Showing posts with label English Language Learners. Show all posts
Showing posts with label English Language Learners. Show all posts

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Loose Ends in the Waning Days of Summer

It's the time of year, when parents and kids are stocking up on school supplies and teachers are decorating bulletin boards and scrambling through professional development days while poring over their new class lists. For me, it is a good time to say a last word on some disparate issues.

Teach Your Baby to Read
Awhile back, an entry here focused on the “Teach Your Baby to Read” program (Teach Your Baby to Read Blog Entry). I criticized those programs for fostering a mis-definition of reading as word memorization and said it was not likely to be effective. I pointed out the need for research. That turned out to be a controversial blog and it generated lots of response. Most critics were parents, two of whom even offered to bring their toddlers to me to see that they were reading.

It is hard to invest in something that doesn’t work; it creates “cognitive dissonance.” That’s just a fancy way of saying that people look hard for reasons to like those things that they have already bought into. Buy a new car and you start reading more car ads than before because you look for evidence that confirms your good judgment.

This week, Susan Neuman and her colleagues published, in the Journal of Educational Psychology, a randomized control trial of studies on baby literacy programs. Their conclusion: “Our results indicated that babies did not learn to read.” The programs had no impact on measures of early literacy and language. Nevertheless, the parents who delivered the programs were sure they were working. Cognitive dissonance strikes again.

Teaching Vocabulary to English Learners
My recent blogs on academic vocabulary elicited this request: “I love that you are addressing this topic! Any advice for those of us working with large populations of ELL students?”

It's a good question. Research suggests vocabulary learning supports reading comprehension, and this impact is greater with ELLs than native speakers. ELL students are less likely to know English words, so teaching words would have a particularly powerful impact for them. 

One thing that is different for ELL kids is that it is not just academic vocabulary that they lack. If we only teach book language or the words that aren’t usually heard in oral discourse, then ELL kids may be left out. It is essential that ELLs be assessed to determine their language status. If their language development is similar to that of their English classmates, then emphasizing academic vocabulary with them makes great sense.

More likely, however, their language will lag behind. In such cases, providing them with additional instruction in vocabulary would make sense. But this instruction should focus on oral language—not written. Claude Goldenberg has promoted the idea of having a daily period devoted to English language instruction for ELLs and that makes great sense to me. Give these kids a chance to close the gap with their English-speaking peers.

I would also argue that it is important to do more than teach word meanings. That has value, of course, but so do listening comprehension and grammar lessons. Language includes more than words.

My Daughters 
There have been many responses to my blogs about teaching my daughters to read. The most chastening was from my eldest who claims I attributed the anecdotes to the wrong daughters. That may be the case, as since they were little, I often would call them by the wrong names. I always told them they were lucky that we didn’t have a dog (who knows they might have come to think Fido was their name).

I also heard from someone who wanted to know the impact of teaching the girls on their later school performance. E., the oldest, who entered school reading at a third-grade level, was chagrined to find that the kindergarten teacher would spend the year teaching letter names and sounds (she enjoyed the inflatable letter people). They let her attend first-grade part-time that year which didn’t help much since those kids could read either. She loved the freedom of being able to leave kindergarten for first-grade and, to her thinking, it was a good year. She later skipped a grade to try to get a closer match (I wish we hadn’t done that, but it was the only choice given the teaching available to her at the time—not the case in all schools).

M., the youngest who was slow at language learning, entered kindergarten with more modest accomplishments (she was reading at about a grade 1 level). Her advantages were less obvious, but I suspect more valuable. There was a very real chance that M. would have struggled with reading when she entered school. Instead, her biggest weakness was a modest strength. I have long believed that if I hadn’t taught E. to read, she would have learned at school quickly and easily anyway. M., on the other hand, may have languished with the wrong teacher or program, and she may have played catch up in language from then on. Her reading levels might have been less remarkable initially, but her reading success was guaranteed.

Both girls did well in school, and one has a degree in law and the other in engineering. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Q & A On All Things Common Core

Recently, I participated in a webinar for McGraw-Hill about teaching with the common core standards. Participants sent in some questions and I have provided answers to those questions. Thought you might be interested in the wide-ranging conversation. Here is a link to the webinar itself in case you want to start there.

Any suggestions as to how raising text levels will work for students that are learning English? Are the same ideas relevant? I suspect that it isn’t that different across languages in terms of how this works generally or how well it will work. What needs to be scaffolded might differ, however. Usually second language learners will need more vocabulary support or grammar support than will be needed by native speakers (but there can be a lot of individual variation in this). Second language experts have long expressed concerns about text placements that under shot ELL students’ intellectual capacities; that problem will definitely be improved by this approach. For more info on English learners and common core visit

With the huge emphasis on increased text level, it seems that the amount of reading done will decrease significantly. What are your thoughts on this? That is a real possibility and it could be a problem. I think it is something we will need to be vigilant about. I continue to stress the idea that NOT all student reading needs to in the common core ranges and the importance of varied reading difficulty across the school day and school year. Obviously when one is dealing with very hard text, it makes sense to work with smaller doses of that (because it takes longer to figure it out)… with easier text the doses can be bigger. By working with a mix of texts, it is possible to get practice with both the intensity and extensiveness to increase student reading levels and reading stamina.

  David Coleman suggests reading 50% informational and 50% literary text. When we present students with "reach" texts, would you suggest we put more informational than literary texts in their hands? No, I generally wouldn’t say that, though in practice it might turn out that way. Kids will need experience in handling a wide variety of more challenging texts. However, I’ve been looking at the texts that elementary teachers report using with kids. The informational texts that they use tend to be harder than the literary texts… so if the harder texts that are available in your classroom are the informational texts, then these texts might very well be the ones that you use as reach texts.

If the vast majority of students in a classroom is reading two grade levels below current grade level, and the teacher is exposing the students to grade level shared text, is this enough? Should the shared text be ABOVE current grade level in this case? I don’t think there is a specific match of text to students (in terms of text difficulty) that facilitates learning. It will always be three variables: how well the student reads now, how hard the text is, and how much thoughtful support the teacher provides to help the student figure the text out. Working with materials two years harder than we would have used in the past is likely a sufficient distance to allow learning – now it is up to the teacher to provide enough support to encourage learning.

What would be the accuracy percentage you'd recommend when you suggest students read at their frustration level/"reach" level? See previous question. There is no set level. William Powell’s work suggests that these accuracy percentages might vary by grade levels, but that they were often in the mid 80-percents for the students who made the greatest gains (which is much lower than we would have encouraged in the past).

What is the role of literary nonfiction? If you want to prepare students to read well you should give them opportunities to work with a wide variety of text types—so they gain experience dealing with different language, text features, purposes, structures, etc. Literary nonfiction—essays, biographies, speeches, criticism—is wonderful and important. However, literature and non-literary informational text (science, history, etc.) are important, too. I fear that many schools will increase literary nonfiction, but will not increase the reading of non-literary informational text. (I also fear the pressure in some schools for the English Department to take on science and history reading—which makes no sense to me).

Can you put a percent on the maximum amount of time allowed for out-of-level reading? No. We definitely don’t know what the best mix of challenging and less challenging might be.

Do these shifts also apply to early intervention reading programs in all grade levels? Early intervention programs focus on learners in preschool, kindergarten, and grade one. I don’t think it would be a good idea to ramp text difficulty up for these students. Stay with the kinds of materials and student-text matches that we have traditionally used at these levels. (For later interventions, I like the idea of the highly skilled intervention teacher in an advantaged situation—smaller groups of children, for instance, working with harder text. Remember to learn from such text a lot more support is needed, so shifting to difficult text in the high support situation makes greater sense.

If this is true for grades 2-12, is it the role of grades K-1 to teach ALL students to the point of being on grade level expectations of CCSS? Grades PreK-1 have a lot to accomplish. The reason why we don’t ramp up the difficulty level of texts is to ensure that students develop their beginning reading and writing skills (e.g., phonological awareness, decoding, fluency, comprehension). Let’s not try to hurry past that part of the process (by raising the texts levels), but let’s give kids he skills that will allow them to benefit from the more challenging texts they will face later.

Using grade level texts (not a steady diet of out of level) is a big shift in thinking. As a literacy coach, how do I convince teachers that what we have been telling them to do is not the CCSS way anymore? I can feel a revolt coming on! However, it makes good sense to me. Are there studies there about how this shift impacts students' achievement? 
AND this one: 
During the webinar, I asked about research that supported asking students to read above their instructional levels. Dr. Shanahan indicated that there were a few studies. Could you give me the names of some of those researchers?

Here are a couple of past blogs that provide this information.

I work in a small district in Cedar City Utah as a school literacy specialist. Our district does not even have a core reading program that it requires all schools to use. (I use to work in Granite School district in Salt Lake City) My teachers want new curriculum in order to teach these new standards. Any suggestions on how to get the district to realize that new material is a real need with new standards?

 The Common Core is requiring the use of more challenging texts than has been common in the past. It is requiring substantially greater attention to informational text and literary non-fiction. It is requiring greater attention to connections across texts, and to the use of texts that have sufficient intellectual depth to support close readings. I can’t imagine schools reaching the common core without making changes to their texts (how big those changes will need to be will depend on what is in place now, of course).

I would like to ask Dr. Shanahan if the three read, first for key ideas/details, second for craft/structure, and third for integration of knowledge/ideas works for informational text as well as literary? AND Can you briefly describe what a close reading in science might look like?

Yes, attention to those three kinds of thinking makes sense with both kinds of reading though the specifics may differ a bit (a key idea in one type of text is not necessarily a key idea in another). Early on a close reading of science is not that different from other close readings, but as students move up through the grades – and science texts gets more specialized—it can look pretty different. However, the structure of close reading can be pretty similar even when some of the specifics change. Thus, initially, it is important that students be able to identify the main idea and key details. This means students have to learn to focus on the key scientific information that would allow them to summarize the text adequately (so far, not that different from literary reading, and yet what kind of information matters most differs even at this point—character motive is pretty important in literary reading, while material cause or causation without motive is essential to science). A deeper stab at reading science will then require attention to the nature of the author’s language and the structure of the text: this might include teaching students to understand the structure of an experiment or the kind of sentence-to-sentence analysis of text illustrated in Reading in Secondary Content Areas. Then to push even deeper, analyzing the connection among the parts of the text (such as the connections of the data-communication devices, tables and the like, to the prose) or comparing one scientific account with another.

What are your thoughts about using gradated texts? Texts on a variety of levels as a scaffold? I think reading multiple texts on a topic written at different levels of difficulty is a terrific scaffold for dealing with harder text. In the past, if a text was hard for students, reading teachers would have encouraged using a different text to be used “instead of.” The idea here is not to flee from the hard text, but to read some easier “in addition to” texts on the same topic and to climb these easier texts like stair-steps.

Where do learning disabled students fit with regard to these shifts? I think teachers who work with these students may rely less on simply putting kids in easier texts as their response to these students’ needs, and more on trying to help them to deal with whatever they are struggling with.

What recommendations do you have for getting a student, who may be reading 1-2 years below their grade level, to read at their grade level in the shortest amount of time? I would make sure the student had about 3 hours per day of reading and writing work and this should engage the student in reading every day; reading something relatively easy and something challenging. The work with the challenging text needs guidance and support from a teacher with a lot of attention and explicit work on vocabulary. I would also argue for substantial fluency work (that could be with the same challenging text—repeated oral reading of some form or other). Depending on the age and skill level, I might push for explicit decoding instruction. I would encourage/require a lot of writing, too. Yes, it does, but what is a key idea in one kind of text may not be in another.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Prereading and ELLs: Let's Take off the Training Wheels

I received this recent question from a teacher in Tennessee:

I have had many questions from my ESL teachers regarding the role of frontloading with ELLs.  We have been reading and learning about the importance of minimizing frontloading in the general education classroom, per Common Core recommendations.  However, we still feel that ELLs benefit from frontloading.  Can you please give us some insight on the role of frontloading for ELLs, either in or out of the general education setting?  Also, we would greatly appreciate some advice on where to look for scaffolding models to use with ELLs to help them access the complex text that CCSS demand.

Dear ELL Teacher:
Frontloading or prereading preparation can definitely put English Learners on a more even footing with their native English peers. Sometimes a text presupposes knowledge that children from a very different culture don’t have, and providing this ahead of time can give them heightened access to the text. An author might describe something that would be culturally unfamiliar or even emotionally uncomfortable in terms of family structure (e.g., divorce) or child behavior (what is considered respectful can differ).

Nothing wrong with bringing kids up to speed ahead of time on such gaps so they can make sense of what they read.

Unfortunately, what many teachers mean by “front loading” is that the teacher will tell what the text says before the kids get a chance to read it. If the information that you plan to provide is in the text then you are not helping the student to read, you are helping him not to (if the student already know what it says, then why bother to try).

It is sort of like translating too quickly… if someone keeps telling you what was said in your home language, there wouldn’t be much purpose for learning the new language. At some point, the training wheels have to come off. You may fall down more often without them, but you will be riding the bicycle. (The first principle of bicycling: Riders fall.)

Your question makes it sound like the job of the teacher is to protect students from falling down; you and frontloading are the training wheels. But what if a teacher is more like a bicycle helmet; your job isn’t to prevent them from falling down, but to make sure that they don’t get hurt.

In the past, we tended to read a text once in classrooms, so the reading had to be maximally productive. We had to make sure the kids got the information. It wouldn’t be fair otherwise. The premium was on the information and teachers were just making sure that students at least heard the information.

In contrast, the idea being stressed these days is that students SHOULD read the text more than once. What you don’t get the first time, you might get the second. Instead of front-loading the first reading, you could try front-loading the second or third—after the kids had a chance to pedal the bike themselves. If they ask a question about what they don’t understand, by all means answer. But don’t always assume that they won’t get it… give them a chance to fall… who knows they might just surprise you.

Be the helmet—not the training wheels.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What the Experimental Research Tells Us About English Learners and New Info on Secondary Literacy

Recently, Diane August and I spoke with a group of administrators at their Accountability Conference in San Francisco. Although we didn't exactly follow What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) standards in our determinations, I think the claims are sound. For instance, we say that professional development for teachers was an important ingredient in children's success. WWC would say that's a no-no because none of the studies directly tested this claim (that is none of them compared the success of versions of their treatments that provided professional development with those that did not). However, none of these studies of successful interventions omitted training for the teachers either. Given that the researchers all saw fit across so many studies to make professional training a part of their successful treatments, it would be hard for us to claim that any of these interventions could be made to work successfully in your school districts without such training being part of the package. Similar conclusions were drawn about differentiation as well.

Here is that presentation:

This summer I gave a talk on disciplinary literacy at Teachers College, Columbia University. This was part of a summer conference that they did. They had speakers like Andres Henriquez, Carol Lee, and Elizabeth Moje. They just issued a neat online document that includes copies of everyone's powerpoints along with summaries of their remarks. This should be useful to many readers of this blog.

Monday, October 11, 2010

I Just Got Back from Ireland

I just spent a week with my friends in Ireland; this time in the Ballymun section of Dublin. The folks at youngballymun are trying to raise literacy levels in an economically challenged part of the city. This was an area where they built U.S. style high-rise housing for the poor, and like in the U.S., it proved to be disastrous. Now they are tearing those eyesores down (but demolition has slowed or stopped due to the current economic crisis in Ireland), and trying to revitalize the neighborhood.

Well, anyway, youngballymun is working with the schools and community groups (afterschool progams, etc.), to try to improve things for the kids there, and to me it looks like they are making progress, getting buy in, and moving forward in some good ways. It was fun to be part of it. Also, a healthy reminder for me about the face of low literacy. It is easy in the states to think of folks with literacy limitations as being minority or severely disadvantaged (since those groups suffer inordinately here, especially in big cities). And yet in Ireland those who are low in literacy look like me and my kids. Of course, there are plenty of people who struggle in the states who look like me and my kids too, but even though there are great numbers of them, they are somewhat hidden in plain sight. Literacy is not an just issue for someone else or somewhere else.

While I was in Ireland I met with many government officials who are trying to figure out policies, and was covered by the Irish Times and "Drivetime," the big radio show there. I also found some time to speak at the Reading Association of Ireland, about the reading of second-language learners (yes, Ireland, like the rest of the western world is experiencing immigration). As promised, here is a copy of the speech that I presented there.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Teaching Phonics to English Learners

Back in the 1990s, there were lots of arguments in reading education between those who believed that explicit phonics was helpful in teaching reading and those who advocated whole language (whose views ranged from no phonics to occasional mini-lesson phonics as needed.

These days, those arguments don’t happen quite as often. The National Reading Panel reviewed data on phonics studies; the National Early Literacy Panel reviewed data on phonics; and phonics studies continue to accumulate. It seems pretty clear that phonics instruction is helpful in getting reading started quickly and appropriately and so most teachers in the primary grades usually try to deliver such teaching.

But there still are arguments about that from the second-language community. The thought among some experts on English language learning is that such teaching may help native speakers, but it isn’t beneficial to those who don’t already know English.

Are they crazy? No, they are not crazy, but it appears that they are wrong; or at least partially wrong. Their fear is that teaching students to focus on sounds instead of meaning will derail things for kids who need to be intensely focused on meaning. They also, again quite rightly, point out that those phonics studies reviewed by the various panels did not include English learners; therefore, we can’t use that evidence to determine what is best for such kids (seems like a fair argument to me).

However, phonics research on English learners has been accumulating for the past decade (I’m in the middle of meta-analyzing that), and it seems evident now that such teaching is beneficial to those kids, too. Phonics not only appears to improve their decoding, but this decoding advantage carries over to comprehension as well.

But I said that those English Language Learner experts weren’t entirely wrong. How does that work given those findings? One of the main reasons that those experts bridle at phonics for second language learners is because schools often only have one plan for helping students who are low readers. That means the English learners are always stuck into the phonics group, no matter what assessments would show about them.

I just read some terrific studies by Sharon Vaughn and her colleagues. They came up with an intervention that explicitly taught phonics, but also explicitly worked on English learners’ vocabularies and comprehension. And that makes sense. Even if these kids struggle with decoding, they still will need help with oral language and comprehension. None of the studies that have shown the benefits of phonics to English learners has done this in a vacuum; these kids were getting language and comprehension support too.

By all means, teach phonics to English learners who are beginning readers or who are struggling with decoding, but teach that phonics along with substantial high quality instruction in meaning as well.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Literacy for English Learners

Friday I braved the lake effect snow on the western shores of my native Michigan to meet with a wonderful group of teachers, coaches, and administrators at at professional development seminar on teaching literacy to language minority children: English language learners. I was to present both the Report of the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth and the What Works Clearinghouse practice guide, "Effective Literacy and English Language Instruction for English Learners in the Elementary Grades." Since I'd helped to author both, it was a nice combination.

I promised them that I would put up my powerpoint for this, so here it is. This is similar to some others posted at this site, but this is the first time that I ever presented the practice guide, so there are definitely new slides and new information.

You also might want to get a copy of the practice guide (or any of the other WWC Practice Guides--very useful stuff).

Friday, November 6, 2009

Odds and Ends

This has been a very busy week or two, and here it is Friday and I find that I have left some promises (to keep).

Last week I spoke to English language educators in Oregon about vocabulary. English learners benefit more from vocabulary instruction more than do native speakers (and it helps us too), and given the role vocabulary plays in reading comprehension, it would be wise if our schools got intensive about teaching vocabulary to such kids. Unfortunately, there aren't many studies to go on, so I rely heavily on the native speakers studies and color my efforts with the bit of information from the English learner vocab investigations. The major differences in vocabulary learning across these groups: (1) the words may differ (English learners are likely to need all of the words that native speakers do, but also some language that we learn just from experience with English; (2) the instruction may have to be more explicit about the grammatical function of the new words (it really does make sense to show them the word in different forms and tenses, and not just assume they will make the generalization); and (3) the use of more pictures and motions (and even the home language) to help explain the words meanings. Below you can find my presentation on vocabulary.

I also met with two groups of teachers in Minnesota who are in the process of identifying schoolbooks that will support their efforts to improve achievement. I shared with them my take on the research and my experiences in raising achievement in Chicago. That presentation is below.

Finally, I met with a bunch of teachers, coaches, and other educators in Long Island, NY (congratulations Yankee fans) to talk about adolescent literacy. They want me to come back and talk to their principals and superintendents and school board members (which I am happy to do--we really have to get moving on the adolescent literacy problem).

Oh, one more thing: yesterday, a teacher contacted me wondering what she could do for a severely dyslexic fourth-grader. She wanted me to weigh in, and told me which programs he had failed with and what he couldn't do. What she did not reveal is what he could do. I wrote back and told her that I could provide no help without an honest appraisal of what this young man could actually do with decoding, sight vocabulary, phonological awareness, fluency, listening comprehension, writing, vocabulary, etc. Teaching is different than doctoring... you rely even more heavily on what kids can do than on what they can't (we don't look for symptoms as much as strengths).

Have a good weekend.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Do I Teach Fluency to English Language Learners?

I got a question yesterday: Does it really make sense to teach oral reading fluency to English learners or would it be better to have them working on oral language proficiency in English?

Oral reading fluency, which includes accuracy, speed, and expression is an important (skill or collection of skills) because instruction in oral reading fluency improves reading comprehension. As such, it is an important factor in reading. (Because it is an amalgamation of skills, activities such as repeated reading can improve several of them: including automaticity in word recognition and prosody--using the sound to show the meaningful relations among the words).

However, the relationship between fluency and comprehension changes a bit with second-language learners, and our educational practices have to change accordingly. Most important in this regard is that fluency instruction has been found to have a positive impact on the reading of English learners, however the effect size of this impact tends to be smaller (meaning that such teaching helps English learners, but not as much as it does native speakers). This doesn’t mean that I would not teach fluency to English learners, only that I would alter my criteria for success and I would teach it somewhat less and a little bit differently.

Certainly, fluency should not just be reduced to rate and accuracy (as is done in far too many classrooms), some consideration to the expression (especially as children get into the intermediate grades) is needed. ELLs should not spend inordinate amounts of time in discrete skills programs (but some instruction in discrete skills can be beneficial to these students). It is critical that the whole program be considered in such placements: most of their time these students should be in rich language settings with explicit English language instruction.

In assessing fluency, common ELL miscues that do not affect comprehension should not be counted (or these words should be counted as correct). Don't expect children from Mexico to pronounce words like children from Dubuque. No decisions on these children should just be made solely on the basis of a reading rate measure (consideration of comprehension is an important indicator and would help me decide what to do with the child). Oral language proficiency is especially important with English learners, so I definitely would not ignore that in terms of assessment or instruction.

A small amount of targeted skill instruction in decoding and/or fluency is not problematic with second language learners if they are struggling with those things (in fact, such teaching can be beneficial), but it is easy to mistake language differences for weaknesses in these basic skills, so care is needed. Also, if too much time is spent on such instruction, oral language proficiency will not be attained and the student will eventually struggle no matter how well he or she does on the basic skills.

NICHD supported a lot of research that identified young children with serious decoding deficiencies. They entered them into programs that successfully taught them to decode (though it took a long time and a lot of hard work). However, once these kids could decode they still underperformed their classmates in reading... their basic skills had improved, but they lacked the language and knowledge to take advantage of those now-proficient decoding skills.

The problem is that fluency or decoding are NECESSARY, but NOT SUFFICIENT skills. Without them, you won't be able to read with comprehension. With only these skills, you are also going to be unable to read with comprehension. The pendulum swings back and forth between too much skills work and too little skills work. We need to keep it in mind that kids need fluency and comprehension.

With second language kids, I would have them do something meaningful at the end of every fluency reading (like answering a question). I would spend extra time on the vocabulary of the passage as well (making sure they understood the word meanings); more than I would do if they came to the reading in English. I would ignore dialect pronunciations. I would give them every opportunity to ask questions about what they are reading. I would avoid have them read meaningless stuff, like "decodable text," as I would not want to get them used to the idea that reading doesn't make sense. I would do all of that, but I would also teach them to be fluent. It's a balancing act.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Testing English Learners in English? Good Idea or Not.

Last week, the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco upheld the right of California to administer achievement tests and high school exit exams in English to all students, no matter what their language background. Various education groups had challenged the practice of using English-only testing since federal law requires that second-language students “be assessed in a valid and reliable manner.”

As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, Marc Coleman, a lawyer for the plaintiffs complained that, “The court dodges the essential issue in the lawsuit, which is: What is the testing supposed to measure?”

Mr. Coleman gets an A from me for that question, but I wonder how many of the groups that he represents have a good answer to it?

The reason I’m curious is that I’ve received so many queries over the years about the practice of testing second-language students in English. The question often includes some kind of characterization of the practice as mean, stupid, or racist, so it is apparent that many professionals feel strongly about the impropriety of testing children in English.

No matter how angry the query, my response is always the same as Mr. Coleman’s: “What is the testing supposed to measure?” It obviously doesn’t satisfy the questioners, but whether they embrace such practices or loathe them, the appropriateness of English testing turns on the purpose of the testing.

If you are trying to find out how well your students do in reading English, I would not hesitate to test them in English.

“But,” I hear the critics asking,” won’t that make the test unreliable?”

“No”, I answer. “Reliability has to do with stability of measurement. If a student does poorly on an English test because he or she doesn’t know English, that low performance will likely be very stable.”

“But won’t an English test be invalid?”

“Validity has to do with what the test purports to measure: if I’m trying to find out how well a student can read English, then this kind of test, all things being equal, would likely be a pretty good measure of that.”

“Yes, but won’t that kind of test lead to underestimates of how well that student is really doing, since he/she might be reading better in his or her home language?”

And that switcheroo is the key to this… because the questioner has now changed the purpose of the measure from finding out how well the student can read English to finding out how well he or she can read in any language. If the exit test is supposed to show that the student is academically-skilled in English, then an English test is sound and appropriate. If the purpose of the exit measure is to reveal whether or not students are skilled in any language, then the English test alone would obviously be insufficient.

Certainly, I can tick off reasons why, diagnostically, a school might want to test a reading student in both English and the home language, at least in those cases in which the students are receiving some instruction in their home language (or have received such instruction in the past). And, I can think of all kinds of reasons why a school or state might test students in their home language, even on an exit exam: “We recognize that Diego struggles with English, but we want to know how well he does math or what he knows about science information.” In such cases, testing in English might lower performance below the level that Diego could demonstrate if language difference wasn’t an issue.

But if you want to know how well a student can read English, by all means give an English reading test no matter what the students’ home language backgrounds or educational histories. That would be the only valid way to find out the answer to the question. The court got this one right.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Irish Literacy

What a great week... I just got back from a very pleasing visit to Dublin, Ireland. My Irish friends invited me over to see if I could provide any help to their wonderful "youngballymun" project. Ballymun is an area of Dublin that is economically challenged. Ireland has one of the world's best education systems and among the highest literacy levels, but everything isn't what it should be in Ballymun.

As in major cities all over the U.S., the kids who live in economically-challenged neighborhoods (with the worst housing, the most serious health problems including drug abuse, etc.) do worst in school. Some Irish areas manage remarkably to avoid this unfortunate pattern, but not Ballymun.

Consequently, Atlantic Philanthropies has teamed up with the Irish government to provide support to make things go better in such neighborhoods. The team in Ballymun is working closely with the schools to get improvements there, but they are also expanding preschool, afterschool, and health care opportunities, and doing everything they can to try to make it possible for more kids to do well in this changing neighborhood.

The current environment there reminds me of Chicago when they were tearing down the Robert Taylor homes--the high rise public housing projects that didn't work well for the residents in Chicago. Right now in Ballymun the ever-changing landscape is punctuated by abandoned high rises, piles of rubble from the demolition, and hopeful new housing. But while changing the physical environment is a good idea, that alone will not likely lead to improved achievement without real changes in these children's educational lives.

That was why they brought me over. I visited all the schools, attended a plethora of meetings, shared my framework with everybody who would listen, and kept up the mantra that it is the children's experience that matters: amount of teaching, curriculum focus, and quality of delivery are what improve literacy--everything else is just commentary. I look forward to continuing to work with this vibrant and commited group, and will keep you posted on their progress. For more on the youngballymun project go to

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Reading First for English Learners

As I write this, I’m in Nashville, TN at the 5th annual National Reading First conference. It appears to be their last meeting, and my first appearance at one of these affairs. Of course, there is a lot of sadness as most state people are resigned to the idea that Reading First funding is not to be renewed. Yesterday, at the opening of the meeting, Laura Bush apparently cheered folks’ spirits by calling for reinstatement of full funding to Reading First (I was on a plane at the time, but morning radio caught me up on what I missed by playing some of her 5-minute speech). As much as I’d like to see Reading First continued, I don’t see any chance of it now and really think we need to turn our attention to a new federal effort. (The one thing that I think to be missing at this great conference is some time for state people to describe what they see as their successes and failures; any smart new program is going to have to be based on both—what they managed to do well and what they didn’t. I think the Department of Education missed out on a great opportunity to get this information. I suspect there won’t be any more meetings with this many state reps, so it is a real loss.)

One of my candidates for improvement in a next program is a more concerted and research-based efforts towards addressing the literacy learning needs of English learners. Most states just carried out the Reading First mandates with these kids despite the fact that the National Reading Panel report (the basis of Reading First) didn’t consider studies of English learners. The panel recognized the importance of this issue, but left it to another panel and that means Reading First directors were stuck trying to adhere to mandates that were at best insufficient for these kids. Fortunately, what Reading First was doing wasn’t that far off so no great harm was likely done, but what a lost opportunity. One suspects with a more tailored approach we could have seen greater success for this significant group. That is what I am doing here in Nashville: talking about the report of the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children Youth and what it says we need to do to help second language learners. At least for this group, wouldn’t it have been terrific to have had a sixth instructional element—one focused on the development of oral English?
The information that surprised the Reading First audience the most? They seemed startled when they found out how little research has been carried out with second language learners. I included a chart showing the comparison of the numbers of studies on various topics that the National Reading Panel looked at for first language learners and the numbers available on those topics for second language learners, and that got a visible response from the conference attendees here. This is definitely an area where we could use some more research help, but even if we had more information, we’d need policies that guided the implementation of such research-based efforts.

Below I have included a link to the Power point that I used in my presentation. The front part of the file is a pretty direct summary of the NLP report, and the conclusions are my sense making of the information.