Fred Gensee

FRED GENSEE

It’s important (cough) it’s important that mainstream teachers understand that language and language acquisition are really only one part of the child’s whole development, including other aspects such as social development, affective development, cognitive development. And the reason why this is important is because we language is really at the center of of the child’s development. It’s through language and language learning that children communicate with other teachers, with other children, and so it’s through language that they build a social world for themselves. It’s also through language that they learn to understand about the social and the physical world because language is the primary way in which we impart new knowledge and new skills to children in school. It’s also very important to understand that language is an important part of culture because different cultural groups use language in different ways and children who come from a backgrounds which are not part of the mainstream may have been socialized to use language in ways that are quite different from the way that it’s used in the mainstream culture. So for example I’ve been doing some work in Northern Quebec with Inuit children and in the Inuit culture children are socialized to uh do most of their social interaction and language interaction with other children, not with adults. So when they come to school uh if they’re working with English speaking or white teachers as they say in the North, these teachers often expect the children to raise their hand and uh engage themselves actively as individuals in the classroom activities. A and this runs contrary to the kinds of um social patterns that they’ve learned in the home. The problem arises if the the mainstream teachers don’t understand the patterns they’ve learned in the home they can easily misinterpret the children’s behavior. So for example uh they might think that the children are being belligerent because they are not responding when they’re asked a question because they’re not use to responding as individuals, they will respond as a group. Uh and if teachers don’t understand that then they can easily misinterpret what the children are actually doing. So language really is part of everything that is going on in the children’s development. Especially younger children but also older children. Without language all all all other aspects of their development would really be ret ret altered radically.

Well language second language development can be quite different from first language development. They’re all there can be points of uh similarity as well. For very young children language development is very natural and learning a second language is as natural as learning the first language, there’s no reason to believe that children are designed to learn only one language. So there’s a common biological basis which children bring to language learning which is available when they’re learning a second language in the same way that it’s available when they’re learning their first language. When children are learning a second language in school you start to get differences in these processes. To a large extent I think because language in school context is used for uh cognitive purposes, for academic purposes. It’s used to extend the child’s uh understanding of the world, to extend the child’s knowledge and it becomes part of intellectual development in a way that is not the same as in uh the home or in the community during the school years. In first languages acquisition languages development is very very much a part of social and personal development. And while there’s obviously some cognitive development going on at the same time languages is never really abstracted from those other processes. Where as in school languages is used to teach other things. Uh and one of the obvious things that it’s used to teach is reading and writing. So children have to grapple with certain aspects of languages in a school setting that they don’t have to grapple with when they’re outside of school. And that is the key in fact goal of education. Is to teach children to be literate in a language. And those skills those literacy skills require uh a uh cognitive skills and meodlinguistic skills, which go beyond what children normally uh are called upon to use outside the school setting.

Uh standardized testing in schools is a 2 edged sword in my opinion when it comes to uh language minority students. It’s a bit of a 2 edged sword when it comes to the education of any child but it’s particularly complex and has important implications for languages minority children. On the one hand I believe that children from a language minority background should not necessarily be excluded from all district wide or state wide test because if that happens you run the risk that these children are ignored. It it provides a convenient excuse for nobody to be accountable for how these children are progressing with respect to local or state ob curricular objectives for example. And uh so as long as children are excluded from standardized testing then they get left in a corner and nobody will need worry about them. But the other side of it is is standardized tests are normed and they’re meaningful in the context performance of of children who are native English speakers from the mainstream cultural background. So that an interpretation of a standardized test score for a language minority student is not straight forward. Uh these children will often be do differently on a standardized test for reason which have uh very little to do with what the test is actually trying to test. So for example if you’re uh giving a standardized test in mathematics for a languages majority student that is primarily a test of their knowledge and skills in mathematics. If you’re testing a language minority student on a standardized mathematics test that is also a test about their language proficiency. So those 2 aspects of their development are are confounded in the case of standardized tests. And uh it takes some sophistication for some people to uh understand that and also to pull those 2 components of test performance apart.

Uh well when teachers are thinking about standardized testing uh for language minority students it may be useful for them to first of al recognize that academic performance and academic performance as it’s demonstrated on a test really is made up of a combination of not only what the children know in the content area such as math or science, but it also represents their ability to express what they know through language. It’s very it’s well accepted now that different areas of the curriculum uh in involve different kinds of language skills. Also the area of mathematics in particular, but also science as well, uh require very specialized kinds of language skills which are particularly useful in those areas of the curriculum and not particularly important in other domains of the curriculum. These specialized language skills are not just specialized vocabulary, although that is very important, but they are it’s specialized forms of discourse or sentence structures. So for example in a science class students may have to use complex verb forms in order to talk about hypothetical situations, because in science we’re often talking about what would happen if you do this to the environment, or what would happen to the animals if this happened to their environment. So when children are listening to this kind of instruction and also when they’re rep giving their understanding of a science lesson, or performing on a science test they have to understand those sentence patterns that go with that uh kind of content area. There are other areas of the curriculum which uh are probably not so highly specialized. So for example social studies is probably more representative of the general kinds of language skills that children need at in a in a in in their lives at large. But when you get to areas like mathematics and science there’s a more circumscribed and more specialized set of language skills and what mainstream teachers may find useful is to think about what are the specialized skills that children need to learn at the same time that they’re learning a unit in science or a unit in mathematics. And build those skills into their uh unit objectives at the same time that they’re building into their objectives be goals with respect to the specific content area.

There are a number of reasons why al teachers in a school need to be responsible for the education of language minority students. And the need to have training to work with uh these students. One of the reasons, one of the very obvious reasons is these students spend far more time with regular students then they do with their ESL teacher. And English or language in general is undoubtley a highly complex skill. And children never stop learning it while they’re in school. So we it’s nieve to think that an ESL teacher or teachers working with these children for an hour a day even can accomplish everything that has to be done in the in giving these kids the kinds of languages skills they need. So uh since mainstream teachers or the regular teachers actually spend more time with these students than the ESL teacher uh this is an opportunity for them to uh extend the students languets learning opportunities throughout the school day. Another reason I think is that professional teachers are res have a sense of responsibility for all of their children, so that I think that most regular teachers will feel frustrated if they uh cannot work with ESL students in the ways the ESL students need attention. So that another reason for regular teachers to be prepared to work with these students I think is a sense of professional responsibility. I don’t think any affective teachers wants to be working with a group of students where some of the students are really getting attention and others are not. And working with these students goes beyond good intentions, it involves knowing something about language acquisition, about the relationship between language cultural development and social development, personal development. And it also means knowing how to use languages to further the students development, in particular it means knowing how it use language to further the students uh academic achievement. And while many most teachers are qualified to do that for English speaking students, they’re not necessarily qualified to do it with uh language minority students because they’re having to work with those students through the medium of the students second language. And that involves a whole other set of insights and skills which they may not have.

I think that for teachers to work with English languages learners uh they need to know a variety things about language and how langue relates to academic development and social development. In the area of academic development I think that all teachers need to know and I think this is something teachers already know, is that there are there are concepts within the academic areas of mathematics and science, which requires specialized kinds of vocabulary. There are specialized terms which are associated with particular areas in the curriculum. But it goes beyond that. There are uh patterns of language use ways of talking about science, ways of talking about history, ways of talking about mathematics, that are more than simply the vocabulary you you use, it’s the sentence structures that you use. When it comes to writing it’s also how you organized written material to talk about a scientific experiment for example or how you organize written language in order to uh do a narrative in a say history class or social studies class. So uh I guess the other aspects of languages are sen sen there are sentence level knowledge, what are the kinds of verb forms that children need to know about, what are the um the meaning that they’re they are trying to convey in that subject matter, uh also there’s the next level up which is text level or some people would say discourse level, which is how do you put sentences together to create a connected text, either an oral text or a written text. And being proficient in these academic areas, mathematics and science especially but certainly in history, but in in language arts as well means knowing how to uh communicate in ways that are um closely liked to those subject matters. So certainly I work at the university level and I work with university students and I believe that when student finish my course, especially a course that I teach in research methods, they not only have to know the subject matter but they have to be able to communicate about it effectively. But in ways that other scientists (interruption)

The kinds of discourse level or text level skills which we want to teach students in science or in or in mathematics or in history for example are skills that we need to language majority students as well as language minority students. And it’s not easily actually for either group of student because we’re asking them to manipulate and use language in ways which is not typical of what they’re normally doing with language. So it so it’s extending the language skills in ways beyond what they normally do in uh their lives outside school. It’s particularly challenging in the case of language minority students because these students may not have a solid base in even the basic communications skills in the language. And so what we’re asking them to go one level higher in terms of sophistication, we’re asking them to manipulate and control language which is demanding for any uh person. It can be particularly demanding for children who don’t have the uh full fluency in the everyday uses of the language. One of the features of this kind of language that I’m referring to, in terms of text level academically uh specialized language, is that it requires a lot of medolinguistic insight about language. And by that I mean it requires that students can reflect on language and they can think about quite consciously what are what are what’s the vocabulary I need here? How do I need to organize this paragraph or this report? How do I need to structure my sentences in order to give an accurate description of my experiment? Or give make a a convincing argument in a social studies project? And using language in those ways requires a conscious knowledge of uh the language, how it’s structured and how it can be manipulated uh for different purposes. So for second language learners this can be particularly demanding because medo linguistic skills don’t come easily to anyone. They often will involve the more proficient you are in your language and because native speakers are already proficient it’s alittle bit easier for them. It may be more difficult for second language learners because they don’t have that core level of proficiency which allows them to step back from language and look at it objectively and say hmmm this is really how I have to do it in my science report and that’s very different from the way I would do it in my in a composition where I’m arguing a case one point of view verses another point of view.

Well I think teachers expectations with respect to students in general but certainly in language minority is critical. I often say to people that I think one of the biggest mistakes we make in working with students is that we underestimate what they can do. And when we underestimate what they can do we expect less of them and we give them less to do and I think that’s a terrible mistake. So it’s very very important with language minority students to expect a lot of them, uh and it’s also to expect a lot of them at the from the very beginning even though they may have very limited proficiency in a language. There’s no reason to think that we have to wait for the language to be fully developed before these students can begin to master their content areas in math or science. Uh language acquisition can go on at the same time that these students are learning uh their math skills, their science skills. Uh this is uh easier with younger learners, it’s more challenging with older learners. Because the content is more abstract and the language is more abstract. But language learning goes on most effectively when it is uh done in conjunction with meaningful and challenging cognitive content. So I don’t think that we need to uh pull back while when students first start learning the language. I think that we should expect that they can accomplish an a an awful lot in both the language and the content domains at the same time. and in fact our expectations for these students should be greater than our expectations for second or for first native speaking children, simply because we are expecting them to to learn twice as much. But this is not an unrealistic set of expectations. These students are capable of it as long as we recognize it that they can do it and as long as we plan our uh instruction uh our curriculum so that we are giving them opportunities to learn language and content at the same time.

When it comes to assessing what students are actually accomplishing in in school it’s very important for teachers to be able to differentiate between what the students have actually learned and know in contrast to how well they can express that knowledge. So there is a difference between uh mastery of some of these content areas and the students ability to express what they know. I work at the university where which is English speaking but 25 percent of the students are native French speakers. Many of them come to the university with very very little proficiency in English. And these students are uh come to the university, they do all of their course work through English and while they’re they’re allowed to do to actually do their post work, their written assignments and their exams in French. And it’s it’s very clear in these cases that that they seem to be struggling uh when we’re teaching them because they’re having to work with a language that they don’t fully understand yet. But when we allow them to express what they know through the medium of their own languages it’s very clear that they’re getting it. And it’s very interesting, very slowly these students will start prefer to use English to do their exams to do their uh assignments because they have developed a proficiency in academic language use in which they don’t have in French at this point. But even then their English language skills may not be as polished or as perfect as a native speaker’s but you can look beyond that. You can look at the content, what are they trying to say? Do they have these concepts? Are they showing some creativity in the way that they’re expressing this knowledge? And once you get beyond that you can you see that they’re they’re developing in these areas and they don’t always express it in ways that are perfect, uh they may lack certain vocabulary, they may make grammatical errors, but you can see that they’ve got it. A and then you need to give them recognition credit for uh getting it and expressing it in whatever way they do. And then use that as an opportunity to try and give them the uh language that they maybe had trouble using uh in an assignment or whatever.

Well pull out programs are very limited for a number of reasons. First of all they’re limited in time. so the student is pulled out of the classroom and spends half an hour 45 minutes a day maybe with a teacher and that’s an extremely limited period of time. because then the rest of the day is spent in a classroom where the teacher may feel that he or she doesn’t really have to accommodate the student’s needs. it’s its’ also very limited in that in many pull out situations the ESL teacher is working with students uh who have different needs, they may even be in different grade levels, and so she’s or he is teaching to a common denominator. Which is the only thing that he or she can do. The problem is that these students have to go back to a classroom and they have very specific language needs and the pull out ESL teacher may not be able to tailor instruction to meet those specific needs. The other obvious problem with pull out ESL is while other students are doing pull out to get ESL instruction they’re missing the instruction in their other content areas. So that we’re giving on what we’re giving on the one hand but taking away with the other, means they have to go back in the class and they’ve missed 45 minutes of instruction. So that are we really doing them a favor? So there are a number of reasons like that why pull our ESL is quite limited.

Bilingual programs uh can be advantageous because they create for the learner an additive bilingual environment. It’s very useful when you’re thinking about language development to distinguish between uh a learning environment that’s additive and one that may be subtractive. And an additive bilingual environment the student is adding English uh to his or her native language. And the child is adding familiarity with a culture to the child’s home culture. So the child has a win win situation. They’re learning 2 things. There’s not a trade off in what’s going on. And bilingual program can be very useful in that respect to the extent that they’re sending the message to the child that we want you to learn English but your home language and home culture are also very valuable. From a strictly psychological point of view that’s a very advantageous situation for that child to be in. in contrast there can be programs non bilingual programs but even bilingual programs in some cases where the message is we want you to learn English and we really don’t care too much about your home language, and or even worse they may say in fact the best way for you to learn English is if you use English as much as possible and try and forget about your home language. The problem with this approach is that these children simply cant forget about their home language. It’s part of who they are, it’s part of their social sense of themselves, it’s part of the uh it’s a skill that they have that allows them to interact with the world, and to simply think that they can give that up without some costs occurring is not realistic. So these kinds of environments where children are having to learn something but it’s done at the expense of something else is psychologically not very advantageous because there is a cost involved and we all know that children are more likely students are much adults for that matter are much more likely to learn when they feel that they’re acquiring something in addition to something they already have and they’re much less likely to learn affectedly if they’re learning at the expense of something they already have, and in many cases want to keep.

Uh in sheltered content programs teachers are trained to teach academic content, math or science, uh using a second language. So they’re very consciously aware of the fact that the medium the language they’re using to teach the content is a language that the students don’t already know. So that they work very systematically at modifying there use of language so that the material is comprehensible to the students. Now at the same time they’re focusing very explicitly on the content areas. So they’re, if it’s a math class they’re very focused on teaching the the students some basic uh calculation skills or problem solving skills or whatever. So the real goal is the content, but they realize that language is(interruption) so the primary objective the the content instruction, but the teacher systematically modify their language so that the content is comprehensible. So for example they might use uh a limited vocabulary or they may simplify their uh sentence structures. They may use a lot of repetition, they may use a lot of demonstrations, all with the goal of making sure that the students understand the content that they’re trying to teach. But at the same time uh teachers who use the sheltered approach are also promoting language development, and they’re doing that at the same time that they’re doing content instruction.

Well there are different there are different times and different reasons why you might focus on language verses focusing on content. In general I think when you’re working with English language learners you never want to be focusing only on language. Part of the reasons for that I think is most students are not very interested in learning about language just for the sake of the language. Uh on the other hand they are interested in learning about language if it will help them in their math class or their science class. So there are times when a teacher may want to have and should be having lessons on uh language but it in my opinion it should be language that’s related to the the demands of the rest of the curriculum or the students needs elsewhere in the curriculum. So a focu on language in that case is providing relevant language instruction. There’s a danger if if teachers focus exclusively on language without reference to content that the language content of the language comes irrelevant, it becomes abstracted from what the students really need. And then arguably it may not be serving them as well as it could. But there clearly are other times when it’s most effective to uh focus on the content, in fact one of the break throughs I guess in the last 20 years or so that we’ve had in the area of language learning is to recognize that most people learn language uh very effectively when it’s learned in conjunction with other interesting material. So that the content, the mathematics or the science that the teacher is teaching is a vehicle for the child to learn language. The content provides something meaningful that can be used to map onto language. It provides a context with which communication skills can be acquired. Otherwise language is being acquired in the abstract and most students I think are are not interested in language per say. They may not be interested in mathematics or science either but we probably can expect that we should know how to make mathematics and science instruction interesting and if that happens then they will also learn the math and science they need to master that material.

Well I think maybe the most sign important ingredient in a successful uh classroom with English language uh learners is a classroom which has fully engaged students. Students who are uh interested in what’s going on and they’re interested in getting involved with with what’s going on. Uh I think it’s also speaks to a classroom where students feel that they are competent and students who feel that they are valued in that classroom because without that sense of themselves the students probably don’t want to get engaged and get involved. Without engagement there can be very little language learning. And the more fully we can engage uh our students, English language learners in particular, the better we have a chance that they well learn the language skills that we want them to learn.

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