Is it time for a moratorium on academic language?

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The Educational Linguist

I recently met with representatives of a school district with a large and growing number of Latino students. The consensus of these district representatives was that their Latino students were struggling academically because they have failed to master the “academic language” that was needed for school success. I have heard variants of this narrative throughout my career as a teacher and researcher with the language proficiency of Latinos dismissively referred to as “playground language” that provides little foundation for the type of academic language that they need to be successful in school. But what exactly is academic language?

When I ask this question I often receive a variant of two responses. The first response is that playground language is the contextualized language of social interaction while academic language is the decontextualized language of schooling. The argument is that the contextualized nature of playground language makes it less complex and easier…

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What if we talked about monolingual White children the way we talk about low-income children of color?

Here is a wonderful post from Nelson Flores over at Educational Linguist. Conversations about the “language gap” falsely position non-Standard-English-speaking families and children as flawed.  This brilliant piece of satire helps show what the problem is with that way of treating these students.  We cannot effectively educate students of color if we continue to view them as somewhat deficient versions of White children.  Instead, we need to study and capitalize on their strengths, many of which are completely absent from the repertoires of children from the dominant culture.

We could add to this article, “Monolingual children have been shown to have lower executive function than bilingual children, leaving them ill-prepared for the impulse control and higher-level thinking that are required in schools. The effects are far-reaching: monolinguals have been shown to be at increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease in adulthood.”  Any other facts about the “scourge of monolingualism” that should be included?

What if we talked about monolingual White children the way we talk about low-income children of color?.

About the NPR News piece “Mexican-American Toddlers: Understanding The Achievement Gap”

We need to stop thinking of poor kids and minority kids as deficient versions of middle-class white kids. They are not. They have a range of appropriate skills according to how they have been socialized in their community, and the role of schools is to serve kids based on the skills they bring into kinder. Traditional school is designed to serve middle-class white kids, building on the skills most of those kids learned at home (letters, numbers, answering questions the asker already knows the answer to) but doesn’t assume that they have skills like storytelling, interpersonal problem-solving, multilingualism, or creativity with language, so those are taught at school. Meanwhile, kids who DO come in with those strengths (typically minority students) but lacking the ones that white kids have are labeled as not ready for school. What if school was redesigned to build on the strengths that minority kids already demonstrate, and to teach them what they don’t know yet? Isn’t that why we have kids go to school for at least 13 years?

School for Linguists

After reading this piece on the NPR website, as well as the research article it reports on, I felt I had to write to the ombudsman. The text of my letter follows.

Dear Ombudsman:

In the story “Mexican-American Toddlers: Understanding the Achievement Gap” on last week’s All Things Considered, I was disappointed not to hear a response to Bruce Fuller from an expert on bilingual and multicultural education. Including this perspective would have highlighted two significant problems with the piece: first, that Dr. Fuller’s research is framed in a highly anglocentric way, and second, that some of the claims he made on the radio are not supported by his research.

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Newseum is a no-brainer for all social studies classrooms

I always love free sources for high-quality reading material. I also love resources that integrate literacy and content instruction. Newseum looks like a great site for teachers who want to teach reading, history, and civics through close study of primary sources, and Glenn Wiebe has written a great post to orient you to its offerings.

History Tech

I’ve been on a current events kick lately. A recent newsletter from social studies guru Mike Hasley reminded me of another awesome news resource called Newseum. And apparently I’ve never really posted anything about Newseum here at History Tech.

Not sure how I’ve never gotten around to that. The Newseum is a very cool, actual museum located in Washington DC with a powerful online presence. Their mission is to “champion the five freedoms of the First Amendment through exhibits, public programs and education.” And I know that you’ve got one or two other museum choices in DC but if you’re in the area, the Newseum is a very fun place to spend some time. Last time I visited, they had an awesome exhibit highlighting Pulitzer Prize winner photographs and the stories behind them. Amazing.

But the cool thing is that even if you can’t make it across the country to make an actual…

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Setting up Independent Reading

To become good readers, kids need to read.  Instruction is important, but the only way we can turn our students into skilled, passionate readers who wield literacy to accomplish their purposes is by giving them tons of opportunities to practice.  Kids need massive exposure to print to develop their fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, knowledge, thinking skills, and interests.

Teachers know they need to instruct kids in phonics, in comprehension skills, in literary genres, and so on, but one key prerequisite skill often gets overlooked in all the standards-aligned fuss: how to sit down with a book and read.  We need to teach our kids this skill like we would any other.  We need to explain, model, guide practice, and give feedback.

I always tell teachers and students that there are three rules to independent reading.  They are simple and comprehensive:

  1. Stay seated.
  2. Be quiet.
  3. Read the whole time.

That’s it.  These rules cover everything.  They mean no going to the bathroom.  No whispering to your friends.  No getting up to choose new books from the library.  No flipping aimlessly through the pages.  No asking the teacher questions, either (because you’ll be conferencing with students–more on that in another post).  I tell my kids, “You are on a date with your book.  You need to play close attention to it and ignore everything else.”  (This cracks second-graders up.)

First, post the rules and read them to students.  Solicit from students what each rule means, and get them thinking about the implications with questions like, “So according to these rules, can I go to the bathroom during independent reading?  Can I get up and change my books?” (Answers: No and no.)  Also brainstorm what to do if problems arise: “What happens if I finish reading all my books?” (Answer: read them again.)  More common questions and answers at the end of the post.

Second, get kids set up.  Remind them that they must have books at their level that they are interested in reading, and that they must have enough so they don’t run out.  Get them all seated, silent, and holding a book.  Tell them the stamina goal for the day: “We’re going to do independent reading for X minutes today.”  Independent reading doesn’t start until everyone is ready, and then it’s an event.  Hold a timer, and bring my voice to a whisper as you count down to launch: “We’re starting in 3, 2, 1, read!”

Third, monitor: Kids are going to forget the rules.  When you see a kid violating an independent reading rule (out of forgetfulness, not defiance), SILENTLY get their attention (wave, walk up to them, catch their eye) and SILENTLY point to the rule they are not following.  SILENTLY redirect them.  Note the emphasis on SILENCE: you are showing respect for your students’ reading time by maintaining quiet so they can concentrate.  Even the teacher is not above this policy.

Fourth, review: Ensure you have 2-3 minutes at the end of independent reading.  As you regain students’ attention, give them a moment to finish their page or their paragraph (another good reader habit) rather than demand instant attention.  Have everyone put down their books and look up at you.  The class reads Rule 1 chorally, and you ask the reflection question: “Put your thumb up if you followed Rule 1.  Put your finger up if you know you need to do better.”  (Don’t do thumbs down–the finger up emphasizes reflection and improvement.)  Everyone must show a thumb or finger.  Proceed this way through the other two rules.

Continue the review the next day.  Don’t assume that students will follow the rules one day because they followed them the day before.  Review each rule: have students read them, and ask questions again, focusing particularly on scenarios that were problematic the day before (e.g. “What if someone starts talking to you?”)

“At what grade can you start this?” Kindergarten, with pre-reading activities like picture walks.

“How long should independent reading last?”  Day 1 should be no longer than 3 minutes for K-2, and 5 minutes for 3rd+.  Add 1-2 minutes per day as students build stamina.  Aim for:

  • K: 10 min
  • 1st: 15 min
  • 2nd: 20 min
  • 3rd+: 30 min (longer in 4/5 if you have time)

“Can I really expect them to be silent?”  Almost.  Until they read at a rate of 60 words correct per minute, students need to vocalize as they read.  Kids in K-1 and sometimes 2-3 should be permitted to read aloud.  Coach them on reading in a low or whisper voice so as not to distract others.  Beyond the 60 wcpm, students should be silent.  And believe me, they come to love this peaceful, focused time of day.

“When do they choose books?”  Some other time.  I have groups rotate through the class library during centers time.  1-2 groups per day get to change their books, and they know they needed to choose enough to last them during independent reading until the next visit.  Or I have independent reading right after recess, and students can go out to recess as soon as their books are set up.  They can choose to spend a couple minutes picking new books before they go out to play.

“What if it’s a bathroom EMERGENCY?” Whatever the normal procedure for this is in your class.  In mine, it’s miss 5 minutes of recess to make up the reading time.

“Why do they need to read at their assessed levels?  Why can’t they just pick books based on interest?”  More on this in the next post …

Q1: What challenges do you face when teaching English learners to read and write?

Q1: What challenges do you face when teaching English learners to read and write? 

Rdng & wrtg aren’t just using letters; they’re ways to communicate. If you don’t know the language, rdng & wrtg seem meaningless.

I used to give all my students a decoding test that included nonsense words.  “They might have memorized hop,” I was told, “So you have to test them on zop.”  Now, I’m a firm believer in the value of direct instruction in and assessment of phonics skills, but as literacy educators, we can never lose sight of the fact that reading and writing as methods of communication, and meaningful communication must be at the center of all literacy instruction.  As children learn to read, they should experience the joy of realizing that the letters on the page come together to make words they know and sentences they understand.  Kids need that connection in order to check and self-correct: “The cat says moo.  Oh, wait, no, that’s cow.”

We need to keep this in mind even more when teaching our ELLs to read and write.  For a child with no English, hop is no more sensible than zop, and whether it’s cats or cows who moo is a mystery.  We need to layer literacy on the language that children have.  This means starting with home-language literacy instruction whenever possible.  This is politically controversial, but the science is solid: L1 literacy has enormous benefits, including eventual stronger reading ability in English.  Ask any second-grade bilingual teacher: the kids who are fluent readers in Spanish quickly become fluent readers in English, while the kids who struggle in the first language lack the foundation for the second.

When English reading and writing is introduced, the focus must again be on meaningful communication.  Right now, I work with newcomers, recent immigrant students with very little English.  When I teach new sound-spelling patterns, I stick exclusively to words that are already in their oral vocabulary, like sister and hand, but not sip or hop.  Because they are already literate in Spanish, my students can handle two-syllable words (sis-ter) and final consonant blends (hand), which makes those easier to read than short but unfamiliar words.

Bottom line: layer ELLs’ initial literacy instruction on top of their oral language knowledge!

Q7: Sometimes we have to be creative to reach our students. What have you created in your classroom to help #ELL?

Q7: Sometimes we have to be creative to reach our students. What have you created in your classroom to help #ELL?

Posters that connect new concepts to known info in Spanish, e.g. a chart showing how Eng long vowels would be spelled in Sp.

Our ELLs come to school with age-appropriate language skills in another language.  We need to maximize the use of these skills for their learning!  Very few published materials ask teachers to deliberately connect new learning in English to known information in students’ home languages.  Even if you don’t share a language with them, you can be on the lookout for ways to make connections, even if it’s just asking your students, “How would you say this in Arabic?”