that teachers should use in the content areas with linguistically different students, I think there are many of them. Uh there is, for example, sheltered English and by that I mean being able to present some idea to the student about what the content will be. Uh, teaching them key words that will appear in this new content so that they can understand—making sure that the students understand what that is. There are also strategies like preview review. For example, uh teachers could preview what the lesson’s going to be about. What the science lesson—in Spanish—present the lesson in English and then check for understanding again in Spanish that way the student has some kind of um or—advanced organizer to understand what’s coming up in the uh—in their second language. Um, there are also the use of audiovisuals, the use of materials in two languages, uh grouping. Uh hands on strategies are always wonderful because students are able to do something and in—in the process of doing uh an experi—for—an experiment, for example, they’re able then to uh own that information. They do it and it—uh, they understand it better or they’re able to—to communicate it better. Uh, I think uh it’s very important for teachers to understand that content area reading is very, very different then learning how to read. Learning how to read generally provides some kind of social uh settings or it’s about friends or family or some—things that children are familiar with so that they—they do that for learning how to read. But when they move into the content area, it’s always something new, something that they don’t know about. I mean that’s the point. By that time they should know how to read. But I think when you’re dealing with second language learners it’s important to scaffold their learning to support it in visual ways and with gestures, with speaking a little bit slower, with using cognates—that is words that are similar in Spanish and English or whatever the two languages are so that children have—or students have an opportunity to learn as much as they can as they’re getting into a totally new area—new topic.

Let me see which one of these I should tell you about. Um, a story that captures the experience of linguistically different children in schools (interruption) My concerns. OK. I think one example of what uh captures my concern or my hopes about linguistically different students uh may be as uh this—this particular example of this little girl who came from Mexico and uh she spoke uh only Spanish in kindergarten and nothing but Spanish. Although she was a very bright little girl and I could tell that she was because she was always paying attention, she was always pretending she was reading, which are all wonderful things to do even if you—you don’t know the language. And um surprisingly enough at the—at the beginning of 1st grade when she returned from the summer, she knew how to speak English. She was like a little bubbly talking machine. She was speaking in English, she had no accent and I was—I was surprised in—in a way because she had—I had gone to the school every week during her kindergarten year and she never tried speaking um English and I thought, well—I knew that something was coming but it—it—she didn’t exhibit that. And um so I don’t know exactly what happened because her parents didn’t speak English, but in—in retrospect, I think that this little girl was so curious she wanted to be so much like other children and she had exposure to English television, to everything else that all kids uh get. And she was able to—to dig into that store of knowledge and she was actually learning a lot of English in the—during what uh Krashen calls “The Silent Period.” It’s like when you learn a second language—you’re taking a second language in college, the first year you can hardly say anything, you’re understanding but you don’t have the pro—productive skills. I think this is what happened with this little girl. And she was so excited but yet she was still always communicating in Spanish when it came to the academic piece of it. And um I think that uh if—if a teacher, for example, were to force her to only speak English now that she was showing that she knew English, I think it would have hampered her ability to be able to develop the two languages because this little girl over a period of four years that I observed her and—and other students in her class uh was phenomenal in her abilities. And when she got to 2nd grade, even the 2nd grade bilingual teacher didn’t even know that she was biliterate. In 2nd grade she was reading in two languages. And, of course, she had never had any formal instruction in English. All her instruction had been in Spanish. But in—in playing with kids who spoke English uh she learned a lot and she practiced it in real authentic situations for—for children. And kids do amazing thing, they teach each other a lot of things and teachers aren’t even aware what’s going on. And—and uh—and so when uh—when it came to uh 3rd grade, they were going to try to place her in Spanish reading because they said, “Well, the teacher said she doesn’t—she only knows Spanish reading and she’s—she’s a Spanish dominant speaker.” And I said, “Well, excuse me, I have video data that shows—that will show you that this little girl is not only reading in Spanish but reading in English and she’s now beginning to write in English. She already writes in Spanish.” And the teacher was astounded because she didn’t have the time that I had as a researcher going in her classroom to observe all these informal learning uh activities that go on in the classroom, but she did, however, have a very warm, nurturing environment where she allowed children to use English and Spanish for whatever they wanted to. And because of that affirmation of kids language and culture, these children were teaching themselves. But I think anyone looking at this little girl from the outside and assessing only English will get a very diminished picture of her intellect. And she’s an extremely bright little girl and she would get um viewed as still uh a linguistically uh—no, not linguistically different—but a limited English speaker and she’s way beyond that. I mean this little girl is bilingual and biliterate, but I think her abilities would be misrepresented, you know, by someone who—who couldn’t understand the two languages and who wouldn’t take the time to look at these—a child like that. And I think that’s very typical of how schools look at linguistically different children today across the nation. Much of what you read in the literature and the newspapers indicates that they’re one or two grades below level. That may be true in English but it’s not necessarily the whole picture of the capacity, the potential of those children. And I think it’s uh a picture that’s misrepresenting, you know, the abilities of our children. And I think our children are uh much more uh intelligent then um the literature—that the literature portrays them. They’re much more capable. But schools don’t generally value anything but English and so when you do that you get a—you get a—a blurred picture of who they are and I think this example shows what’s going on and how much more this little girl will be able to ac—to access in a society that—that is continually more pluralistic every year, every year. I mean, we’re—we’re a very small global village today. We can reach anybody across the world in an instant. And people all over the world are bilingual. People all over the world speak every other language. So—I mean, she’s—she is the, to me, the prototype of the future child where the minimum threshold is not going be just English. The minimum threshold for all children in the future is going to be that they have to speak at least two languages in order to be able to function effectively in a multicultural society.

I think have um two soapbox issues. One I talked a little bit earlier and that is the separation of languages, the artificial um division of languages where uh the practice in some bilingual classes is that children can only speak language 1 and this time or at this place with this person and they can speak uh language 2 at a certain time, with certain people, etc. That’s one of my major ones because I—I don’t think that that’s reality. I don’t think it reflects the natural way that bilingual individuals function. And I believe that it limits what learners can show you in terms of what they know. I also think that it’s an insult, a real insult, to—to bilingual people or bilingual children to force them to only use one language. To me it’s like tying up their two feet and—and saying, “OK, Run.” And measuring them against a person who has their two legs free and they—they can run. Though—of course they’ll run ahead and they’ll be first because you’ve tied the legs of that one that could use both of them. And I think—though, that’s my big one. Another one that’s related to that is (clears throat) this whole move today um of having to teach the code and by that people mean having to teach phonics. That everyone should learn or be taught phonics. President Bush’s um document entitled, “No Child Left Behind” talks about the importance of teaching phonics to all children and using that as a way of closing the gap between the haves and the have nots but what’s never really mention is the fact that most of the have nots are linguistically different children or minority children who speak other languages. And phonics is another euphemism for—euphemism for teaching English. So teaching phonics to children who don’t understand English doesn’t make any sense. Um, I do believe, however, that um understanding the connection between uh the letter and the sound is important for learning how to read but I have seen it over and over when I was a teacher and when I’ve taught uh teachers and have visited their classrooms that in my research that children (clears throat) can learn how to read without phonics. Today in California and Texas and Colorado we have legislation and legislation that has been written by people who don’t even understand teaching, don’t understand children, don’t understand learning processes, and they’re mandating that teachers teach phonics—English phonics. Never mind that kids don’t speak English and that doesn’t serve any purpose. It—it’s useless for people who are learning tiny little letter sounds and they don’t know why. They can’t connect it to anything. And um in California there’s even the, you know, phonics police making sure that that’s taught. And I think that kind of policing and—and mandating something that happens so differently in every individual learner is something that I think is a way of undermining teachers professionalism, teachers ability to know what to do with children. And I don’t think it shows a clear understanding of—of how literacy develops and how the processes of learning occur. So that’s—that’s my other soap issue—soapbox issue.

Um, well I think one more think that I’d like to say about biliteracy is that biliteracy is not static. Sometimes it’s difficult to measure because it’s dynamic and fluid and it’s also a situated kind of learning. Um, the situation itself will illicit one or the other language and depending on how much an individual knows about that topic, they might appear to be stronger in Spanish, for example, but it may be related only to the fact that they know more about that particular topic in—in Spanish. Uh, another time they might appear totally um weaker in Spanish and they know something better in English. So it’s situational and I think that people do not always understand it. They think that if you’re going to promote biliteracy that children have to be totally balanced bilinguals. And I think that’s some kind of a utopian uh maybe goal or image of bilinguals because uh if a language is fluid and dynamic it changes. It changes with the environment, it changes with the speakers, it changes with the emotional response that you have about that. And I think that’s a real important thing to understand about biliteracy.