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?.

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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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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?”

Q6: How much and what kind of professional development is necessary to teach #ELL?

Q6: How much and what kind of professional development is necessary to teach #ELL?

Tchrs must learn to make tchng comprehensible to diff proficiency levels: use visuals, repetition, models.

We need to help our ELLs to keep up with content learning even as they are acquiring English.  That means we have to go beyond traditional approaches to presenting content: oral explanations and written directions.  Instead, we have to tear down those language barriers by using a variety of techniques that make our meaning plain to students who do not necessarily share our language.  Teachers need to accompany linguistic information with pictures, graphic organizers, and demonstrations.  They need to encourage their students to clarify their understanding by discussing content with peers, in English or another language.  They need to keep posters around the room that students can use as “anchors,” visual reminders of how to do important processes and engaged with key concepts in your class.

But teachers can’t be expected to figure all this out on their own.  For mainstream teachers of ELLs, professional development should be focused on teaching them how to ensure their ELLs don’t fall behind.  I like SIOP and Universal Design for Learning as approaches to planning for full access.  What tools do you turn to?

Q5: What resources or support do you WISH you had to make teaching of #ELL more successful?

Q5: What resources or support do you WISH you had to make teaching of #ELL more successful?

More texts & tchng materials in their home language. This forms a base for English success.

I’ve seen it again and again: kids who can read in their home language learn to read much more quickly and easily than kids who can’t.  But beyond that, including students’ home languages in our classrooms helps them feel more connected to school.  If all the materials at the school are in English, or there’s just one small section of the school library with lower-level books in Spanish, what message are we sending to kids about the kinds of people who belong in academic settings?  People who belong here speak English; to belong here, you need to let go of your way of speaking.  A balance between English and other-language resources (including not just books but websites, worksheets, textbooks, posters, notes home, etc.) tells students that their languages are also tools for learning.

Q4: How do you scaffold reading & writing instruction for English learners?

Q4: How do you scaffold reading & writing instruction for English learners? 

I want them to use their L1 to help them rd & wrt in English. Rd in Eng, wrt in Spanish, or vice versa.

When I work with newcomer students, we just don’t have time for them to learn English before they start doing meaningful academic work.  Additionally, they are already mature speakers of another language that can be useful to their academic development.  We make full use of their home-language skills in my newcomer class: when we read or view in English, we write about it in Spanish.  This gives me a better sense of my students’ comprehension–their ability to understand usually runs ahead of their ability to produce.

On the other hand, when I do want students to produce in English, I give them access to Spanish-language resources for research and reading.  When they understand the content they want to speak or write about, they feel more confident and able to share what they know in a new language.