Fall 1999 - Volume I, Issue 4
A public hearing was held before the Joint Committee on Education, Arts and
Humanities on May 13, 1999 at the Massachusetts State House. It was Chaired by
House Representative Harold Lane and Senator Robert Antonioni. Two House Bills,
H3444 sponsored by Representative Mary S. Rogeness and H3441 Sponsored by
Ronald Mariano, proposed changes to the Bilingual Education Laws, and one
House Bill H3037, sponsored by Antonio F. D. Cabral, Marc Pacheco and Jarret
Barrios, prohibited the Board of Education from making certain changes to the
Bilingual Education Law. We testified in favor of HB3037 and against HB3444
My name is Solange de Azambuja
Lira. I am Associate Professor in Second Language Acquisition at Lesley
College's School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts and I testified
that the transitional bilingual education and the rules and regulations
relative to transitional bilingual education currently in effect should
continue. Children for whom English is a second, third or fourth language
should continue receiving support in their native language while learning
English. I added that the controversies concerning bilingual education have
become matters of intense public debate throughout the country. The confusion
of goals, approaches and even the definitions of essential terms renders the
debates almost meaningless. Because of this, I would like to clarify some of
the misleading assumptions about second-language learning.
it is in the interest of every child to learn English as fast as he or she can
to be able to reach the high standards demanded by the Massachusetts
Curriculum Frameworks. However, we may disagree how to do it. For example Rep.
Rogeness proposed that a program in Bilingual education should not be offered
to children of limited English speaking ability entering kindergarten or first
2. Second, research shows us that the knowledge that children
get through their first language helps them read, write, and speak in English
faster than if they didn't have home language support. In a sample of 42,000
language minority students from across the U.S., Thomas and Collier (1997)
found that when children were schooled bilingually, they would take four to
seven years to reach the 50th percentile on standardized tests in English.
Moreover, the children were on or above grade level in their first language as
well. However, when there was no schooling in the home language literacy, the
children would need seven to ten years to reach those levels of
3. Third, instruction in the home language promotes
higher level cognitive and academic skills that are necessary for the
development of literacy in both languages. Cummins (1979) explains that
language proficiency is a combination of skills in two basic domains of
language development: Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS), which
is the competence to function in everyday interpersonal contexts, and
Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP), which is the competence to
engage in abstract, decontextualized, academic tasks. The first is not
directly related to academic achievement and can be attained after two years
in a host country. Many children are mainstreamed into English-only classes
after they reach this stage because they appear to be fluent.
Fourth, fluency is not the same as proficiency. A child in first grade can
appear to be fluent with a productive vocabulary of 1000 words, while a
native English speaking child will have more than 6000 words. Consequently,
when language minority children are placed in an English-only class and are
expected to learn more demanding academic skills, they are often unprepared
and fail. They don't have the vocabulary and the concepts necessary to
succeed. According to Cummins (1992), it takes five to seven years to develop
the language proficiency needed to function in decontextualized, academic
5. Finally, to have a second or third language is an asset
in the global economy. It is not in our best economic interest to turn all
potentially bilingual students into English-only monolinguals. The
Massachusetts Common Core of Learning, adopted by the state Board of
Education (1996), states, All students should read, write, and converse in at
least one language in addition to English." We are fortunate to have such a
large number of students who speak another language; they can help us reach
this goal of teaching a second language to monolingual students. We should
not accept policies that tend to eliminate the home languages of linguistic
minority students, and then try to add a foreign language in middle school.
We should take fullest advantage of the linguistic diversity present in this
Cummins, J. (1979). Cognitive
academic language proficiency, linguistic interdependence, the optimum age
question and some other matters. Working papers in bilingualism, 19, 121-129.
Cummins, J. (1992). Bilingual education and English immersion: The
Ramìrez report in theoretical Perspective. The Journal of the National
Association for Bilingual Education, 16 (1&2), 91-104. Massachusetts
Department of Education (1996). Making connections through world languages. The
Massachusetts World Languages Curriculum Frameworks. Thomas, W. and
Collier, V. (1997). Language minority student achievement and program
effectiveness. Research summary of ongoing study: results of September,
I am Maria de Lourdes B. Serpa, a
Bilingual Professor of Education and Special Education at Lesley College School
of Education in Cambridge since 1983. I have been involved with teacher
education and inservice training in monolingual and bilingual special
education for over two decades. I am here to testify against House Bill 3441.
The reasons for my opposition include the following:
In a global economy there is a pressing need to
educate all our students to high levels of understanding (See SCANS REPORT
from the US Department of Labor, and the Massachusetts Educational Reform
Act). School learning is language based and teaching/learning for
understanding is highly dependent on high levels of language/vocabulary (among
other variables). Furthermore, the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks are
very clear about the standards for what students need to understand and be
able to do in terms of academics. Therefore my questions to you are:
Given what we have learned from research in this area, how can any English
monolingual teacher teach for understanding in a language in which the
students have not yet gained proficiency? How are monolingual English
teachers without any training in second language learning going to make
certain that bilingual/ESL students not yet proficient in English learn the
academic skills required by the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks: Science
and Technology, Mathematics, Language Arts, Arts, Health and History &
language and learning through a language are two different things. Bilingual
students need not only to learn English but also to learn the academic
content. As we all know, the academic development of native English speaking
students will not be put on hold to wait for Bilingual/ESL students to catch
Let me give you an example: college students from
other countries attending American Universities are required to have a high
level of knowledge of English in addition to a good academic record in their
native language. Why? Because learning for understanding is language based
and bilingual/international students need proficiency in English to succeed
academically in the USA context, they need to have acquired high levels of
English language proficiency. Mastery of the English language is necessary
for these college students to understand and learn the academic content. House
Bill 3441 is in direct opposition to what we know about the role of language
in academic learning. It proposes to abolish the transitional bilingual
program for newcomers in favor of a program in English as a second language.
The impossible will be expected of ESL students, which is to learn academic
content through English before they have acquired English proficiency.
Moreover, this bill proposes to lower current requirements for Certification
of ESL teachers. Special Education
ESL students have difficulty learning the academic content through English
because they don't understand the language, and fall behind, they inevitably
end up receiving special education services. Was this the intention of House
Bill 3441? I don't think so!
Does Bilingual Education work? Does Education really work? For whom does it
work? In this Commonwealth we have embarked on Education Reform because
education was not working for a great number of students. The answer was not
to stop education, but to fix it. With Bilingual Education (instruction in
two languages) we are facing the same issue. We shouldn't stop bilingual
education; we NEED TO DO IT RIGHT.
No. Many schools throughout the Commonwealth hire bilingual and ESL
teachers just because they happen to speak the language, not because they
have the necessary teaching qualifications. We cannot afford to have students
be schooled but not educated. We need to strengthen bilingual/ESL teacher
credentialing and to hold school administrators more accountable for hiring
and mentoring qualified bilingual/ESL educational professionals.
professional experience for the last thirty years, I have seen many school
systems pay little to no attention to this segment of the school population;
students are setting up to fail because of inadequate resources and many
unqualified teachers. Bilingualism, per se, does not cause learning
difficulties, and indeed is an asset for all who develop it proficiently.
Unfortunately no. Actually
all teachers regardless of content area should be familiar with first and
second language acquisition. Colleges and universities should be held more
accountable for addressing linguistic diversity needs in all of the teacher
I am William Stokes, a
Professor at Lesley College in the School of Education. I am also Director of
The Hood Children's Literacy Project. I have been involved with teacher
education and professional development for monolingual and bilingual educators
for 25 years. I am here to testify against House Bill H3444, sponsored by
Representative Mary S. Rogeness.
To avoid repeating points my
colleagues have already made, I will focus my remarks on two interrelated
points concerning early reading instruction for language-minority children:
(1) the role semantic system, especially vocabulary, and (2) the role of
phonics instruction, especially with regard to phonemic awareness.
goal of all approaches to teaching reading to young children is to guide the
development of their competencies to read accurately, fluently and with
comprehension. When native English-speaking children enter first grade, they
bring with them a rich knowledge of English semantics, syntax and phonology,
appropriate to their developmental level. Estimates vary for legitimate
technical reasons, but the receptive vocabulary of a six year old, native
English-speaking child reared in a literate environment has been estimated at
13,000 words (Pinker, 1994, p151). It has also been suggested that the
vocabulary size of lower income children may be half that size (Graves and
Slater, 1987, cited by Snow et al., 1998, p47), presumably because
lower-income status correlates with reduced opportunities for participation
in highly literate environments. Nevertheless, both groups of children enter
school with substantial vocabularies and knowledge of semantic and syntactic
systems sufficient to understand that 'the boy hit the ball' and 'the boy got
hit by the ball' are different in meaning. Native English-speaking children
also enter first grade with near mastery of the phonological system. They are
able to distinguish all of the forty-four phonemes of American English (with
the possible exception of a small number of those phonemes that are acquired
last, e.g., the sound represented by the letter in the word 'measure').
Phonemic awareness has also begun to develop, although in this regard there is
greater variability among children, and lack of phonemic awareness has been
identified as one of the risk factors for reading difficulties (Adams, 1990,
Snow et al., 1998).
It has been widely argued that children should be
taught to read through phonics. There are policy makers, researchers and
educators who take this position with great energy and conviction, and who
claim that all children should be taught through some form of systematic,
explicit, intensive phonics instruction. Let us take the proponents of
phonics seriously, and ask explicitly about what they are promising. They are
promising that when children are introduced to the alphabetic principle that
underlies our writing system, they will be in a position to take full
advantage of their knowledge of the language which will in turn allow them to
sound-out and read words they have not read before. That is, the great
advantage of phonics is that the learner already knows the language and only
now needs to acquire the code that maps the oral and written forms of the
language. All that the child knows about English words and sounds can be
brought to bear in their effort to learn the alphabetic code.
us consider the challenge facing the language-minority children who enter
first grade with little or no knowledge of English. Under the proposed
legislation, those children would be denied access to native-language
instruction or support. As detailed in the National Research Council report
entitled, Improving Schooling for Language-Minority Children (August and
Hakuta, 1997, see Note below), "we need to understand the nature of the
cognitive challenge faced by the many children in immersion or submersion
situations for whom oral language and literacy skills are acquired in the
second language simultaneously" (p 71). The authors of the report agree that
language-minority children should be provided with direct instruction into the
component processes of reading, i.e., phonemic awareness and phoneme-grapheme
relationships (usually known as phonics). But, in which language should this
occur? Collier and Thomas (1989) have argued that "children should first learn
to read in a language they already speak" (cited by August and Hakuta, 1997,
The logic for this claim is entirely in keeping with the claims
made for phonics instruction in the first place -- that children will be able
to build upon their substantial knowledge of oral language words and sounds.
This is precisely what many language-minority children will lack in English.
The English language vocabulary of many language-minority children, even those
who appear somewhat fluent in ordinary, everyday conversation, will likely be
only a small fraction of the size of vocabularies of native English-speaking
children, perhaps only a few hundred to a thousand words. August and Hakuta
(1997, p60) identify some of the risk factors for reading difficulties; these
include "absence of the sort of background knowledge and skills acquired in
highly literate environments, and unavailability of semantic support for
decoding that comes from familiarity with the words one reads."
example, let's suppose a child encounters a story which begins with the
sentence, 'the shark could swim very fast.' Notice that the word 'could'
rhymes with 'hood' but looks very different. Let's suppose that a child who
relies principally on visual cues might mistake the word 'could' for the word
'cloud' and read the sentence as the 'the shark cloud swim very fast'. If the
child knows English well, then that reading makes no sense and the child is
likely to self-correct or look for help from a teacher or parent. For the
child who knows little of English, the sentence is read as a list of words,
and in a list there is no reason for 'cloud' to seem out of place. Common
words in English provides endless opportunities for confusion. Let's assume a
particular child knows the word 'bear' and now encounters the word 'fear' but
reads it to rhyme with 'fare' or 'fair' -- how will the child discover the
error, unless she knows more about the language? Among the most common words
in English, even if one limits the list to the one thousand most common words
that children will encounter in the primary grades, there are hundreds of
homophones (ate, eight), or homographs (bow - of bow and arrow, bow - of
taking a bow), or homonyms (bark: of a tree, of a dog), or near misses (then,
than), or phonetically irregular words (would, said, friends, once, who,
etc.). We should not underestimate the challenge being posed to children when
they are expected to learn to read these words based on phonics principles,
but may not have acquired them even as part of their spoken vocabulary of
English. In order to successfully decode these words, the child must have the
corresponding vocabulary in spoken English and enough knowledge of the grammar
of English to be able to apply context to support successful decoding.
Snow et al. (1998) in a National Research Council report, Preventing Reading
Difficulties in Young Children, review the research literature bearing on
early reading. They argue that "hurrying young non-English-speaking children
into reading in English without ensuring adequate preparation is
counterproductive. The ability to hear and reflect on the sublexical
structure of spoken English words, as required for learning how the
alphabetic principle works, depends on oral familiarity with the words being
read. Similarly, learning to read for meaning depends on understanding the
language and referents of the text to be read. To the extent possible,
non-English-speaking children should have opportunities to develop literacy
skills in their home language as well as in English." (p246).
sublexical features they refer to include syllables and phonemes. Without a
knowledge of the sound system of English, a child could not be expected to
exhibit phonemic awareness in English. In as much as phonemic awareness is
considered by many to be essential to success in initial reading instruction,
then pushing non-English-speaking children too rapidly into an English-only
instructional environment should be recognized as being tantamount to
Finally, what do these considerations imply for
language-minority children who, even under current law, have no access to
native-language instruction? Many language-minority children have no
alternative but to enroll in monolingual-English classrooms lead by
monolingual-English teachers, without support of aides or paraprofessionals who
speak the dozens of languages represented in the schools. It will never be
sufficient that a single ESL teacher or aide can support dozens of children in
pull-out programs that seldom amount to an hour per week of support.
seems to me that the proposed legislation moves in entirely the wrong
direction. It proposes to limit or remove access to support for literacy
development. What we must do, it seems to me, is to greatly expand support for
literacy development. If we can not now foresee the day when all children,
from all language backgrounds, may have native language support where needed.
We should be able to envision the possibility that all monolingual-English
teachers will be required to fully understand the nature of first and second
language acquisition, the nature of English phonology, the nature of the
English lexicon and spelling system, and the adaptations that will be required
for language-minority children to be successful in achieving literacy both in
English and in their native languages. This will require explicit statement in
the state Curriculum Frameworks. And, it will require that all
English-speaking teachers also see themselves as teachers of English.
What I hope to see are legislative proposals that address the real problems
and incorporate the findings the best basic research (as outlined in the
recent NRC reports). The proposed House Bill 3444 only hopes that the problem
will somehow disappear if language-minority children are simply denied access
to any native-language support.
Note - The National Research Council
(NRC) has issued two recent reports that are of critical importance in these
debates. In 1997, under the editorship of Diane August and Kenji Hakuta
(Committee Chair, Stanford University), the NRC released a report entitled,
Improving Schooling for Language-Minority Children: A research agenda. In
1998, there followed a report entitled, Preventing Reading Difficulties in
Young Children, edited by Catherine Snow (Committee Chair, Harvard
University), M. Susan Burns and Peg Griffin. Together, these reports provide
a comprehensive review of research of the past thirty years, or more,
concerning the nature of language learning and reading development. Both
reports are available from the National Academy Press, which publishes
reports by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the National Academy of
Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council -
all operating under a charter granted by the Congress of the United States.
(Web address: http://www.nap.edu).
Adams, Marilyn J., (1990) Beginning to Read: Thinking
and Learning About Print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Council (1998) Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. (editors: C.
Snow, M. S. Burns, P. Griffin), Washington DC: National Academy Press
National Research Council (1998) Starting Out Right: A Guide to Promoting
Children's Reading Success. Washington DC: National Academy Press
National Research Council (1997) Improving Schooling for Language-Minority
Children: A Research Agenda. (editors: D. August and K. Hakuta) Washington
DC: National Academy Press
Pinker, Steven (1994) The Language Instinct:
How the Mind Creates Language. NY: William Morrow.
Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice Main Page
Fall 1999 Issue Main Page
Ira Shor - What is Critical Literacy?
Pablo Navarro-Rivera - Colonialism and the Language of Teaching and Learning
Solange de Azambuja Lira, Maria de Lourdes B. Serpa, William T. Stokes - Bilingual Education and the Law
Barton Kunstler - Beyond the Illusion of Human Rights
Anne Elezabeth Pluto - Three Poems
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The director of English Language Learning programs in Lesley's Graduate School of Education, Dr. Solange de Azambuja Lira includes sociolinguistics, Creole linguistics, second language acquisition and literacy and Portuguese syntax in her scholarly expertise. Dr. Lira is the author of the book The Subject in Brazilian Portuguese.
Focusing her scholarly work at Lesley on second language learning and bilingual studies, Dr. Maria de Lourdes B. Serpa currently co-chairs the Bilingual-ELL Advisory Council and serves on the KSPT Committee and the ELL Proficiency Gap Committee within the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Dr. Serpa's awards for her service include the MTA's Creative Leadership Award, the Ernest Lynton Award for Professional Service, and Comendadora da Instrução Pública from the President of Portugal.
The director of the Educational Studies Doctoral Programs at Lesley, Dr. William Stokes is also co-director of the Literacy Institute, an organization emphasizing emergent literacy and developmental, progressive education. Dr. Stokes has also served as director of the Hood Children's Literacy Project.
Explore the full content catalog of Lesley's Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice, featuring articles by leading faculty and practitioners in education, the social sciences, humanities, and the arts, by returning to the Journal's Main Page.