ANNA UHL CHAMOT
Anna Uhl Chamot an associate professor at the George Washington University in Washington D.C. in the Department of Teacher Preparation in Special Education and my job there is as faculty advisor to English as a second language and foreign language which mean that I’m involved in the preparation at the graduate level of future teachers of languages whether ESL or foreign language.
Um as part of the national capitol language resource center of which I’m co-director which is one of nine um foreign language resource centers around the country. Uh I uh was involved in a study that lasted for six years of looking at uh children in foreign language immersion programs and we looked at three immersion schools. One was a French immersion school, one was a Spanish immersion school and one was a Japanese partial immersion school. And at the beginning we did a lot of classroom observation and talking to the teachers to get a feel for the kinds of things that were going ar—on in the classrooms. And then we on uh we the teachers helped us rank all of their children in the classes that were going to participate as outstanding language learners average language learners or below average language learners and so we had them all ranked in order and then um we randomly pick two students to children from the top ranked and two from the lowest ranked. Um and those were our subjects. We continued to follow the same children over six years except when they left the school and then we would replace anyone that left with a new child. So for some of the children we do have six years of data and what we did once a year was to interview the children uh with a think aloud protocol and what that was was that we first of all modeled to them what it’s like to think aloud. So we would uh put together a puzzle and think aloud about what we were think how we were deciding which piece to use and every thing so that the children would get an idea of what it was like and this thinking aloud was done partly in the target language and partly in English because these were English speaking children learning uh another language and so we what we wanted to model is for this particular situation it’s okay if you speak a mixture of the two languages because we really want to know what you think and if you can express it in the target language that’s great, if you want to resort English that great too. And so then we gave them some simple tasks to to think aloud with that didn’t have anything to do what we were really studying. Um our our senior researcher on the on the project, Katherine Keatly, has a wonderful idea which was that we would give the children little prizes at the completion of each section of the interview so after they practiced thinking aloud we said oh there are four paper cups on this table and there’s a surprise under each one you pick the one you want right now of course this is a great motivating uh device I I just through it out there for anyone that’s working with children. It’s such a simple thing I mean they had things like erasers and pencils and uh buttons and stickers those were the prizes but anyway uh it was a nice it was a nice motivating uh element. And then we um had selected with the teachers uh a group of uh stories from books that were similar to the ones that children had read in their class in the target language but were not the same ones then in other words they were new new books new stories and we had selected several pages for them to read. We started of with um a story that was estimated to be at the grade level and if it proved too difficult uh we would say something like oh wait a minute I I think I have a much better story that you’ll like better than this one and we’d go one layer down uh to get an easier story for them to read or if they read through something just with no hesitation no problems you’d say that was wonderful I’ve got another story for you and then we would give them one that was slightly more difficult. Uh because we wanted the text to um present a challenge not an impossible challenge because we felt that if it were a little bit hard if there were some words they didn’t know that that would elicit more use of learning strategies. So as they read we would stop them periodically and uh ask them to tell us what they were thinking for instance before they started reading we said wait wait a minute before you start reading what are you thinking right now? You’re looking at at the story but you haven’t really started reading it what are you thinking. And they would generally refer to the picture and sometimes to the title you know good reading strategies and then uh they would talk and the recorder was running of course all the time and then when they would finish the reading task and gotten another little prize uh we had a writing task and we had a series of six pictures illustrations from children’s books and we said okay choose one of these that you would like to write about and of the six only about three got chosen we thought all six were wonderfully motivating but um most of the boys chose one which was showed a picture of a dinosaur with uh like a dogs collar around it’s neck and a leash and tiny little boy leading it along and all the boy practically chose that one. One of the other pictures was from a fairy tale and it showed uh about a twelve year old princess rushing through an enchanted forest with all her beautiful clothes and her little crown and most of the girls chose that one. Uh didn’t matter really. So then we asked them I said okay you’ve chosen your picture now what do want to write about it? And what we found is that most of the information we got was what they were planning to write about because by the time they talked through what they wanted to say there wasn’t too much time left to write but some of them wrote more than others and it depended on their level of proficiency. And then they got their last prize and and that was that. So we then um an—transcribed of course all of these interviews and um analyzed them to see if we could come up with some kind of a classification of their any evidence of their learning strategies and you know a a lot of people criticize learning strat--- language learning strategies researchers because each one of us seems to develop our own texonomy. Now I had previously developed a texonomy which I’ve thought worked just fine but I had some new researchers on the team and they wanted to start with a grounded theory approach where they were would not start with any preconceived ideas but let the data speak. I which they did and um come up with some very similar learning strategies to the other texonomies which in a way’s a test of of their validity. Um and so they got classified as meta-cognitive or cognitive um because of the interview situation we didn’t really get any social affective strategies that we could really be sure of so it it just didn’t come up I think because of the one on one interview. And in looking at the children um we found that the less proficient children in each language resembled very much the younger children both more proficient and less proficient. In the reading strategies for example um they their their main strategy was decoding. They would sound out the word and some times that worked often it didn’t because they still couldn’t recognize the word it was still a new word and so th-they couldn’t sort of go beyond that so that was true for most of the younger children and for the weaker older children. Then um the strategy that began to appear as children became more proficient was making inferences and this was a feature of older students were able to inferences and the better language learners were able to make inferences so you know we found and and again it’s the difference between bottom up processing and top down processing. Umthat’s one example. Another example that fascinated me was that all virtually all of the more proficient the better language learners use prediction as a strategy pro—perhaps they had been taught it by their teachers I I sort of think they had been but they were actually using it independently. I’d say well I’m looking at the picture and I see this man with this umbrella and it’s pouring with rain but he’s not using his umbrella and I wonder why maybe it’s a magic umbrella maybe the umbrella is too precious and he don’t want to get it wet. So I think that maybe this story is going to be about some kind of a fantastic umbrella that kind of prediction. Of course the story wasn’t about anything of the sort it was totally different but um what we found when we looked at the predictions and compared them to the stories is that not a single one of the predictions was accurate. And but yet predicting was a feature of the better reader and the better language learners. And so our conclusion was that prediction at the beginning of a story is valuable for other reasons beyond the accuracy of the prediction in a way that almost doesn’t matter. It’s like it’s a way of getting into the story and of wondering about the story and then reading on to confirm or disconfirm. Once you’re in the story of course you’re able to make a more of an accurate prediction. So I I find that absolutely fascinating. Um one of the conclusions of the study was that these children were learning to read in French or in Spanish or even in Japanese very much like native English speakers learn to read in English. That the reading process the developmental process there weren’t a lot of differences. They were going through the same kinds of stages. Um the one’s in Spanish and French made much faster progress because they were in full immersion and they had a kindred language that they were working with. The one’s in Japanese were making much slower progress only half a day in Japanese um and they had the difficulties of the alphabet and they had to learn new strategies for dealing with that which were taught explicitly by the teachers and which the children picked up on. Um one of the most interesting things that I think is the the longitude (?) data that we have on a sum set of students and to follow students through years um we found for one thing that some children that start off as good language learners two or three years later were no longer good language learners and vice a versa we found that uh some of the students at the beginning when we ask them to say what are you thinking they’d say nothing. Oh I don’t know and yet those same children two or three years later were able to tell us their thinking. So were really saw a developmental sequence in the development of meta-cognition. But I mean some six year olds were very aware of their own thinking processes which really surprised us we didn’t expect anything like that. So I’m sorry if I’m going on too long about it but it’s it’s a wonderful study we still have more data to analyze.
The reversal of effectiveness in learners from one year to the next we talked with teachers about that because we couldn’t understand it and um what the teachers found for instance in some case there had been a big family problem like a parental divorce or something like that and everything just went down for that child that particular year which is understandable. Uh sometimes um there was a mismatch between the teachers personality and the child’s personality. So I think it was more external factors uh from what the teachers told us but you know that really wasn’t an aspect of this study so we didn’t go into that in a lot depth. But it it was fairly idiosyncratic uh mostly if they started off as good language learners they continued. Some of the ones that started off as poor language learners did get better. And of course some of the ones that didn’t get better were taken out of the program cause they were not encountering success.
The difference between learning a foreign language in an immersion setting and learning a second language in the country where that is the language that is spoken mostly anyway um I I think that in foreign immersion classroom of course uh children are really have one model which is that of the teacher and so they will develop academic language and their social language development definitely lags because they don’t have a lot of exposure to it uh some of the schools um did arrange when children got to fifth or sixth grade trips to the country where the language is spoken uh home-stay so they could interact with other children their age and everything. To bu- but it’s never the same as actually being in a school where there’s speakers of the language are try to learn. And and so I I think their language development as remarkable as it is did have it’s limitations um and of course as with all immersion programs some aspects of of the language were really not mastered even though the children sounded marvelously fluent even by the fourth grade they they really sounded great even in Japanese, I I mean the the Japanese program which is in Fairfax county in Virginia has been featured on national TV and all kind of things because I mean the children are just fabulous. But still there are things that are lacking there are certain mistakes that they make um that probably would be corrected if they had more social interaction.
The difference between a good language learner and a not so good language learner. Um of course this is a difference that teachers language teachers recognize right a way uh I think the issue is to find out what students are doing what their thinking processes are that distinguish the good learner from the not so good learner. Um a lot of research has been done making these comparisons and some of the difference is definitely learning strategies. Uh some of the work that I’ve been involved in with high school ESL students um one of things that has struck me is that the good language learner is constantly drawing on what they have learned through their native language to inform them and to help them in learning the second language. They’re really using their own native language as a resource. Where as the less effective language learner very often thinks that there’s no connection and so it’s like they’re operating as as a blank tablet and they have nothing to fall back on. Um in one of the studies that I did we asked students these were high school student did anything that you learned in school in your native country help you with school here in the United States and the good language learners had lots of examples they would say things like oh yeah I really new math really well in my country so now what I have to work on hard is the word problems cause I don’t understand all the words but once I figure that out I know the math I’m fine. Another student would talk about oh we studied a lot of geography in my country and of course geography in even Spanish or English are almost the same I have to learn how to pronounce them and sometimes the spelling’s a bit different but I know what a peninsula is I know what a isthmus is. Uh so I it’s not something I have to learn and even process skills like I remember one girl said I had a wonderful teacher in Guatemala who taught us how to do oral reports and how to practice them at home and how to you know not be nervous in front of an audience and how to pace ourselves and all these things and said now in ESL class when we have to book reports I do everything my Guatemalan teacher told me to do I do it in English and I add one more thing, I bring in some kind of pictures or or diagram or something that I can show the students so if they don’t understand my accent they can still understand what I’m trying to say. This is a good language learner. Where as um some of the children or not children but adolescence that we ask you know the question about did anything in in school in your country help you with school in the United States they would look at us as if it was a really stupid question and say well no and then they’d explain you see in my country school was all in Spanish and here school is all in English so of course nothing I’d learned in my country is of any use at all here. I mean no one had ever taught them about transfer. (Laugh) no teacher had ever said look you already know a lot of stuff. So I I find that is very very important for teachers to not assume that their students are making transfers. Some do and and some it just doesn’t seem to occur to them. So they can help this their poor learners become better learners uh uh I’m sorry go ahead.
My experiences with uh transfer between languages it interesting because as students become proficient there is transfer from the second language back to the first languages well it works in both directions. Um I think uh you only have to look at cognitive learning theory for an explanation and the explanation is that we learn new content new information by making associations with prior knowledge. If we are learning in a new language our prior knowledge is all in our first language. If we shut that off and lock it up we have to learn everything for the first time to build up new prior knowledge and that takes a really long time. If we simply access our prior knowledge we then make modifications in what we know in our native language and apply those modifications to what we’re learning in the new language. So on on the if you look at the research literature in cognitive theory there is absolutely no question but everyone has found that that value of prior knowledge is the big determinant in how well we learn new things. Uh so it is really unconscionable to not allow students to access their prior knowledge just because that prior knowledge happens to be in a language other than English.
I would like to reflect on on the whole issue of uh native language instruction in a program whether it’s called bi-lingual education or dual-language instruction or you know there there’s a lot of terminology out there now a days. Um there is a tremendous amount of of research showing that the more you know in your first language the better you’re going to be in your second language and this is the basic rational for developing students cognitive academic language ability in their native language. Um before or at least during at the time they are acquiring a second language. Um I come from a part of the country where the only bi-lingual programs we have are dual immersion programs where uh half of the class is in this case in my case in the Washington D.C. area Spanish speaking the other half is English speaking and both groups of children are in the same grade and in the same class and they spend half the day learning in one language and the other half in the other and we know that these programs are tremendously successful both for the English speakers and for the non-English speakers and learning both languages pretty swell um and we do not in in my area have other than that any kinds of bilingual. The reason is because the Washington D.C. area has immigrants from all over the world as you might imagine and there are I think in in D.C. in the District of Columbia public schools alone more than a hundred and twenty languages represented. So this is used uh as a reason or an excuse of why really we have to work on the ESL programs. But I I believe that even ESL teachers can make use of students or the resources that a student brings with their native language. Um I have just um completed a study uh of high school students who are not literate in their native language and uh their ESL teachers have been working with them uh to provide some foundation in the kind of concepts that are going to be introduced in English in the native language. In this case the students in this study were Spanish speakers because that is the largest group. But uh the point is that these are ESL teachers but hey were able those that spoke enough Spanish to provide some comparisons between the two languages because we are dealing with cognitively mature students uh that can analyze and and can see oh yah English has some silent letters well guess what so does Spanish, not as many, but the concept is the same and to to point these kinds of linguistic things out really help them learn the English um and understand it rather than just learning in a wrote manner. So um I I think that even if if a teacher is not in a bilingual setting that teacher can find ways to use the native language as a resource. Sometimes it’s even uh a simple question of respecting the native language and and questions like well how do you say that in your language and can you write it so we can all see it uh just that level of your language is okay and you do know something that kind of acceptance when you know a full blown native language instruction program isn’t possible I think helps a lot.
I’m just completing a study with high schools students who were diagnosed by the schools as not only beginners in learning English but also as having had huge educational gaps. By huge I mean at least four recent years of not being in school at all. And these are um identified as low literacy students meaning that they either are barely literate in Spanish their native language or that they in fact are not literate at all in Spanish. And we have conducted a three year study with two different groups of of these students in the Washington D.C. area. Uh we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to develop literacy with older students and there is not a lot written about this particular age group. There is a lot about developing literacy with young children. There’s a lot out there adult literacy. Um but of course if you’re in school the topics that you need to learn to read and write about are school related topics not so much vocational related topics as happens with adult literacy and certainly not topics that young children uh find interesting so finding the materials was quite a challenge and we ended up creating some of our own. Uh we ended up working closing with the participating teachers because they had had some experience with working these students with these students but um as with most secondary teachers they had never had a course in how to teach beginning reading because this is not part of the secondary teacher preparation curriculum. There’re courses in you know how to help somebody become a better reader but not how to start off in the beginning. So we provided that course work for the participating teachers and took some principles from reading instruction with you children and try to apply it to the needs of more cognitively mature students. And we ended up teaching um a balance literacy approach because uh we wanted the students to experience some kind of aunthen--- at least semi-authentic reading. Something that wasn’t manufactured slow solely with the idea of controlling grammar and vocabulary. Um and we also wanted them to have the building blocks of reading so we did have in every lesson uh a chuck of activities that involved word attack. Now as a person who believes that the glory of reading is reading for comprehension and reading wonderful stories and interesting biographies and things like that uh I thought these these poor high school kids are going to be so bored with these word attack lessons but the reading specialist that designed the lessons actually made them more like a mystery game. Okay now here are some words. I bet you can figure out how to pronounce them. Um what do you know about some other words that look like this, I’m not going to tell you how to pronounce them you have to do it. And uh in observing the classrooms I found that it was fine. The students, even though they were high school age, they really enjoyed the word attack ac—activities. Um I think they realize that is was something they could manage to learn. Um that is was important and that it gave them a tool for unlocking the pronunciation of words, the first step to reading comprehension. Um so so that that was very effective. Um we we you know did give them stories to read. It was really really interesting um to watch them work with stories because no one apparently in their previous schooling had ever had them do more than decode and read out loud and even when we had them read in Spanish and they could you know more or less decode the sentences um and would ask them a simple comprehension question they couldn’t answer it. They just did not have that background. So it it points out to me that you really need to start with comprehension um reading a loud is not enough you need to understand what you’re reading and that you need to move from literal to the inferential. I remember uh I was observing a class once. The children or students rather were reading in Spanish and the teacher um asked them some questions about the text and they were learning how to extract the meaning and answer the questions and the story was about um a boy I think in El Salvador who had to leave and come to America, that kind of story. And so the teacher uh then asked them um have you ever had an experience like this, has anything like this ever happen to you and every single student in that class immediately went back to the book going through the pages trying to find the answer and the teacher said wait a minute wait a minute listen to the question has anything like this ever happen to you. The answer's not in the book. The answer’s in your head and this was a really new concept. So I mean some of these basic things even if students are already reading a little bit in English they really need comprehension work that they you know I I think it’s tremendously important because they may not have had those kinds of questions in their prior educational experiences.
In in this particular all of the participating schools um their classes were on block schedules which meant that they had ninety minutes. So each literacy class was ninety minutes long. The students a signed to this class this was the class that they took as a preparation for the first level of ESL, so it was below first level ESL. Uh they were identified as special needs students or as literacy students depending on the school district. Um they also had other courses during the day obviously in English and in some schools some of the students also had classes in Spanish for fluent speakers, which was nice. Um so they had a variety of other experiences but in this ninety minute class um they they spent time working of vocabulary uh a lot of time working of word attack a lot of time spent in reading sometimes spent in learning how to write uh in some cases these uh uh students they a-a- they ranged in age from fourteen to twenty. In in some cases these students had to be taught handwriting and we had a really big issue whether to teach them manuscript printing or cursive writing as their first hand writing. And we let the teachers solve that on an individual basis because I’m not aware of any research out there of which is better for an older learner. Uh I know the research for younger learners. But uh so so we just let sort of the teachers and the students choose which um we found in the uh for instance in the Spanish writing samples done at pre-test that many of the students had no concept of what a word was. When we – first when we tried to read their reading samples we couldn’t make sense of them and then I suggested let’s read them out loud and when we read them out loud then they made sense and it was talk written down with out any knowledge of word boundaries. So we would have three words written as one word, one word written as three or four words. Uh you know the spacing was totally arbitrary. So um this is one things they learned I think is you know where they say how how to segment words. Because of course until you’re literate you don’t know how to do that. Uh speech is a stream of sound and and you know what is a word. So uh it we learn a lot of things about teaching them. Uh we we structured we we developed the curriculum with the teacher’s guidance and uh with their input for revision and corrections and uh we we ended up with four lessons a week ninety minutes each because the teachers needed the fifth day of the week for things like sustained silent reading uh for extra projects, sometime for review, sometimes it was a holiday and assembly day what ever so we planned for only four uh sessions a week and that worked pretty well.
The difference between second language acquisition by adolescence and children um I think the main difference obviously is a developmental one. Um children in by observation are very anxious to do whatever the teacher asks them to do whatever they see. I think adolescence also what to belong to a group just as children do but they have conflict with who is my group. Where as with young children my group is who ever else is in my class and uh so children um probably learn more implicitly without the level analysis that adolescence bring and my experience with adolescence who with limited educational backgrounds is that they’re just as analytical it’s just that they don’t have an analytical labels of things. Uh but it it’s not a question not being able to think at all or lack of intelligence or anything like that. Uh but they just haven’t been asked to put labels on on the ways that they analyze things. Um I I think children probably don’t analyze as much they um are very very good at grabbing on to formulaic uh patterns and using them because it gains them ontray into what ever the game is. With adolescence there is so much more language they have to learn. I mean a six-year-old can sound really competent in a language with a limit amount of language actually. A twelve year old or a fifteen year old has to learn an awful lot more in order to sound competent in that language. Um much less the demands of reading and writing. So the uh learning curve and length of time for adolescence is so much greater that I think it’s really discouraging for them and that’s why we get a lot of school drop outs. They don’t experience success. It just seems impossible to get through high school so they give up. Um I I don’t know how to solve this problem. I think we need probably year round schooling and mandatory summer school and after school study and longer school days and Saturday school and I I don’t know I don’t know how to solve the problem with adolescence. But um the the whole issue that Cummins and Collier have pointed out about how long it takes to get the academic language. We found out in the literacy study there’s no quick fix. We think we gave one year of intensive excellent excellent interaction and all of our students made progress but the gap is still enormous. So um one year is a drop in the bucket it really is.
For literacy. There was one class for literacy but they had other classes. Um for both ESL and content.
Well uh if if English language learners don’t have access to core curriculum they’re never going to be able to achieve their full potential. Um they’re going to be in a second class track and they’re probably going to drop out before they finish high school. Then they’re going to spend their lives cleaning offices and working a McDonald’s and doing things like that. And uh it’s a terrible waste of human resources because they’re smart you know they could do lots more. But I don’t I don’t think the schools are serving them. Now the the problem when you get to secondary with the core curriculum is the literacy demands are enormous and also the assumption of prior knowledge in the different disciplines are enormous. Um I think ESL has to be content based ESL to start getting into the academic language from day one and uh I wa—I you know I tell some of my teachers that that I’m teaching my students that are going to be teachers I said you know worry about developing literacy and academic language. The social language in an immigrant situation is probably going to take care of it self. You know it’s nice to do both but if you have to choose go for the literacy because that’s the key to the core curriculum and and to being successful and um you know it it’s the same of course with young children, literacy is is key to everything so I’m I’m a great advocate of getting the literacy as soon as possible. I know that being literate in one language has tremendous transfer to developing literacy in a second language. You I mean we all know you learn how to read one time. And once you’ve learned how to read then you learn how to read in a different language uh and two or three or four languages as people in other countries do. Um this is not a big deal. It’s the initial process that uh is challenging.
Well interestingly in an immersion program they don’t really focus on form very much and that’s one reason why uh children in immersion programs, I mean one presumed reason why children in in immersion programs um do develop some bad habits and do avoid certain grammatical structures because they’re not given formal instruction um in form focus on form. Um I I think when I’m talking about academic language and literacy, I mean language and literacy, academic language includes oral language it’s not just written language. And I think that is definitely the arena where you do focus on form. I think when you have to write correctly that’s when you realize that gee the past of tense of English even if you can’t hear it du—you do have to put in that d uh when you’re writing uh and I I think that this helps students. The other things is students want to sound like their peers. I’ve all their peers are speaking a form of pigeonized English then that is the in way to talk and that’s how they’re going to talk. I think what we can hope to do is develop a second dialect of English which is more academic and more standard in in in it’s focus and would call that part of the academic language. Um uh I think that where you have large numbers of students who are not interacting with native speaking peers that then they do become separate and marginalized and they need to be integrated obviously with English speaking peers. Um very often we know that our immigrant students uh come from a very poor background. They’re living in a low socioeconomic sta—uh le—uh part of of a town or a city and uh the schools reflects the power to give the surrounding community and so the native English speakers that they may have access to may also speak a non-standard dialect of English but that is the way you talk in order to have friends and to socialize this is a common human thing uh so again I think the only chance really is through working on the academic language that you know it’s okay to talk the way you’re friends talk when you’re talking with your friends but when we’re in school academic language works this way and uh I think literacy simply reinforces it and helps to develop it.
The thing that I think is most important for both pre-service and in-service teachers to know that are working with English learners is that all teachers have to collaborate with each other. It is not only the ESL teacher’s job to develop the second language English for immigrant students who speak a language other that English. It’s the job of every person in the school where that child is going at whatever age. It’s everyone’s job. We know it takes a long time to develop full proficiency in English. A much longer time that any student is going to be in ESL. When that student exits from ESL all the content area teachers all the general education teachers they are going to be developing English just as their ESL counterparts are doing and I think this means that these different teachers need to come together. Form alliances and partnerships and work together because the second language acquisition process does take time and the only way to make it a little bit faster is for everybody to be in on it and I would include everybody in the school not just to all the teachers. Counselors, administrators, caretakers, custodians, secretaries, everybody uh has a responsibility to help English language learners.