Sunday, February 26, 2017

Supporting multilingual learning

Update on 2/28/17 
Now I need to correct myself  -  why am I talking about ELLs when the reality is about DLLs? 
Dual Language Learning is much more appropriate way to discuss bi- and multilingualism!

I have a habit of reading news feed of recent research in education. This one caught my eye today, so I shared it in Twitter: 

Too often assessments and evaluations focus on students' language skills instead algebraic understanding, problem solving, or critical thinking (e.g. math story problems, science performance assessments, or SAT). Such assessments and evaluations do not support students' learning.

My main takeaway from the article was the dilemma of reclassification, and whether it is done too soon or too early. When does an ELL student stop being one? 

The conclusion of the article was also scary.  There is a possibility of reclassification "focusing on demonstrating compliance as opposed to truly expanding educational opportunity."  Compliance to the policy should be secondary to students' needs, if we want students to learn, not just perform.  

Of course, I bring my own bias into this discussion: after living in the States for several years, I don't feel perfectly fluent in English, and probably never will. The punctuation rules and prepositions are still causing gray hair to me! My L1, Finnish, has no prepositions (however, we have lots of postpositions).

My youngest daughter was 13 when we moved to the States. She never qualified to the ELL program, but tested right out of it. Her own definition was that she wrote well but did not speak enough, and also had excellent grammar from studying English at school since 3rd grade before moving here. My son learned his English after we moved here, so he qualified for ELL program for two years, starting on 2nd grade. Today they both speak and write better English than I do.

But if 1 student out of 10 is still learning English, we really should emphasize the instructional practices that support language awareness. Realistically, in 21st century bilinguals (or multilinguals) are the majority. There seems to be a consensus about more than 50% people speaking more than just one language. This page suggests only 40% of world's population being monolinguals.

I addition to increasing educator's awareness of the ELL policy, there should be strong emphasis in supporting students' learning - and language learning - regardless of their home language. There is plenty of research showing how emphasizing the importance of home language supports learning English. Language awareness is what matters. Yes, the vocabulary and grammar are different, but languages of the same group are quite alike. Hence, a language like Interlingua is understandable to many.  Even if the home language doesn't belong to the same language family, the awareness of how a language works is an important step in becoming bilingual or multilingual. 

So, how to fairly assess what a multilingual student knows or has learned? Informal assessments, observations, and visual projects are better for avoiding misunderstanding. And if you just have to use a worksheet or test? For starters, please, don't use idioms and phrasal verbs. Keep the language simple. Provide more time. Then again - aren't these the best assessment and evaluation practice for all students?