Reflections on Research and Practice
This chapter synthesizes discussion from the two final sessions of the workshop: members of the planning committee identified workshop themes relating to conducting and applying research on language and on reducing achievement disparities. Several key questions stood out: Are certain aspects of language critical to develop, especially for populations that have low achievement levels or are disengaged with school? What additional work may be needed to explore the influence of language on achievement gaps? What are some of the issues to consider when developing, evaluating, and implementing effective practices to develop both language and academic content knowledge?
ASPECTS OF LANGUAGE TO STUDY
Jill de Villiers began the discussion by noting the apparent agreement at the workshop about the need to tackle comprehension. Decoding continues to deserve attention, however, especially in light of William Labov’s data showing that certain decoding errors associated with dialects lead to subsequent reading errors. Labov agreed and emphasized that both Preventing Reading Difficulties (National Research Council, 1998) and the report of the National Reading Panel (National Institute on Child Health and Human Development, 2000) concluded that direct instruction in decoding was effective in teaching children to read. The search for approaches to comprehension instruction should not be misinterpreted as saying that decoding instruction is unimportant for solving achievement gaps.
With respect to vocabulary, the research suggests very strongly, de Villiers said, that for the direct teaching of vocabulary to be fruitful, the vocabulary would need to be introduced in the context of varied content, ideally content made interesting to the student, content that is linked to what the student already knows, and so forth. The challenge lies in figuring out how to arrange these learning conditions. Lynne Vernon-Feagans added that a theme of the workshop was that vocabulary instruction is likely to be more effective if, in developing instructional approaches, it is conceptualized as part of a larger system of oral and written language.
Regarding syntax and morphology, several questions had been raised, de Villiers said, among them just how automatic learning empty morphology—such as third persons or gendered articles—really is. There may be a critical period for learning some aspects of grammar or a sensitive period after which more repetition or explicit instruction is required. It is not yet clear which grammatical features help or hinder learning in school, but with such knowledge it might be possible to design children’s books and software to present essential linguistic contrasts for learning language in the context of content learning. Linguist specialists might help with developing these materials after they are confident about how to sequence contrasts appropriately, given the language level of children at different points in development and for different dialect and language speakers. Several participants, Labov concurred, seemed to suggest that linguistic contrastive analysis may be an acceptable and feasible instructional approach to study in the future.
Much more needs to be known, according to de Villiers, about whether “academic language” is necessary for schooling. Should language used for academic learning become simplified, more like verbal discourse, with dense nominalizations unpacked? It is worth considering that there may be limits to the feasibility of eliminating certain linguistic structures typical of academic language because the structures may be needed to express and even formulate certain concepts that are part of learning and thinking about academic subjects. It is not known whether academic content can be effectively taught and expressed in a vernacular that is familiar to children from their nonacademic experiences. Research may show that some linguistic structures associated with academic learning actually help children think in new ways. Yet developing children’s language generally is known to be important for school, she said, and in this respect parents’ competence in the home language is one strength to build on to maximize children’s opportunities to develop language. Thus, children would likely benefit if parents were encouraged to “reveal their maximum linguistic competence” to children. Intervening as early as possible with parents and high-quality early education programs was a related theme of the
workshop, Vernon-Feagans added, since language develops very quickly over the first few years of life.
From Claude Goldenberg’s perspective, achievement gaps are real and large, and the question is what to do about them. Goldenberg agreed with many others that interventions are needed both outside and inside the classroom. Alexander and Entwhistle (1996), among others, have shown that children from lower socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds make gains during the academic year that parallel those of middle- and upper-income children, but lose ground during the summer. Such data indicate that the responsibility for closing achievement gaps cannot be placed only at the “school house door.”
Generally speaking, however, the effect sizes obtained in most education intervention research pale in comparison with the size of the achievement gaps. The technical knowledge does not currently exist, in his view, to close achievement gaps, nor are education interventions alone likely to close gaps that result from various economic, cultural, and other factors. In future research, it will be important to use methods for studying instructional practices to evaluate and quantify the results of interventions, rather than just describing the approaches that were implemented. It will also be important to interpret the magnitude of their effects in the context of the overall challenge of “attacking” the achievement gaps.
Kenji Hakuta suggested that the first of Goldenberg’s proposals was most important: discovering the ways in which language affects learning and how to intervene. With respect to the second, the liver, he noted, is important to overall health, but no one asks how important the liver is to life compared with other organs: language is important to education in the same way. As long as it is agreed that language is an essential part of schooling, then it is important to assess students’ progress with language, and, thus, every teacher needs knowledge of language. Labov agreed and said that, for linguists, the question is what can be done to improve language: deciding what portion of the problem of achievement is attributable to language is not the linguist’s concern.
Goldenberg rejoined that it is important for decision making to test assumptions about the relative importance of various aspects of language to school achievement. Studies will be needed both to determine which kinds of teacher training are effective for enhancing language and to evaluate the degree to which those interventions are likely “to pay off” to affect student achievement.
Understanding the role of language in achievement calls for the multi-
disciplinary expertise of sociologists, linguists, psychologists, educators, and economists, Donna Christian said. Another priority is to study interventions longitudinally to determine if and how they made a difference over time. Fred Genesee agreed, and noted that more complex research designs would help examine how multiple influences—linguistic, sociological, psychological, and cultural—interact to influence the achievement gaps over time. For instance, not much bilingual research speaks to issues of SES and poverty and how these interact with the linguistic aspects of children’s environments to influence language development and, ultimately, school achievement. More complex models and designs would help to reveal how various characteristics of schools, learners, homes, and so on interact to influence the relation between language development and achievement.
Vernon-Feagans agreed and went on to suggest studying “correlated constraints” on students’ language learning. Low SES is associated with many factors that “hang together” and affect language, including family environment, teacher quality, school resources. As a result, efforts to modify language and the achievement gap would need to take into account how low SES affects multiple aspects of children’s environment that in turn affect their language experiences.
Christian questioned whether using measures that yield percentile scores leads to the best information about students’ language development and gains in achievement. The measures were designed to rank people relative to each another (meaning that someone will always be at the bottom), rather than to assess progress. More generally, how to evaluate the validity of new language assessments also needs serious consideration, de Villiers said: What is the criterion against which to validate new measures? The answer depends, she said, on what the goals are for children’s language and school learning: which existing measures map onto these goals and so should be used and which have significant limitations in this regard and so should not be used as a validating measure.
Taking a developmental perspective in future research, Genesee said, would help to understand more about second-language learners and second-dialect speakers. Debates about students’ development are occurring in the absence of developmental data: only 25 studies, reviewed in Educating English Language Learners (Saunders and O’Brien, 2006) have systematically and empirically looked at oral-language development in the context of schooling. And even less evidence exists on how to promote oral-language development in second-language and second-dialect speakers. Rather than focusing only on students who are not doing well with language and school, developmental research might look more closely at successful minority-language learners who might have been
expected to do poorly to identify the conditions that supported their growth and success.
RESEARCH TO PRACTICE
Participants were invited to discuss professional development and issues that arise when engaging in research with teachers and classrooms. Most programs implemented in preschools and K-12 classrooms are not evidence based, Vernon-Feagans stressed, and curricula tend to be developed by companies without understanding of the research literature or how to apply it. Infusing what is understood about language research into schools of education is vital so that teachers will have cutting-edge knowledge.
It would be helpful to encourage language researchers to collaborate with educators and curriculum developers to work toward state-of-the-art instruction for preschool through 2nd grade. Though some teams are doing this, the activity has not reached a critical mass that could result in nationwide effects on school achievement. Unfortunately, she said, little data exist showing how to intervene effectively with teachers, especially that includes measures of children’s outcomes. Promising multidimensional models of professional development could be tested that simultaneously address teacher beliefs, knowledge, and instructional practices, and that measure student progress.
Teachers need a great deal of support, Schleppegrell said, especially those who use a lecture style, and in this regard, coach-teacher models have been especially useful, a point echoed by Susanna Dutro. Dutro went on to suggest that the “accountable talk” method developed by Lauren Resnick and colleagues (e.g., see Wolf, Crosson, and Resnick, 2004) is one promising approach to study in professional development settings to help teachers develop language in the context of academic learning. This approach emphasizes forms and norms of discourse carefully designed to support and promote equity and access to rigorous academic learning.
Accountable talk encompasses three broad dimensions: (1) accountability to the learning community, in which participants listen to and build their contributions in response to those of others; (2) accountability to accepted standards of reasoning, including drawing logical connections and reasonable conclusions; and (3) accountability to knowledge, which is talk that draws explicitly on facts, written texts, or other public information (rather than personal opinion, for instance). Data suggest that it can enhance academic achievement for diverse populations of students.
Participants identified several challenges to conducting intervention and translational research with teachers and schools: the difficulty of conducting randomized trials with policy changes, teacher changes, prin-
cipal changes, and so on; the difficulties of studying linguistic natural interaction in classrooms that have little interaction in them to observe; and the reluctance of teachers to move away from the pacing required to cover material for standards of learning tests and, more generally, to engage students in discourse. David Dickinson stressed that for these and other reasons, almost nothing is known about details of linguistic interactions in classrooms, including how teachers implement what is learned about language development in schools of education. Several participants agreed on the need to also take stock of teacher education to determine what actually gets taught.
Hakuta commented that the lack of classroom research is a missed opportunity. Technological advances have made collecting data and developing and coding protocols much easier, and researchers have more access to district achievement and background data for students. Erika Hoff pointed to the difficulties, however, of recruiting schools to participate in research and suggested a need to develop better relationships between researchers and schools so that schools would welcome participating in research.
Schleppegrell said that one lesson she has learned in her work with teachers is that researchers must proceed in true partnership with teachers and help teachers to meet their practical goals for the classroom. To succeed, researchers will need to enter into this work with humility and offer knowledge in the service of education. Language has been referred to as the hidden curriculum of school (Schleppegrell, 2009), and it is not practical for language to be taught and studied for its own sake in schools, apart from helping teachers to develop students’ content knowledge.
A linguist seeking to contribute to reading and education instruction, Labov said, needs to do the following: apply knowledge of linguistics in general and of the alphabet and properties of the alphabet in particular, including how it represents speech; apply knowledge of dialect differences to instruction; and understand what children are like, what they’re interested in, how to engage them, and the complex and often difficult realities of children’s home lives that might affect learning. The latter can be especially important since children who are experiencing achievement problems can feel alienated and discouraged, perceiving that the education route is closed to them.
Attention also needs to be paid to teachers, Christian said. School learning encompasses both subject matter and the tools needed to learn, one of which is language. Teachers play a vital role as gatekeepers in allowing children access to the tools for learning. It would be valuable to conduct research on teacher beliefs about language, the effects of these beliefs on how teachers evaluate language in school, how teacher expectations affect their interactions with students, and the degree to which
teachers provide students access to appropriately challenging academic content. This proposal is consistent, she said, with Labov and Hudley (2009) which stressed that the structural aspects of language need to be studied in the context of the multiple social and psychological influences that language has on learning. Research on attitude change also could be drawn upon, Genesee said, to learn more about how to develop teachers’ attitudes about language and language instruction. Even if the best research findings on language development and instruction were assembled, widespread implementation of the practices may depend on teachers’ beliefs about language and linguistic differences.