In this podcast, Heather Rader chats with Ruth Shagoury about working with emergent bilingual chidren and their families. Ruth is the co-author (with Andie Cunningham) of Starting with Comprehension. She blogs with Megan Rose (her daughter) at LitforKids. A full transcript is available below the player.
Heather Rader: You’ve spent a lot of time working with little ones who don’t have English as a first language, so tell me about some of the myths that you’ve bumped up against that educators may have about children who are in those early stages of language development with a second or even a third language
Ruth Shagoury: I guess one of the biggest surprises to me is how many educators still think of whatever the family practices are at home to be barriers to students – [Crosstalk]
Heather Rader: Ah.
Ruth Shagoury: So, for example, parents are still amazingly often told to speak English at home and I know it’s a well-intentioned recommendation, they think that this will improve the children’s English at school, but it’s such a bad idea. It’s really though well-intentioned it really devalues the home language and also it’s gonna really encourage linguistic input or, in other words, input language that’s not really very helpful to the child. I think of it in terms of if I move to Japan and was just beginning to learn the language myself and I’d been there three months and somebody said oh you can only talk Japanese at home to your children, I mean my Japanese would be horrible for them and if that was the only language they heard they’d hear really, really poor Japanese and wouldn’t be able to learn a good first language. So I think that’s the biggest myth that although this is really well established and we’ve known this like for 100 years, it still is out there and that’s a really problematic one so valuing what parents can do at home and even the family practices. There’s a researcher, his name is Moe and he’s in Arizona and he talks about really looking at the funds of knowledge that parents have that might be across all different kinds of literacies that they can support when their children come to school so I think for me that’s probably the biggest myth. And followed closely by the myth that kids are really able to do less than they really can that just because they are still learning English that they’re not able to do complex, cognitive work and linguistic work and they can do exactly the same things. Their thinking abilities are just as strong so that’s – those are the two that I think are the most troubling for me.
Heather Rader: Those are such great reminders and you know your Japan example made me think about my first teaching job was actually in South Korea and just the ability in the evenings to have time with my husband and to speak English – we were so exhausted you know all day long from the language challenges that it was this refuge of being able to go back to what is known and have conversations that could go much beyond our limited language so yeah, that’s just it’s really important.
Ruth Shagoury: I agree. That’s one of the main things and, in fact, that’s where it leads to something, it’s not exactly a myth but it’s a misnomer of children who are learning another language and there’s quite a move now to change that terminology. Even English language learner which is certainly more respectful than limited English proficiency still is somewhat a deficit-focused model.
Heather Rader: Yes.
Ruth Shagoury: And really looking at the children’s potential by the new – somewhat new, it’s five or six years old now but emergent bilingual is such a better terminology because it values what these kids are gonna have that many of us don’t have. They’re gonna be bilingual.
Heather Rader: Yes.
Ruth Shagoury: And so instead of thinking okay well they’re limited in English or they’re English language learners and so they can’t do this yet and they can’t do that yet, to really recognize well they already know one language very well but they’re not done in that language. They need to keep learning that language so as they’re learning English, so it’s not just – of course, a lot of research that says that being strong in your first language is gonna help you learn English and that’s a good first step but to also recognize that they need to keep growing in their first language because your big goal is that they’ll be bilingual, so framing it as emergent bilingual kind of opens up a different metaphor. It even relates to what we were talking about earlier, Heather, about appreciating parent’s funds of knowledge and parent’s knowledge of this.
Heather Rader: Right.
Ruth Shagoury: Oh, of course, of course we need to bring parents in because we don’t speak that language fluently and so we really need to have all the kids in the class become bilingual so that’s why we really also need to rely on the parents and bringing their home literacy into the school. So I’m really trying to urge my students to – even if their schools, which most schools still do call it ELL or ESL or ESOL or DLL for dual language learners, even though that might be the terminology of the school, if I can get my students and the teachers I work with to have an internal metaphor that their children who are learning English are emergent bilingual, I think that’s an important way to frame it.
Heather Rader: Everything to be as strength-based as possible, well you’ve now spread it to me and all the teachers I work with, too, so thank you for that.
Ruth Shagoury: That’s great. And you know there’s a wonderful little YouTube clip that’s by the Freemans, David and Yvonne Freeman and it’s great for me ‘cause they have a third edition of their book for working with English language learners which they now stress to call them emergent bilingual, as well, and it’s just like a little five-minute video and they talk about what’s important when you’re working with emergent bilingual students so that’s kind of a nice reinforcement for the work so.
Heather Rader: That’s a great – thank you for that resource. Well speaking of resources, you’ve got your article that I really enjoyed, Language to Language, Nurturing Writing Development in Multilingual Classrooms, and at one point you site Katharine Samway’s work on the creative construction principle. So what is that principle and how do you see it at work?
Ruth Shagoury: Well, I really love her book, first of all. It’s just a fantastic little – it’s not a long book. It’s called, When English Language Learners Write, and it’s so focused on process and the strength of these learners. It’s just a wonderful analysis of what we know about young English language learners and their written work. So she really does stress this concept that she calls creative construction and what she means by that is the children need chances to explore and actively figure out the ways that written language work in different situations, so they’re always trying out their hypotheses and that’s what we do of course with young children in writing workshops in preschools and elementary classrooms, anyway, but to really encourage that for our emergent bilinguals is also really important because they’re gonna bring different literacy forms to the classroom. And so just having multiple genres available in the classroom and putting paper and pencils and markers all around the room, whether it’s at learning centers or just by where they come in and sign in in the morning just so that they can always be exploring how they can make their meaning on the page and whether – whatever symbol system they know. So for some kids it might be totally pictures or some kids it might be something with letters. For some kids it might be sort of scribble writing that doesn’t look like the scribble writing we’re used to because it’s – it looks a bit like Arabic writing or it looks a bit like Chinese writing but they’re still invented symbols, and there might be a combination of invented pictographs or invented symbols in several different languages or at least two different languages and instead of seeing that as problematic it’s oh wonderful, look, they’re bilingual. They’re using both symbol systems that they know. So that’s I think what she’s getting at and really just opening up as many possibilities for them to construct their knowledge and use writing to construct their knowledge. Does that help? Does that make sense?
Heather Rader: Yeah, well and I loved the, you know you had those pictures of the student work right there in the article and you know just seeing the invented symbols that are kind of the beautiful cross between their home language and the language that they’re learning. Of course, you know that’s what we do is we try to make those connections.
Ruth Shagoury: Yeah, it’s really –
Heather Rader: So I think it’s great to look at that.
Ruth Shagoury: It’s really fascinating and what we have to do is always check our own hypotheses. I remember when I was doing research with Andie Cunningham in her kindergarten class, there were several Russian students and because we would interpret some of the Cyrillic symbols that they wrote as if they were from the English alphabet, we’ve made a lot of mistakes.
Heather Rader: Ah.
Ruth Shagoury: In fact, there’s one of the, one of the videos that’s on Choice Literacy where Andie is talking with one of the children, Vida, and she’s writing – she writes tree, and she writes T and what looks like to us a P and an E, and so even on that video Andie’s saying oh yeah, that’s fine, put that down to represent it and you can tell she’s thinking oh she doesn’t know the R sound yet, but the symbol that looks like a P to us is actually – does make an R sound and so she really was using her knowledge –
Heather Rader: Oh wow.
Ruth Shagoury: [Crosstalk] – Yeah, she was doing that you know creative construction and we were assuming that she knew less than she really did.
Heather Rader: Oh.
Ruth Shagoury: So that was interesting when actually a Russian speaker who was in the class said oh, you know what Vida’s doing here? So always checking our own hypotheses about language is helpful, too.
Heather Rader: That’s great. Well I think based on what you just shared that I know your answer to the next question but I’m gonna ask it anyway because it seems to be a conversation that I hear come up, and so can emergent bilingual students write before they can read?
Ruth Shagoury: And of course my answer is absolutely. Just in the same way that any speakers who are learning written language acquisition also write to make meaning. It’s so important not to hold emergent bilinguals back by not letting them start writing until they have some proficiency in English. It’s gonna really help their oral English as well as their written English even if they’re writing in their first language so – or even if they’re mixing the two languages together. So if they’re finding ways to make meaning with the print, that’s what’s important and you want to encourage that in any way that you can.
Heather Rader: That makes so much sense. Well when I think back to you know my own experience of learning Spanish, I was connecting that new language to my known language so I didn’t have to go back and re-learn everything. How does that work, though, with a five-year-old?
Ruth Shagoury: Well it works in a couple of ways. One of the major ways that it works actually comes from Jim Cummins’ work which has been really important about how when children learn something in their native language they don’t have to relearn it – the concept in English. So the more they can learn things in their first language the easier the concepts will be to attain in English. So if they learn to read, for example, in Spanish, they don’t need to re-learn how to read when they learn English. Just as when I took French in high school I already knew how to read, so I was learning the language of French but I didn’t need to learn how to read all over again. I already knew how to read.
Heather Rader: Right.
Ruth Shagoury: And even in different more specific skills like when I was working with high school writers and if we could do a mini lesson in Spanish about word choice, then they could learn about word choice when they started learning to write in English, so when they transfer the skills all transfer. So the more you can learn in the more comfortable language the better so that’s great. And then depending on the language I bet for you with – if you were learning Spanish there were some cognates that were similar.
Heather Rader: Absolutely.
Ruth Shagoury: So yeah, so for some academic languages, especially with Spanish or Italian or some of the romance-type languages, some of the terminology and biology or in some of the content areas it is going to be very helpful. But even when there aren’t those cognates like when they’re learning from Hungarian or from Russian, the more that we can find ways to make the input that they get understandable, so we’re always trying to connect to their prior knowledge in any ways that are possible that’s gonna really help them when they’re learning in English and I think for some teachers that feels counterintuitive. It feels like well if I’m spending all this time trying to get first language stuff how are they ever gonna learn English?
Heather Rader: Yeah.
Ruth Shagoury: But the good news is that the stronger they can be in their first language and the more they can learn in their first language the easier it’s gonna be to transfer that to English academic learning.
Heather Rader: Well and it parallels with what we know about student’s strength in you know whether they’re an auditory learner or a kinesthetic learner or a visual learner, but if we allow them to use that mode that’s most comfortable for them to go deep with some content, then it affects positively all the other areas, as well.
Ruth Shagoury: Sure, yeah, whatever we can learn from the kids about their best ways of learning and trying to bring that more into the classroom is a great way to work with, with all children including emergent bilinguals.
Heather Rader: Mm-hmm. What advice do you have for primary teachers who are trying to create a literate classroom with children from diverse cultures and languages?
Ruth Shagoury: It’s so hard to come up with just you know one or two pithy things, but I think the most important thing is to remember that these are kids and they’re not all the same and they bring their own personalities and interests with them and to try to get to know the kids as much as possible and connect with them in any ways that we can. Within the classroom the best things to do are for the teacher to spend time with each kid, for her to set up opportunities where kids are working together with each other, also, even across cultures but also within their own cultures and to really welcome in the funds of knowledge from the families and the interests of the families. I remember when I was working in Virginia Shorey’s classroom she had this wonderful sort of ritual each month is that she would bring in the grandparents that represented all the different cultures in her classroom. So one month it might be the Vietnamese grandfathers and they would come in and tell stories and then she’d have a translator, and then the next month it might be the Russian babushkas, and the next month you know it was the Spanish abuelas, and so always finding ways to bring in and of course that was more comfortable for the grandparents knowing that they had other people from their age group and from their culture who were gonna be there on the same day so they felt really invited in. And then the kids in the class who spoke that language got to hear the stories in two languages. It just – those kinds of things are not expensive and they’re just wonderful ways to really honor the literacy and the storytelling strategies of the parents and the grandparents and the home culture and that’s just one example. But just thinking about your own environment and the cultures near your school, what are some ways I can invite those in and show that I really honor those different cultures and that I really honor that the kids I work with are going to be bilingual. That’s my biggest advice.
Heather Rader: That’s so powerful. You know just reframing that goal that the goal for those kids is that bilingual experience and how important that is in our society today.
Ruth Shagoury: And Andie has that piece also on, Andie Cunningham, on Choice Literacy about looking at the details and the family sayings and encouraging families to – [Crosstalk]
Heather Rader: Mm-hmm, yeah and I love that.
Ruth Shagoury: So that’s kind of a nice connection, too, is that just having the words and sayings in the home language just on the walls and just part of the classroom culture, that also makes the parents feel more comfortable when they come in. So finding ways to make the parents feel comfortable so that they’ll be often visitors in the classroom is helpful, too.
Heather Rader: Well, Ruth, thank you for enlightening me, thinking about emergent bilingual children and how we can make their experiences in education ever more successful with what we’re learning.
Ruth Shagoury: Well thank you, Heather. It’s fun to talk to you.