The Workshop on the Role of Language in School Learning: Implications for Closing the Achievement Gap was held to explore three questions: (1) What is known about the conditions that affect language development? (2) What are the effects of early language development on school achievement? (3) What instructional approaches help students meet school demands for language and reading comprehension? Of particular interest was the degree to which group differences in school achievement might be attributed to language differences, and whether language-related instruction might help to close gaps in achievement by helping students cope with language-intensive subject matter, especially after the 3rd grade.
The workshop was held at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the sponsoring organization, and provided a forum for researchers and practitioners to review and discuss relevant research findings from varied perspectives. The disciplines and professions represented included: language development, child development, cognitive psychology, linguistics, reading, educationally disadvantaged student populations, literacy in content areas (math, science, social studies), and teacher education. Participants in the workshop included members of the National Research Council (NRC) planning committee and other invited content experts and guests. The aim of the meeting was not to reach consensus or provide recommendations, but rather to offer expert insight into the issues that surround the study of language, academic learning, and achievement gaps, and to gather varied viewpoints on what available research findings
might imply for future research and practice. This report summarizes and synthesizes 2 days of workshop presentations and discussion.
CONTEXT: THE ACHIEVEMENT GAPS
A simple observation motivated this workshop: Students vary considerably in educational attainment, and student achievement varies with language background. However, that simple observation leads to many questions about the nature of this relationship and to the interest in reviewing the empirical data on several factors: language differences and how they develop; current understandings about “academic language” (the language of schooling); and ways to enhance linguistic and academic outcomes and reduce achievement gaps1 for groups of students who have diverse language backgrounds.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), significant differences in academic achievement between whites and blacks and between whites and Hispanics have been evident since the NAEP began in the 1970s.2 The NAEP, known as the “nation’s report card,” is the only nationally representative and continuing assessment of students’ academic progress over time in mathematics, reading, science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography, and U.S. history. The assessments to measure long-term trends are given to students at ages 9, 13, and 17; the most recent assessment was in 2008.
The long-term trends for reading and mathematics show that the achievement gaps between whites and blacks have narrowed significantly at all ages—ranging from 9 to 24 points—since the first assessment in 1973. Since 1975, the first time Hispanics were included in the NAEP, the white-Hispanic gaps in reading and mathematics have also narrowed, but not by as much—from 0 to 15 points. Still, as shown in Table 1-1, significant gaps persisted in 2008 for both blacks and Hispanics, in comparison with whites, at all ages in both reading and mathematics. Moreover, from 2004 to 2008, the gaps did not narrow significantly for either Hispanics or blacks for reading or writing at any age.
Findings are similar for children from families with low income. As shown in Table 1-2, the 2009 NAEP assessment of reading and mathematics shows that although scores have increased since 1998, achievement
TABLE 1-1 Achievement by Race and Ethnicity, 2008
TABLE 1-2 Achievement by Family Income Level (based on eligibility for the National School Lunch Program), 2009
gaps remain between children who are eligible for the National School Lunch Program and those who are not.
Reasons for the achievement gaps, as well as perceptions about why the gaps exist, reflect a complex mix of societal and cultural factors. As acknowledged by workshop planners and participants, closing the achievement gaps will likely require an equally multifaceted response. Issues of race, ethnicity, immigration, poverty, culture, and ideologies about language, though not the main focus, necessarily permeated the
workshop proceedings. These issues underlie many of the controversies surrounding the sources of achievement disparities, language differences, and perceptions about the best approaches to language instruction. The immediate objective of this workshop, however, was to explore how language and linguistic differences might be contributing to documented achievement disparities, and as part of this, how to better support language for academic learning.
A somewhat related controversy in the fields of linguistics and language development stems from cognitive versus sociocultural views of learning and language: the former points to the merits of explicit instruction of grammatical forms; the latter points to implicit approaches that emphasize embedding instruction in meaningful social interaction, with less emphasis on grammatical accuracy or explicit attention to grammatical form. Though some see these differences as a matter of emphasis, others see them as positing fundamentally different notions of what language is and how language develops. (For more detail on these and other controversies at the intersection of language research and instruction, see Chapter 5 of this summary, and Valdés et al., 2009.) As one participant cautioned, however, academic arguments about what “language” is and such issues as what constitutes a “language variety” or a “language standard” can interfere with clear information about what researchers have come to understand about language, how to support it for academic learning, and how much about language for schooling remains to be learned. This workshop, while necessarily touching on many areas of controversy and debate, was intended to explore whether evidence has begun to accrue that can contribute to a basis for current practice and continuing research.
At a meeting in October 2008, the planning committee decided on the topics that would be the basis of the workshop: vocabulary, academic language, preschool language experiences that predict reading and achievement, explicit instruction for speakers of second languages and dialects, cross-linguistic transfer (the effect of a first language on learning a second), and new frameworks for research that move beyond but take into account lessons learned from past debates about language differences between groups, such as those related to socioeconomic or minority status in the United States. Before settling on these topics, the committee considered a range of other possibilities (such as measurement and assessment), but it was decided to focus on the selected topics to assure they would receive sufficient attention at the workshop.
Topic selection was informed partly by the committee’s observa-
tion that the concept of “academic language” has penetrated education communities in recent years without careful technical consideration and often gets translated as simply teaching vocabulary words. Contemporary research approaches to studying academic language posit that a broader range of linguistic attributes of spoken and written language are inherent to academic communication and learning of school subjects and mastering these helps children to achieve in school. Thus, despite the importance of vocabulary to schooling, exploring richer ways to define and study language such as that offered by “academic language” and various other psycholinguistic approaches appeared warranted. Moreover, little research has focused on how such aspects of language might affect the “4th grade slump” commonly observed when students begin to encounter challenging academic content and reading material, and the focus of instruction largely shifts from learning to read to reading to learn.
The planning committee generated questions of interest within each of the identified topics and then arranged for experts to write conceptual reviews of relevant theoretical perspectives and research. Despite covering much ground, the papers did not exhaustively review the possible terrain. For the workshop, academic achievement was discussed mainly in terms of academic learning and success in school, as opposed to a broader range of outcomes associated with academic achievement, such as social development or civic participation.
At the workshop, the authors provided brief summaries of their papers and highlighted key points for workshop discussion. (The full papers prepared for the workshop can be found at http://www7.nationalacademies.org/cfe/Role_of_Language_Workshop_Agenda_October_15-16_2009.html [accessed June 2010].) For each workshop session, all participants were asked to consider the guiding questions prepared by the planning committee: see Appendix A. As this summary reveals, the multifaceted conversations at the workshop point to many influences on language development and schooling associated with home, peers, schools, community, and early childhood learning environments, that are mainly classroom based. Though participants agreed with one another on many points, their disparate research perspectives and interpretations of evidence affected almost all the discussions, from the questions that are most important to study, to how to study them, to the meaning of research findings.
This summary describes the content of the workshop proceedings. The report structure follows that of the workshop presentations and discussion. It is the hope of the NRC and the study sponsor that this report will inform the work of researchers, educators, research funders, policy leaders, and others concerned with narrowing achievement gaps and making challenging academic content accessible to a diverse student population in the United States.