Learning Across Languages: Second-Language Learners and Dialect Speakers
In the third panel of the workshop, participants discussed research on language acquisition and instruction for second-language learners and dialect speakers. Topics included: the effectiveness of explicit language instruction, including traditional approaches that focus on systematic teaching of grammatical features; types of implicit instruction in use and their outcomes; the conditions that appear to influence effectiveness of instruction with particular types of learners at different grade levels; and the possibilities and limits of developing approaches to transfer language skills between first and second languages. Participants also considered research with implications on how to develop new curricula that would support language and reading in a second language or dialect, as well as how to organize instructional time and structure classroom interactions to maximize learning. A key question participants were asked to address was what teachers need to know about language to deliver instruction that develops both language and academic knowledge for language-minority students.
EXPLICIT GRAMMAR INSTRUCTION
Robert Bayley reviewed the research on whether explicit formal instruction in grammar helps to develop oral language among English-language learners in K-12 classrooms and the efficacy of instructional strategies for different ages and proficiency levels. In this research, he noted, there are three approaches, two of which use closely related terms that can lead to
confusion The two that may be confused are “focus on form” and “focus on forms.” The first (in the singular) refers to integrating form and meaning and drawing learners’ attention to specific linguistic forms in meaningful interaction. Typically, the form in question is causing some kind of communicative difficulty and the response involves requesting clarification or recasting (reformulating the learner’s utterance using the target form or grammatical structure to be learned). The second (in the plural) refers to teaching grammatical forms in isolation, outside of communication, and sequencing the order of instruction according to degree of linguistic complexity. A third approach, “focus on meaning,” refers to instruction that assumes exposure to substantial input in meaningful contexts will lead to acquiring the grammatical structure of the second language.
Bayley noted several limitations of the literature. Although many studies have examined different types of form-focused instruction, most of these studies have included international college students: few of them have included K-12 learners and fewer still have focused on K-12 learners in U.S. schools. There are also limitations in scope. For instance, Saunders and O’Brien (2006) report that the corpus of articles they examined yielded studies of only two areas of oral-language development that had been studied: (1) vocabulary and (2) question formation. Norris and Ortega (2000) performed a meta-analysis of experimental and quasi-experimental studies of the effectiveness of focus on form and focus on forms interventions. That meta-analysis included 77 studies published between 1980 and 1998; however, only 16 of them involved K-12 learners, and only one was specific to elementary-age children. Many of the best-designed studies of school-age learners have been conducted in Canada and included intensive English-language programs in Quebec or French immersion programs. There is no comparable research base for school-age English-language learners in the United States.
Although a small number of forms approaches have been studied, Bayley suggested some conclusions that can be drawn from the studies he reviewed:
Properly designed focus on form instruction can be beneficial, even for students in the very early years of primary school.
Focus on form instruction does not compromise gains in fluency.
Prompts appear to be more effective in promoting learning than recasts because the latter do not require a student to reformulate the utterance.
The effectiveness of different types of interventions is related to the complexity of the target structure. Forms that require only a lexical substitution (e.g., French possessive determiners) appear
more amenable to form-focused instruction than structures that require more reanalysis (e.g., relative clauses).
The effectiveness of different types of interventions is related to the communicative function of the target forms. In focus on form instruction, forms that result in communicative breakdown are more likely to lead to explicit corrective feedback than second-language errors that do not result in communicative difficulties.
Bayley drew three conclusions in particular from Norris and Ortega’s review.
First, instruction that incorporates explicit (including deductive and inductive) techniques leads to more substantial effects than implicit instruction. Second, both focus on form and focus on forms approaches result in large and “probabilistically trustworthy gains over the course of an investigation….” Third, instructional types show the following order of effectiveness: explicit focus on form > explicit focus on forms > implicit focus on form > implicit focus on forms. The findings suggest, he said, that form-focused instruction benefits a range of different ages and proficiency levels, with the following caveats.
The fist caveat is that few of the studies focused on immigrant learners in K-12 settings and they concentrated on a limited range of forms. Another caveat is that sociolinguistic issues are not usually addressed, though two such issues are especially important, in Bayley’s view. The first issue is the need to define the target language. The standard English spoken by a teacher is not necessarily the target variety for the learner. Bayley pointed out that numerous studies have shown that language learners use a range of features for a variety of expressive purposes, including self-presentation and identity. Thus, the notion of “resistance to language” is important to consider in supporting students’ language and academic achievement.
A second sociolinguistic issue pertains to the need to study immigrant learners of English who have very low levels of literacy. Since most studies of explicit instruction and oral-language development have focused on international students in North American universities or middle-class students in immersion programs, there has been relatively little examination of second-language acquisition by those immigrant learners. Yet those learners begin attending English-language schools at all ages, and they are the ones who are most at risk for academic failure.
Bayley concluded by calling for research in several areas. First, longitudinal studies of immigrant children’s language development would help to pinpoint those aspects of oral language that require intervention and those that do not. Also, past studies tended to focus on a limited number of forms, and so more work is needed to discover the types of inter-
ventions that are most effective for particular forms. Another pressing question is what works for whom; thus, future second-language research needs to go beyond studying language learning by well-educated international students at researchers’ universities to study, for instance, learning with the more typical young immigrant children in U.S. schools. Finally, consistent with Norris and Oretega’s (2000) observation, better standards are needed for reporting study results; currently, most publications in this field report only significance levels without effect sizes.
Familiarity with standard English has been linked to academic achievement in at least two studies: Charity, Scarborough, and Griffin (2004) documented that African Americans with greater familiarity with standard English had higher reading achievement (controlling for city, school, socioeconomic status [SES], and other variables). Similar findings were published by Craig and colleagues for reading achievement (discussed in Rickford and Wolfram, 2009).
EXPLICIT INSTRUCTION FOR DIALECT SPEAKERS
John Rickford explored the state of research on explicit English instruction for students who speak vernacular varieties of English or nonstandard dialects and speculated about instructional changes that could benefit students’ language and academic learning.
African American vernacular, Rickford reported, is by far the most studied English variety, in terms of both grammar and relationship between its speakers and their school achievement. Fewer studies focus on Latino English, Native American languages and dialects, and nonstandard varieties of English among whites. Responding to the guiding questions that had been posed by the workshop planning committee, Rickford and Wolfram (2009) first considered the most common approaches used to develop the language of vernacular dialect speakers and whether any of them accelerate language development. The authors drew from previous surveys of instructional approaches, especially Siegel (1999, 2005), and their own work to identify five major approaches to language arts and literacy instruction for speakers of vernacular varieties of English.
The deprecation or denial approach involves ignoring or deprecating the vernacular and extensive correction and interruption, and is often referred to as conventional (Rickford and Wolfram, 2009). Though not included or labeled in past work, the approach was included by the authors because they perceive it to be the most widespread response in U.S. schools where vernacular or nonstandard varieties of language coexist with mainstream or
standard varieties. Yet, Rickford emphasized, little is actually known about the everyday instructional and other interactions teachers use with students who speak various dialects, which is a limitation of existing research.
Accommodation approaches involve accepting some dialect differences while not discussing or using them overtly in the classroom.
Dialect awareness approaches incorporate both sociolinguistic lessons about language diversity and contrastive analysis of standard and vernacular components to encourage student awareness of linguistic differences and movement toward using the standard form.
Instrumental approaches, which are rare, incorporate vernacular into some reading materials and classroom exercises.
Individualized, linguistically informed error analysis, described by Labov and Baker (in press) is the least common approach.
Research on each approach is quite limited and more is needed, Rickford noted.
Rickford next turned to the question of how English-language learners and vernacular-dialect speakers compare in the context of explicit language instruction, and, related to that question, how explicit instruction compares with implicit instruction. He reported that the little available research points to explicit methods as being more effective than implicit instruction for both groups in reading, writing, and standard language mastery (Bayley, 2009; Rickford and Wolfram, 2009). For instance, second-dialect speakers experienced gains in standard English oral language and writing when taught with the dialect awareness and contrastive analysis approaches described above (reported in Maddahian and Sandamela, 2000; Sweetland, 2006). In addition, Labov and Baker (in press) reported moving African Americans toward standard English in oral reading after 40 hours of instruction with their individualized reading program. A limitation of the few available studies that exist, in their view, is that the comparison groups consisted only of simple exposure to standard English and the students’ vernacular was ignored. Thus, some of the approaches listed above have not been adequately represented in the comparisons for testing.
Studies in the peer-reviewed literature have not compared focus on form versus focus on meaning for speakers of varied dialects (but see Reaser, 2006, and Sweetland, 2006, for unpublished dissertations). Sweetland reported suggestive findings that contrastive analysis focus on forms combined with “sociolinguistic awareness raising” was more effective than either one alone and found positive effects of explicit instruction
for inflectional morphemes and spelling. Rickford speculated that second-dialect speakers often are not aware of how their language differs from standard English and so may benefit from explicit instruction more than English-language learners.
Though contrastive analysis is likely to have positive effects, focusing on it exclusively might undermine students’ progress, Rickford and Wolfram (2009) cautioned. Adding instrumental dialect methods, they speculate, may have positive effects on literacy and language if those approaches help students recognize the linguistic complexities and intricacies of vernacular and standard English, as suggested in research by Simpkins and Simpkins (1981).
As requested by the workshop planning committee, Rickford and Wolfram (2009) applied their expertise to speculate about ways to configure instruction throughout the school day, beneficial curriculum components and approaches to code switching (the practice of switching between a primary and secondary language), useful classroom interaction, and essential teacher education. Given that all dialect differences probably are not relevant for school achievement and cannot be covered in any curriculum, Rickford and Wolfram suggest that curricula should focus on areas likely to have the greatest effects on students’ achievement, with general forms used across the United States taking precedence over local forms, grammatical forms taking precedence over phonological forms, and sharply stratified forms over gradient forms. In addition, Van Hofwegen and Wolfram (in press) show curvilinear trajectories such that children lose their vernacular from 1st through 4th grade as they learn standard English, but by middle school they begin to choose whether to keep their vernacular, suggesting that early instruction in the standard English needs to continue through later grades.
With respect to code switching, said Rickford, research suggests that the ability to switch grammatical codes across languages correlates with academic achievement and the acquisition of literacy skills, and so teachers might encourage code shifting for those children who have yet to develop that ability. In addition, classroom interactions could be structured to help with developing the standard variety of English, taking care to prevent stigmatization. Realistically, however, tracking and self-selected peer interactions limit such opportunities.
Rickford and Wolfram speculate that teachers’ abilities, training, attitudes, and social and psychological backgrounds are also likely to affect implementation and quality of dialect-related instruction. Knowledge about progressions of standard English-language development would be likely to help teachers plan and deliver age-appropriate instruction, but teachers would also benefit, in the authors’ view, from knowing the different stages and trajectories of vernacular forms so that a logically pro-
gressive, iterative instruction could be designed for learning the standard dialect. This linguistic education for teachers would impart understanding of how dialects develop, the historical and cultural context for language diversity, the systematic patterning of language differences, systemic contrasts among varieties of English, and the social utility of students’ being comfortable in both standard and vernacular varieties of English.
A COGNITIVE PSYCHOLOGY PERSPECTIVE
Aydin Durgunoğlu offered a cognitive psychology perspective on second-language learning and instruction, summarizing findings on the transfer of skills across languages and implications of those findings for how to support development of skills in both the spoken and written language. She said her framework for the review was grounded in “the simple view of reading” (Gough and Tunner, 1986), a cognitive model that is anything but simple, she said.
The model has often been mischaracterized as a “bottom-up” approach driven by the basic skill of decoding. Actually, the model consists of two independent factors, decoding and language comprehension. In studies of school children, these two factors together have been shown to account for up to 75 percent of reading comprehension performance (see, e.g., Catts, Adlof, and Weismer, 2006). The model predicts that language comprehension becomes relatively more important for reading comprehension as decoding is mastered, and this result has been shown with children and older adolescents in adult education (for details, see Durgunoğlu, 2009).
Expanding on the simple view of reading, recent cognitive modeling research by Kendeou, Savage, and van den Broek (2009) suggests that the same higher-order cognitive processes are used in reading comprehension and listening comprehension. That is, whether language is received visually through reading or aurally through listening, the same cognitive processes are engaged to make sense of the input. First, the words and the grammatical parts of a sentence are recognized. Next, comprehension at the paragraph level is achieved through attention to the connectives that link sentences (e.g., “because,” which describes a cause-effect relationship). Finally, a global representation of meaning is created, using background knowledge and inferential thinking to fill any gaps in the input that are needed for understanding. Good comprehenders—whether of speech or print—continuously monitor their degree of understanding to detect and correct inconsistencies and anomalies.
Studies of the model that have been conducted with second-language learners are consistent with the cognitive model, Durgunoğlu reported. She emphasized that, as the model predicts, second-language learners experience little difficulty with decoding as long as they had received
good decoding instruction and that they caught up with first-language monolingual peers. Also, consistent with the model, the findings for reading comprehension (discussed in Durgunoğlu, 2009) show that at higher levels of oral-language proficiency, decoding and reading comprehension are not correlated, suggesting that as decoding is mastered, oral-language proficiency may play a greater role in comprehension. As shown by Lesaux (see Chapter 2), research is needed to determine how to increase second-language vocabulary and reading comprehension since these skills consistently trail decoding among middle school students.
Durgunoğlu then turned to the question of whether second-language and literacy learning might proceed faster if the first language was developed and used as a resource to enable transferring skills from the first language to the second (cross-linguistic transfer). To answer this question, Durgunoğlu drew from and updated findings of a review by the National Panel on Language and Literacy for Minority Youth (August and Shanahan, 2006). First, oral-language proficiency appears to help with some decoding-related skills, but not others. For instance, phonological awareness skills are correlated across languages, as are word recognition skills. But correlations for spelling are nonsignificant and sometimes negative, perhaps because, as Fred Genesee argued, spelling requires precise orthographic patterns; using approximations is not sufficient as it can be with spoken language. Likewise, first-language listening comprehension and vocabulary knowledge are not related to second-language word recognition or spelling.
Durgunoğlu next discussed the evidence about the various conditions that influence transfer. First, formal instruction in a first language is important. Correlational data suggest that students who have weak or no literacy in their first language will find it harder or impossible to transfer phonological awareness, word recognition, or comprehension processes to a second language. Second, although skills within each language are correlated more than skills between languages, the full picture is more complex (e.g., see Manis, Lindsey, and Bailey, 2004; Gottardo and Mueller, 2009). For instance, although Spanish phonological awareness does not predict English word recognition, it does predict English phonological awareness, which in turn predicts English word recognition. Thus, having Spanish phonological awareness may help to recognize English words through supporting the development of English phonological awareness. A similar pattern has been observed for reading comprehension. First-language decoding, syntactic knowledge, vocabulary, and listening comprehension do not strongly relate to second-language reading comprehension, but they do correlate with reading comprehension in the first language, which in turn is correlated with second-language reading comprehension.
Third, whether first-language decoding-related skills help with
decoding in the second language appears to depend on the particular skill examined. For instance, letter knowledge (a decoding-related skill) in English and Spanish is not correlated for English-language learners, but word recognition is correlated, especially if children already have acquired a degree of word recognition in English.
Vocabulary knowledge has shown less evidence of skill transfer since correlations between vocabulary knowledge in a first and second language are nonsignificant and sometimes negative. Likewise, instruction effects in some studies appear to be language specific. For instance, Sharon Vaughn and her colleagues (Vaughn et al., 2006) conducted a controlled study that showed English instruction improved measures of English oral language and Spanish instruction improved Spanish, with no cross-language effects (English instruction did not improve Spanish and vice versa).
Some of the most intriguing findings for her, Durgunoğlu said, point to the metacognitive aspects of language processing as potential areas to leverage for transfer. For example, the ability to give high-quality formal definitions of words in Spanish relates to having this ability in English: this ability shows a generalized understanding of what constitutes a word and a formal definition across languages. Also, awareness of cognates (words that share the same root and meaning) in a first language predicts understanding word meanings in a second language. And the ability to formally analyze language (to explicitly analyze morphological structure, for instance) in a first language predicts the ability to do so in a second language. Finally, findings for reading comprehension show correlations between first- and second-language reading comprehension not only for phonological awareness, vocabulary, listening comprehension, and linguistic knowledge beyond individual words but also for the cognitive and metacognitive aspects of language processing, such as using strategies to aid comprehension and making inferences for text meaning by using background knowledge (for details, see Durgunoğlu, 2009).
Durgunoğlu summarized the findings that she believes may have implications for practice:
After decoding has been developed, linguistic comprehension can be improved independent of decoding instruction given that as decoding is mastered, oral language proficiency continues to predict reading comprehension.
The same higher-order comprehension processes are involved in comprehending language across modalities—visual in reading and aural in listening.
Correlational data support the notion that cross-linguistic transfer is possible.
Comprehension skills beyond the level of individual words and metacognitive aspects of language processing appear promising for encouraging transfer of skill across languages.
With reference to Bayley’s presentation on explicit instruction, some aspects of second-language literacy development benefit from explicit instruction in English.
Research is needed to design instructional interventions that target comprehension skills beyond the word level that overlap between listening and reading comprehension. Whether facility in a first language with what Schleppegrell (2009) defined as “academic language” would help with developing second-language comprehension has not been studied, but it is likely to be the case, Durgunoğlu speculated, given that instruction to develop academic language targets metacognitive skills similar to those observed across languages. In closing, Durgunoğlu considered feasible ways to accelerate second-language development in light of findings on cross-linguistic transfer. She observed that current education policies in the United States tend to limit opportunities to develop students’ first language, so families might be encouraged to develop the first language and to emphasize areas for which research suggests transfer is possible.
CONTEXT FOR LANGUAGE ACQUISITION
Guadelupe Valdés began her response by stressing that Bayley’s presentation offered just one perspective on a much larger and enormously controversial and complex field that was originally described in Twenty-Five Centuries of Language Teaching (Kelly, 1969). She agreed that defining the desired target for language instruction is an important issue from a sociolinguistic perspective, but questioned Bayley’s conclusion that explicit instruction is superior to other teaching methods. One factor that affects interpretation of the findings is how to recognize and measure success and whether studies of explicit instruction have included meaningful measures in this regard. More specifically, Norris and Ortega (2000) and others in the field have noted that many studies of instruction measure only immediate acquisition of grammatical structure, but that differs from learning that persists, that generalizes, and that can be used flexibly for various tasks and purposes. For instance, can it be assumed from the measures used in research studies that the knowledge that is purported to be assessed can be used spontaneously much later when speaking, writing, or editing? Follow-up is needed, whether in studies on the effectiveness of recasting, error correction, or other approaches, to determine whether the learning “stuck” and has resulted in real learning rather than just immediate acquisition. In response, Bayley noted that
most of the studies he reviewed included at least a delayed post-test after 2 or 3 months, and most of the time the effects were lasting. But he agreed that more needs to be known about how the acquired skills are used in natural communication.
Valdés noted that the research reviewed by Bayley (2009) includes studies of explicit instruction in French immersion programs that were motivated by concerns that children were not acquiring language that was native-like, but after the programs were implemented, the concern was that children were not learning certain language structures. It was assumed that explicit grammatical instruction was needed but, Valdés argued, other possible explanations were not tested. For instance, since native speakers of French did not attend the programs, perhaps children were not exposed to a sufficient number of native speakers, which would be consistent with Lily Wong Filmore’s (see, e.g., Wong Filmore, 1991) hypothesis that when learners outnumber native speakers, the environment is not conducive to acquiring a second language.
Valdés’ observations about the configuration of French immersion programs and the effects of such programs on developing language raises a larger question about the limits of language learning within the confines of the classroom, Genesee noted. French immersion, with its focus on meaning, was adopted because children often did not have contact with native French speakers. But, as Valdés noted, after many years, they did not show mastery of grammar that met the expectations some had for high school students: their speech was not indistinguishable from monolingual native French-speaking children.
A lesson from this experience, Genesee suggested, is the value of testing the limits of what can be learned in classrooms with approaches that have a heavy focus on meaning augmented with some kind of explicit language instruction. He agreed that aspects of the larger linguistic context would be important to take into account in such research, such as the balance of students in the classroom who speak the language to be learned and those who are language learners. He also questioned whether being indistinguishable from native speakers is a realistic goal and whether the kind of grammatical errors that tend to be made, such as gender marking, matter for academic achievement—which was the main focus of the workshop, a point echoed by Erika Hoff.
Valdés responded to Rickford and Wolfram (2009) by noting that she found three descriptions of approaches used by teachers to respond to students with varying dialects to be especially valuable to highlight: (1) deprecation or denial (conventional); (2) dialect awareness (with socio-linguistic and contrastive analysis); and (3) instrumental. More information is needed, she agreed, about how teachers interact in classrooms with second-language or second-dialect students. Because there are so few
data on this issue, controversies arise over perceived shifts in instruction (from communicative approaches to grammar-based instruction or vice versa), so this is an area for research. Another interesting question is what might be learned from research on second-dialect learners, which was not reviewed for the workshop, on efforts such as those to teach Spanish to Spanish-speakers as a heritage language.
The findings presented by Durgunoğlu (2009) suggest that developing the first language could help to develop a second language, but they also indicate the process is likely to be more complicated than many thought, said Valdés. A key practical challenge in the United States will be figuring out what exposure to the first language may be required for language to be developed to a point that results in benefits for second-language learning. A serious problem to address with respect to transfer lies with children who have neither sufficient oral language nor reading skills in English. Since reading depends on oral language, one might question whether phonics instruction is the only important starting point for reading. In her experience and echoing that of other workshop participants, Valdés said, Spanish-speaking children are often taught to decode words in English and can do so proficiently, but they do not understand what the words mean.
It would be valuable, Valdés proposed, to “curricularize” knowledge from research about how to develop language for comprehension, but challenges in developing the curriculum would lie in what to teach and how to sequence it. The research base may present challenges in this respect because what researchers have chosen to study about language and how they have studied it has not been driven by the practical goal of articulating learning progressions for education purposes, and so gaps in knowledge would need to be filled.
AN EDUCATOR’S PERSPECTIVE
Following on Valdés’ last point, Susana Dutro discussed the papers from the perspective of a teacher educator: What does the research presented imply for what teachers need to know and be able to do to develop the language of students learning second languages and dialects and how can teachers best acquire this knowledge? Despite the breadth of the papers, Dutro said, for her they converged on some common themes: the importance of knowing what each student brings to the classroom; the importance of understanding that children live in multiple worlds and need the languages of all those worlds to function effectively in them; and the importance of explicitly teaching the conventions of grammar in the standard variety of English. Just as making
decoding visible helps with reading, so will awareness of the rules of language and how to use them.
Durgunoğlu, Dutro said, confirmed that the challenge for achievement lies in finding ways to support comprehension of content and that focusing on oral language helps to develop reading comprehension and learning. In Dutro’s experience, teachers often lack a sophisticated sense of how to develop language and the instruction delivered is very text based. Teachers need to know more about how to provide the instruction that develops listening and reading comprehension:
What conversations need to be had in the classroom, and how should these be structured to involve students in both listening and speaking as they learn about content areas?
How can teachers engage students so that students feel accountable and compelled to use language in the context of learning meaningful curriculum content?
How do teachers ascertain the knowledge of syntactical structure that individual students in the classroom need for learning?
What are effective ways to develop background knowledge and higher-order processes, such as the metacognitive knowledge as described by Durgunoğlu (2009)?
How can students be guided to monitor their own comprehension and construct rich mental representations of the text?
Dutro said her experience is consistent with Durgunoğlu’s suggestions that formal instruction in a first language may be needed for the first language to have an impact on learning in a second language and that lack of first-language oral proficiency transfer suggests that syntax and vocabulary need to be explicitly taught to English-language learners. These suggestions imply, she noted, a need for teachers to be educated about the appropriateness of building on first-language skills, which skills to build on, the pedagogies that benefit second-language reading, and strategies for supporting parents in reading and talking about their ideas with children.
Responding to Rickford and Wolfram (2009), Dutro agreed that when teaching language for academic purposes it is not helpful to aspire to idealized patterns that are stilted, overly formal, or archaic. In addition, students are likely to be supported by accommodating regional pronunciation, lexical items, and grammatical patterns, but that language items with general social significance across the United States should take precedence over regional items, and emphasis on grammatical forms should take precedence over phonological ones.
Little is known about how language is used differently across
children’s multiple worlds—home, sports, peer networks, classrooms. Research to discover the registers embedded in these language uses might help to support students in moving across the worlds in which they need to function. Another area to explore is the effect of teachers’ beliefs about language, particularly on teaching and learning language linked to learning in subject areas and how these beliefs can be influenced to enable teaching standard English using the most effective approaches.
It would be valuable, according to Dutro, to identify pedagogical approaches that balance focus on form and focus on meaning, and as Valdés stressed, to support learning that generalizes and becomes “portable.” Does teaching grammatical features as tools to be applied to varied communicative purposes have an impact? Translational research is needed to articulate instructional strategies for teachers to use in their classrooms to issue prompts or recasts, both of which appear to have some degree of effectiveness according to the research literature. Consistent with earlier discussion, Dutro agreed that the source and composition of language output needs to be examined in more detail: Who is doing the talking in classrooms and what is the quality? How does it compare to the kind of language output research suggest would be needed and by whom to see progress? How can students be encouraged through instruction to become accountable and invested participants in these exchanges?
In closing, Dutro suggested studying a model she has used for professional development in explicit language instruction. The process starts with identifying specific communicative purposes and tasks linked to local content standards. Language tools would be identified for performing those tasks: for instance, topic-specific words and key phrases used in sentence structures for discussion and writing in the context of those tasks. Explicit instruction would introduce, model, and encourage practicing these language tools, with opportunities for structured interaction and support as students work toward the goals of accurate and fluent language use.
PRACTICAL ISSUES IN APPLYING THE RESEARCH ON LEARNING AND INSTRUCTION
Fred Genesee began his discussion by focusing participants’ attention on the question of the relevance of the research presented to academic achievement and reducing the achievement gap. He offered three understandings that seemed to emerge from the reported findings that appear to be important avenues for supporting school learning and achievement: (1) developing a student’s first language, (2) attending to the dialect or language variety that students speak, and (3) engaging students in explicit instruction. The wide-ranging discussion that followed focused on several
limitations in the research literature that would need to be addressed before making these points for practice.
David Dickinson emphasized that research is needed to identify the best time in children’s development to begin explicit instruction and the ages at which particular types of explicit instruction would be useful. There is likely to be an age below which explicit instruction about language would not be effective. Dickinson expressed concern that a focus on explicit instruction might lead to language drills to correct grammatical features to the exclusion of engaging in rich conversations for preschool-ers and for students of all ages around curriculum content. Robert Bayley added that work by Birgit Harley (1998) examined explicit teaching of grammar with 2nd graders in a communicative context using games and showed positive results. It would be useful to further explore such an approach, though probably not for children as young as kindergarten age.
Jeff MacSwan stressed the importance of not falsely dichotomizing focus on form and focus on function and meaning when debating the literature because most researchers recognize that these fall on a continuum, and there are many intermediate positions. If researcher debates come across as polarized, even if not intended, it risks lending support to ideologies that drive policies inconsistent with research and with the perspectives of most researchers on the issues. Language policies in some states, which MacSwan described as regressive, mandate practices that are at odds with research findings and that are likely to negatively affect English-language learners. One state, for instance, mandates a focus on form approach for kindergartners, who must be explicitly taught about past-tense verb morphology, for instance, in exercises that most researchers would agree are not age appropriate. Rather, instruction is best situated somewhere in the middle, and the most useful way to frame an agenda for future research is to ask how much focus on form and how much focus on meaning is appropriate under various conditions.
Kenji Hakuta agreed and added the need to discover the right dosage and intensity. For Aída Walqui, the most important question is whether explicit teaching works, and, if it does, to pick up on Dickinson’s concern, when in children’s development is it the time for learning? Her experience as a practitioner leads to concern about young children being “completely turned off” if attempts to support language in the classroom start with decontextualized grammar lessons. She noted that as students move toward adolescence, there appears to be more interest in more formal analysis of their language and language differences as part of a search for identity. Like Valdés, she noted that a major challenge is determining what to select for a curriculum and how to sequence the curriculum over the K-12 years to support both academic and language learning. When
teaching with text, for instance, it may be ideal to begin with the “larger” aspects of language related to academic learning, such as: What does the text attempt to do? What is the message? What is the structure of the text? How are the ideas put together to engage the reader? Then the instruction could turn to grammar. Although grammatical errors may be made in discussing the text, they would be ignored as much as possible until grammar became the purpose of the instruction.
The approach of incorporating the first dialect into instruction is intriguing in light of past research showing a positive effect on reading, Genesee noted. Might programs such as dialect awareness boost all students’ reading skills by tapping the metalinguistic aspects known to be involved in and benefit reading proficiency? All children could benefit from language awareness, regardless of the dialect spoken, Hoff agreed. For the purpose of boosting school achievement, the classroom goal is probably not to try to get speakers of vernacular language to sound like native speakers of standard English. Rather, it is to help students master the broader aspects of language contained in academic learning, such as those outlined by Schleppegrell (2009), and which many speakers of standard English themselves lack.
In practice, however, ideological concerns can prevent parents and teachers from accepting dialect awareness instruction and dialect readers, Walter Wolfram pointed out. In his experience, however, students tend to be very conscious of linguistic differences and can be interested in and willing to talk about them. In his research, students report that the fact that all language varieties, including dialects spoken in the classroom, have rules is the most important thing they learned through dialect awareness education. And as Sweetland’s (2006) work indicates, students who have this knowledge report greater self-efficacy and score higher on writing exams. In contrast, Wolfram said, the assumption in U.S. society is that qualities of certain dialects are not desirable, especially if associated with certain minority groups or geographical regions (see Rickford and Wolfram, 2009). Avoiding dialect awareness only perpetuates such negative attitudes about dialect, in his view, while limiting access to an approach that could not only benefit student achievement but also serve a valuable purpose in its own right of educating children about the structure of language, views on how it emerges, and how their own variety fits.
William Labov emphasized that given the crisis with reading among African Americans in inner-city schools, if correcting oral English or teaching a new form of oral English will help with effective teaching of reading and writing, which includes decoding and spelling, then it would be valuable to do so. If not, it deserves a secondary place in the curriculum. Bayley agreed but echoed the views of other participants that since many students decode perfectly without understanding what is read, it is
important not to lose sight of comprehension as a significant issue to be addressed, as well as broader aspects of writing.
Rickford pointed to the lack of quantitative data on academic language in the sense that Schleppegrell (2009), Robin Scarcella (2003), and others have described it. Studies typically have measured mastery of grammatical forms of standard English. More work on academic language would be helpful for continuing to define its features, to examine relations between reading and achievement, and to determine why certain instructional approaches might have an effect.
Hakuta agreed that researchers have tended to look at a limited set of grammatical structures, for instance, certain grammatical morphemes, perhaps for theoretically interesting reasons, and ignored the rest. If researchers start emphasizing to practitioners the need to focus on teaching grammatical contrasts of a second language or dialect without any constraints on this guidance, the task can become overwhelming, and the forms most studied in the literature will become the ones emphasized in practice even if they are not the most important ones for explicit instruction. The lack of systematic study to date of the full range of linguistic structures and the lack of evidence about which are most important to focus on and at what point poses a problem for applying existing research to instructional design. Another limitation of existing research, Genesee noted, is that studies tend to focus on learning forms within a specific kind of communicative context, such as learning conditional verb forms in the context of planning for a future lunar trip, an activity that calls for heavy use of conditional verbs.
The discussion turned to the evidence for cross-linguistic transfer. Claude Goldenberg cautioned that, in his view, the research base is not yet clear with respect to exactly how a first language affects developing a second language. Most of the research is correlational, including the data presented by Durgunoğlu. The data could be contaminated by spurious correlations or caused by a shared underlying factor that affects the development of skill in both languages. A common proficiency, such as phonological processing, might underlie the development of proficiency in each language. Even prospective correlations between phonological awareness in kindergarten and reading in 2nd and 3rd grade are open to interpretation. In contrast, a randomized experiment by Vaughn and her colleagues (Vaughn et al., 2006) revealed only a language-specific effect of instruction, with no evidence for transfer of specific skills. “Two or three dozen” bilingual education experiments support transfer, he said, but literacy was defined very generally in those studies, and the evidence was not very skill specific.
Yet, Goldenberg said, in his view the predictive validity demonstrated in the correlational studies is beyond dispute: skills in a first language
are a very important window into what can be expected in a second language absent some kind of intervention. And as shown in Genesee’s work, information about the first language yields insights that cannot be gleaned only from collecting assessments in the second language. But, in the case of transfer, the best evidence would be to conduct experiments that test the effects of instruction in a first language on immediate changes in second-language literacy.
Hoff noted that the available evidence does support the existence of a general phonological capacity, such as Goldenberg proposed, as a shared underlying factor that affects learning across languages. For instance, the accuracy with which 22-month-old children repeat Spanish and English nonwords, a measure of phonological proficiency, is highly correlated between the two languages; this kind of correlation is not true for other aspects of language, such as vocabulary and grammar. Other data suggest, Hoff said, that aspects of phonological capacity may be less affected by the particular language they hear: the amount of language input children experience in Spanish versus English relates less strongly to differences in children’s nonword repetition in the two languages and more strongly to differences in vocabulary and grammar.
Durgunoğlu agreed that correlational data should be interpreted cautiously. Studies of formal instructional interventions would be the strongest evidence, and more research is needed. Yet the correlational and experimental data that do exist when taken altogether suggest that, regardless of the mechanism behind the observed correlations (including the possibility of a shared factor that affects both languages), certain aspects of language may turn out to be better candidates for transfer than others, especially higher-order processing skills because they are shared across modalities. Once made available in the first language, these higher-order processing skills may turn out to support acquiring language, concepts, and literacy in the second language. If this is the case, current political and practical constraints on exposure to a first language in U.S. classrooms point to families as an important resource to explore in supporting transfer.
The discussion then turned to the type of input, rather than the amount, that affects language development. Rickford asked whether there is evidence for effects of directive language often used in lower SES homes, which has deep cultural roots for socialization and parenting, but is also changeable. Hoff responded that high frequencies of directives have a negative effect on language. It is not a spurious correlation: directives are grammatically impoverished, and do not reveal the complex syntactic structure of language as questions do. Directives also do not elicit participation in conversation. They tend to be “conversation stoppers.” Still, some directives have positive effects, such as those that follow the object of a child’s attention and elaborate, rather than those
that try to redirect or refer to something else. So, for instance, saying, “Look at your cup and try stirring it; it will dissolve” is different from saying, “Don’t sit there. Look over there.” And it is possible that in some household situations, directives could be used in a way that mitigates their average negative effect, Hoff said. Schleppegrell added that direct contingent responses—following up immediately on what a child has said, for instance, by asking the child to elaborate—has been shown to be important for developing children’s language.