What Teachers Need to Know About Language

This month we published What Teachers Need to Know About Language edited by Carolyn Temple Adger, Catherine E. Snow and Donna Christian. In this post Catherine explains how teachers can better support children learning language if they know more about language themselves.

Michael Halliday (1993) distinguished three dimensions of the language user’s challenge: learning language, learning through language, and learning about languageLearning language is, of course, what almost every child manages to do – typically with considerable help from parents and adult caretakers. Children then go on to learning through language, again with lots of help from adults, including teachers, reading aloud to them, answering their questions, and explaining the world.

A basic premise of What Teachers Need to Know About Language is that teachers can support children learning language and learning through language better if they know more about language – how languages work, how languages differ, why a language sounds different in different places, how spelling develops, and what aspects of a language pose the greatest challenges to young readers and writers.

Learning about language offers endless puzzles and amusements. For example, languages differ in how sounds can group together. With regard to English, consider the simple case of consonant clusters. Which sequences of consonants are allowed in English pronunciation? We can say words beginning with a [k] sound like clock and crock, but not cmock or csock or cnock. We English speakers don’t say the sounds of K and N together at the beginning of a word, but English has lots of words spelled with those two letters at the beginning: knock, knob, knee, know, knife, knight, knave, knapsack, knit, and knead, among others, where the [k] sound is not pronounced. German and Dutch speakers know there would be no difficulty in pronouncing the K and N in all these words, since their languages have words spelled with the K-N cluster and they pronounce both sounds. But English speakers just don’t do it.

Why should we care? Because knowing that K-N-initial words are Germanic in origin, and that both letters are pronounced together in other Germanic languages but not in English, explains something about English spelling. Teachers should know enough not to tell their students “English spelling is illogical. Just memorize it.” Instead, with a little knowledge ABOUT language, they are in a position not only to understand spelling patterns (and their students’ errors) but also to explain the origins of the correct spellings.

Similarly, with a little knowledge about how native speakers of Spanish hear English sounds, seemingly bizarre spellings like ‘warer’ for water and ‘ironker’ for I don’t care resolve themselves into students’ masterful attempts to use what they know about spelling in Spanish to represent words and phrases in English. The T in English water and the D in I don’t are pronounced exactly like the R in Spanish pero. 

Supporting language learning and learning through language is a major goal for any teacher. A little bit of learning about language can help teachers work more effectively with their students in achieving that goal.

Catherine E. Snow, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Contact: catherine_snow@gse.harvard.edu


Halliday, M. (1993). Towards a language-based theory of learning. In Linguistics and Education 5:93-116. Retrieved July 1, 2018 at http://lchc.ucsd.edu/mca/Paper/JuneJuly05/HallidayLangBased.pdf

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like The Bilingual Advantage edited by Rebecca M. Callahan and Patricia C. Gándara.

National Association of Bilingual Education convention 2015 in Las Vegas!

I’ve just got back to the office from the first Multilingual Matters conference of the year – the National Association of Bilingual Education (NABE) convention, which this year took place in glittering Las Vegas. NABE conferences have a history of being in wacky places – the first time I attended it was held in Disneyworld, Florida – but I’m always impressed by how the delegates manage to abstain from the temptations of the host city and make the conference a success.

Laura at the NABE book stand
Laura at the NABE book stand

We had our usual stand in the exhibition hall where I had special displays for some of our new books. Fresh off the press, and very popular with the delegates, was Latino Immigrant Youth and Interrupted Schooling: Dropouts, Dreamers and Alternative Pathways to College by Marguerite Lukes. One delegate absentmindedly picked up a copy while waiting for me to complete his order form (for another purchase) and was so engrossed in the stories that he ended up purchasing a copy too! The new 4th edition of Colin Baker’s bestselling book A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism proved to be as popular as expected, as did the Spanish version of a former edition of the book, which was translated by Alma Flor Ada.

The Bilingual Advantage
The Bilingual Advantage

However, by far the bestselling book of the conference was The Bilingual Advantage: Language, Literacy and the US Labor Market edited by Rebecca M. Callahan and Patricia C. Gándara. Patricia gave the final keynote presentation of the conference during which she portrayed the book as a detective story. She explained how the book looks for something that we think must exist (that bilingualism is a labour advantage) but for which there is no evidence. By posing numerous questions, such as which languages are acknowledged as an economic force and whether the background of the language speaker makes a difference to the perceived value of their language abilities, the contributors of the work set out to uncover the truth about the value of bilingualism to both individuals and society.

The excitement was palpable in the hall as Patricia led us through the studies presented in the book to the finding that balanced bilingualism is associated with a host of really important outcomes and that losing bilingualism comes at a cost for society. The conclusion that it is not a waste of money to educate children bilingually was met with a round of applause and everyone left the hall feeling armed with proof to support any claim otherwise. I had a small stand outside the hall displaying the books and was delighted as a long queue of delegates formed, each one eager to get a copy of the work.

Before Patricia Gandara’s keynote speech, State Senator Ricardo Lara (from California’s 33rd District) was awarded the NABE Citizen of the Year award for his significant work on improving educational equality and opportunities for all students. Ricardo is an advocate for multilingual education and has created the California EdGE Initiative (Education for a Global Economy), which will go to a vote in 2016. If passed, California’s English-only instruction mandate in public schools (prop 227) will be amended. The evidence reported in the book can be used to convince the public of the benefits for individuals and society of the maintenance of the home language and that it is time to remedy the damage done by prop 227. Patricia Gandara ended her keynote by reminding us that while what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, what happens in California often does not stay in California and there may be implications of this vote outside California.

Laura being welcomed to Las Vegas!
Laura being welcomed to Las Vegas!

As for Las Vegas, well, what a venue for a conference! Outside of the conference hours I tried to get a feel for all that the city had to offer and do something different every evening. Most of the attractions are in the numerous hotels: I rode a rollercoaster in one; went up the tallest freestanding tower in the USA in another and saw Britney Spears perform live in a third! I am also proud to be leaving Las Vegas $15 richer than when I arrived, having had a bit of luck on the roulette! I tore myself away from the temptations of the casinos to return home for a week, before the next round of conferences begins. Look out for Tommi at GURT this week, or Kim, Tommi and me at AAAL in Toronto the week after as our spring travel schedule hots up!


The Bilingual Advantage

Next month we are publishing Rebecca Callahan and Patricia Gándara’s book The Bilingual Advantage. Here, we have a short interview with Rebecca and Patricia which gives further insight to the themes of their book.

Why did you feel this was an important book to write?

We were driven by two very strong interests: what we perceived to be a strong need to revisit the existing research on bilingualism in the labor market, and if that research yielded new findings, to frame it in such as way that it might capture the attention of policymakers.

We were both aware that the literature to date has shown that there is no real advantage to bilingualism in the US labor market, and in certain cases even a bilingual penalty, something that is counter-intuitive to most people, especially in an increasingly globalized world. This raised questions in our own minds about whether past research may have suffered from data and analytical problems, or if looking at the issue with younger cohorts, or in different geographic areas might yield different results. The studies in the The Bilingual Advantage draw on relatively new data, on longitudinal samples of young people, and attempt to more carefully define balanced bilingualism. And, indeed, we find very different outcomes for young balanced bilinguals, both in the labor market and in education.

If there are so many advantages to bilingualism, and if many of the young people in the US today who are most likely and able to achieve bilingualism are also those individuals who have little access to the rigorous schooling that would support biliteracy development, it seems that policy makers should be re-thinking these counterproductive education policies. However, we have seen that the research on the cognitive and social advantages of bilingualism has not been sufficiently compelling to motivate change in educational policies. It occurred to us that perhaps the economic arguments would be more compelling and bring the world of business in as allies in attempting to re-fashion policy.

The Bilingual AdvantageHow did the two of you come to collaborate on this book?

We had both discussed the importance of bilingualism, and the disconnect between what we saw as the value of bilingualism and the research suggesting there was little labor market advantage to mastering two languages. With the Civil Rights Project, Patricia had commissioned a series of studies to investigate the value of bilingualism. Once we decided that we wanted to do a book, Rebecca immediately came to mind as the ideal person to lead the shepherding of this set of studies toward a coherent volume.  She was familiar with the methods and datasets, she knew the area substantively, and had published in this area. Her background and interest in the value of bilingualism helped to shape the arguments at the core of The Bilingual Advantage.

Who do you hope will find your book interesting/useful?

Everyone from monolingual and bilingual parents and community members, to classroom educators and educational policy makers. The Bilingual Advantage is important to consider in the many decisions we make about how to educate the growing language minority, or more specifically, emergent bilingual population, as well as all other students who should be prepared for a global economy. To date, the educational policy that governs the instruction of this growing population is not aligned with the research.

What are three main points you hope readers of your book come away with?

Policy: There is a cost to not maintaining this national resource. An established base of effective instructional practices and programs exists to guide the successful education of the emergent bilingual population; failure to take advantage of the linguistic resources these students bring with them to the classroom will cost the national economy greatly in the long run.

Research: These studies make it clear that researchers in the field must carefully consider how they define ‘bilingualism’; most available data are not designed to answer questions about literacy and language proficiency in one, much less two languages. Lack of data in this area results in conclusions that may be inaccurate. Determining the true value of balanced bilingualism in the labor market is as much a question of measurement and empirical methods, as it is of the economy. Additionally, these studies point up the fact that the demographic changes occurring so rapidly in the US require that we revisit research findings based on data that reflect a different population in our schools and in the society.

Conventional wisdom: As we enter into a new era, the generations that have grown up in the information age are acutely aware of the new global economy. In this realm, everyone’s child really can benefit from proficiency in two or more languages.

Have you gained any surprising or unexpected insights from writing the book?

The impact of the methods was astonishing. Using appropriate measures, Santibañez and Zárate were able to show that balanced bilinguals were more likely to go to a four-year college, and were less likely to drop out compared to monolinguals. In addition, it was striking to note how clearly employers’ preferences drive the economic effects – which we see very clearly in the Porras chapter, but is also hinted at in the Alarcón chapters which allude to a muffled advantage, tempered by a context historically defined by its racial stratification. Also, Agirdag’s thesis that rather than just asking about economic advantages to bilingualism one should actually consider the costs of not educating students bilingually caused us to think of this issue in a whole different way!

What do you find rewarding about authoring and editing books?

Contribution to the larger field—shaping how we ask questions and having the opportunity to move the field forward. In addition, the whole process of getting to know other colleagues’ work intimately; forming what are really very lovely relationships with colleagues.

What other books on bilingualism have you enjoyed recently?

I really enjoyed Bialystok’s Bilingualism in Development, and we use Baker’s Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism in our graduate and undergraduate courses. I repeatedly draw on and refer students to Menken’s English Learners Left Behind, her seminal work investigating how standardized testing has resulted in a de facto language policy in K-12 schools. Some books you read once, others you go back to over and over. The Education of Language Minority Immigrants in the United States, edited by Wiley, Lee, and Rumberger, is one of those books. I recently re-read several chapters. The selection of works for that volume is exceptional.

What is your next research project?

Rebecca will be working on two projects, one which investigates the role of science efficacy in EL students’ middle to high school transition, and the other teachers’ use of an innovative engineering curriculum in the elementary age classroom. Patricia is working on bilingual, multinational open access secondary math curriculum to facilitate immigrant students’ high school completion and is about to launch a national survey on what teachers of English learners know, have been trained to do, and need support in doing to effectively educate EL/emergent bilingual students.

If you would like more information about this book please see our website.