Language and learning

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At my school we have children and staff from all over the world.

Combined together we speak a total of 23 languages including English and Maori.

As a trained second language teacher with a National Diploma of TESSOL and have a specialist Bilingual Certificate, I have a fascination with linguistics. Myself Samoan is my first language and I learnt English at school. I can get by in basic French and Dutch. At teachers college I specialised in Maori language and  later on I learnt Japanese for two years in order to empathise with children from Asia learning a different literacy script. In addition I learnt a little Tongan when I was immersed in a Tongan speaking class for one year. This year, I hope to learn some Mandarin too.

First Language Maintenance

I love hearing our children speak in their first language and encourage them to share with others in their own language if they are developing understanding of concepts. My bilingual training allows me to trust this strategy because of the work of educators who have come before me and have tested the theory of BICs and CALPs from the research of Jim Cummins. At my school we offer Chinese after school for our children and each year we see more and more mainstream children join these classes. In addition we are part of the Mandarin Language Teacher programme and we have a mandarin teacher work with our children teaching language and culture. We also teach Maori within our classes and have an itinerant teacher of Maori who works with us whenever we can.

Data

I spent a few terms as an ESOL verifier and began to learn how to analyse data. However my fascination with data has been as a second language teacher for twenty years and as a Bilingual Team Leader for two. I have worked alongside staff continuously and alongside bilingual educators during this time.

When I run English Language Learning professional development with staff I remind them of the graph from Collier and Thomas that charts how long it takes to learn a second language for academic proficiency. I remind them of how fragile language is and that it takes two generations for a language to die in a family. This is accelerated by children learning only in English at school. The language that children learn at school is the language that their children will grow up with. I am a living example of this. My own children speak English as their first language. They have a small bank of words in Samoan but nothing to survive with.

If we do not foster first language maintenance in our schools, our children will loose their home language within two years. We can see this by year three. You ask your children to say something in their home language, you can see them struggling to find the word. If English second language children are drowning in an English medium setting and not encouraged to think in their language they loose a 100 words of their first language a week. The faster they loose their language the slower they will be academically in English.  As children learn English they require a proficiency of 100 new words each week to reach the 5000 word yearly target to catch the moving target of the first language learner. In order for children to respond to your questions in a sentence they must have a 10,000 word vocabulary bank. This is the number that an average 5 year old English speaker begins school with. It takes an accelerated second language learner two years to match this number.

Therefore those of you who say your year 3 and 4 second language children who are at benchmark on our National Standards, I applaud your teacher judgement because you far out perform the thousands of bilingual educators who aim for 6 years at school to reach standards.

I am continually amazed at educators who place their students at national standard after being in New Zealand for 2 to 3 years at school. I monitor our data and I regularly see the year 4 drop in data. Two things cause this. The first is that often junior school teachers over score the children because they take the ‘surface’ data at face value. When cognitively applied language proficiency hits the learner and the data shifts to depth in literacy and knowledge across all numeracy strands teachers can no longer justify the surface gathering of data.

Educators who work with large numbers of second language learners know exactly what I am writing about because they are the ones who have to justify the drop in data. There is often the feeling of failure as a teacher because of this drop and questions are raised as to what kind of teachers are in the year 3 and 4 areas because the fabulous earlier school data has been allowed to drop. I often hear school principals ask, ‘What is going on? There should not be a change in data at years 3 & 4.’ However again I reiterate, this drop happens because at the earlier years the data gathering gathering is at surface level and teachers are going by what they can see at surface levels of learning to make their overall teacher judgements (OTJs) and are not taking into consideration that their children are learners of English as a second language before making that OTJ. Therefore that initial early data will NOT hold when the children hit academic levels of proficiency. From personal experience of continually working with data and from the ongoing research I have learnt from expert bilinguals,  this drop will continue to happen until a school understands how long it takes for a second language learner to meet national standards in English. I repeat myself that the data begins to even out by year 6. If only we followed the learning from Finland who do carry out data gathering and benchmarking of their children until their children have been at school for 6 years. Pasi Sahlberg calls what we do GERM or Global Education Reform Movement.

The next time I usually see a drop in data is at year 5. This happens as greater cognitive academic proficiency is expected from the children. Often I look at the year 4 expectation and I know from teaching this year level that they are expected to make an 18 month progress in one year. This is particularly noticeable in mathematics.

I also sometimes see children who have maintained progress for a few years suddenly hit year six and their data takes an accelerated jump to out perform average data that I would expect to see from intermediate aged children. Again, this is because their learning data has levelled out. However their teacher become so excited that they overscore the children. Again this happens when class teachers have been working for a few years with large numbers of second language learners. They become so excited when they see the acceleration of language learning happening. Again the work of Thomas and Collier shares that the acceleration happens then when a school has all its thinking correct around second language learning. However a reminder again that second language learners overtakes mainstream learners at intermediate because the acceleration takes off at year 6. Teachers begin to see this and suddenly place their children above national standard data.

Did you know?

From the conventions on the rights of the child, article 30, that children have the right to communicate in their language when other speakers are around?

children

If a child is literate in their first language then you can expect to see an 18  month gain in their learning each year at school? This is why I particularly love working with new migrant children at year 5 and 6. I literally watch their progress using graphs.

The younger the children are, the less academic exposure they would have had to literacy in their first language and this slows down their academic progress in English. This can be seen by the year 3 and 4 data. They appear to learn English very quickly and this is know as basic interpersonal communication skills or playground English. Therefore just because they appear strong orally in English, does not mean they yet have the academic proficiency in English.

From school wide data I would expect to see the data even out by year 6 if the school and teachers understand how to benchmark the children accurately against National Standards. If the data is too high in the junior school then expect to see the drop in year 3 & 4 data.

Mathematics generally moves first, then reading and then writing. If the children’s writing data is higher than reading, I ask our teachers to look again. Either they have misinterpreted the reading data or have over scored the writing data.

I also check historical data and if I see a shift of 2 or more sub levels in a semester that alerts me to an accelerated push and I ask to see in class evidence. This is usually something that takes place in the second gathering of data. This means, has the previous teachers got their data wrong or is something else going on here.

So as you return to school for this second term, I give a shout out to the year 3 and 4 teachers who are looking at the data. particularly when your class settles and your reading groups need reshuffling because the previous data does not match what you see in your class. Last year our teachers of year 2 and 3 children produced a realistic gathering of data so I know that the children’s new teachers will not have this problem.

In class support versus withdrawal

As I group our funded children for support, I always aim for as much in class support as I can give them. Research shows that children who have been identified as needing extra learning support do not need to fall even further behind their peers by being withdrawn. Colliers and Thomas research shows that withdrawal is the least effective form of second language acquisition. If I do withdraw children then I come in as an additional teacher to the team that has the most needs. Whatever they do in class I do that with the withdrawn children. Sometimes teachers think the ESOL teacher only teaches reading and writing. ESOL teachers are first and foremost trained teachers and can teach anything. We have have had additional training in second language acquisition. Sometime I teach maths to my withdrawn group.  I do feel anxious when my withdrawn children tell me that they are missing physical activities, science or art. I know from experience that often our second language leaners shine in these areas and the one chance they can get to shine in class is taken off them because ‘they need more English learning.‘  As much as I can I target teams during their literacy and numeracy times.

If I am working in class alongside a teacher, the teachers who have the mindset will sometimes have me take an accelerated group in their class while they work with the ESOL children.

At my school, I am conscious of always having my time in a classroom as a classroom teacher and I ask that part of my programme involves classroom teacher release or beginning teacher release. I like to do this as it gives me a sense of data normality. So when I am working with groups, I am clear about how hard to push my children in their learning.

Questions

  • What do you do as a school to ensure first language maintenance is happening?
  • Have you had experience with the year 3 and 4 data drop?
  • What are your views on allowing your students to discuss curriculum concepts in their first language?
  • Do you allow your children some opportunities to write in their first language?
  • Have you carried out personal research to identify where your children come from and would you be able to greet them in their language?
  • Does your school teach an additional language that is one of your children’s home language?

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