I was recently in a classroom where grade 4 students were working on IXL.com as a means of practising and reviewing math skills. As I walked around the room, I observed that a number of students consistently only practiced numeracy skills where questions were numeric and didn’t involve word problems, and this got me thinking about why that was. Yes, in general, straight equations are easier to solve, but there must be something more to it. Upon speaking with students and delving further into the types of problems provided by IXL.com, I quickly realized why some students were shying away from attempting to solve them … it was due to the vocabulary used in the problems, and I am not talking math vocabulary, I am referring to vocabulary used in the context of the questions – chemical names such as phosphorous and sulfuric acid, country names such as Australia, etc. For students reading at or above grade level, these questions may not pose a problem; however, for students reading below grade level, it’s a completely different story.
The above highlights issues with IXL.com, but they are not the only company using vocabulary in their resources that students reading below grade level simply can’t decode and comprehend. In all fairness, some companies do offer differentiated/scaffolded resources for English Language Learners (ELL) students, but students reading below grade level are not quite in the same category, so they are often left to flounder in subject areas (other than Language Arts) where levelled reading material may not be provided. When it’s time for grading and report cards, these questions must be asked: Are those students falling below grade level in most or all subject areas because of their inability to read at grade level, and would their mastery of concepts be at grade level had the reading material and questions provided been accessible to them? Very possibly, yes.
At the moment, the only solution available to teachers would be to rewrite texts and questions themselves in order to provide necessary differentiated and/or scaffolded resources for learners in their classrooms – which theoretically speaking is an ideal solution, but practically speaking, teachers simply don’t have the time to rewrite and reword texts and questions in all subject areas. And so perhaps the responsibility should fall on the companies providing the resources to offer leveled texts and questions in subject areas they are providing materials for so that students can be evaluated fairly on what they know and understand vs what they are able to read and comprehend. Perhaps there are companies that have already taken that step, in which case, should this not simply become standard practice across the board?
Are you a teacher struggling to provide differentiated and/or scaffolded resources in your classroom? How have you been solving the issue? Alternatively, if you have found ready-made resources, where did you find them? We welcome your thoughts and insights!
While our previous article highlighted common issues found within bilingual programs, this week’s blog will focus on how your school can set up the ideal program and avoid some of the pitfalls that can arise. Outlined below are some things to consider when setting up your program in order to ensure its success:
Bilingual Program Model
Before setting up your program, the type of bilingual program must be determined. Will it be a transitional program, a partial immersion program, a dual language program …? Although the aim of each model is essentially to provide students with academic instruction in two languages – native tongue and second language – the type of bilingual program your school chooses to follow will determine how classes are structured, and how much of the time will be spent on delivering content in students’ native language and in their second language.
Clarifying Program Objectives
As mentioned in last week’s article, where problems within bilingual programs occur is when objectives are not clarified, and the teaching of conversational language is brought into the mix. When outlining the goals of your bilingual program, keep in mind that the main focus should be on teaching academic language to students.
Maintaining Academic Focus
Once a model has been selected and objectives have been clarified, the next step involves ensuring that academic language remains the focus of your bilingual program and this can be done through the use of an educational framework, or through the modification of existing teacher planners.
a) Educational Framework: In designing an educational framework that outlines how academic language will be delivered across two languages (native and second language), your school can ensure that the focus will remain on academics. While the topic of this article isn’t educational framework design, below are some articles that will explain the benefits of a framework, steps for creating one, and sample frameworks that can be used as a starting point:
b) Planner Modification: In choosing to go down this path, the modification of existing school planners is all that is required to create the space for teachers to note academic language that will be covered in class in both students’ native tongue and second language. In doing so, teachers will be aware of language that will need to be covered in both languages across all subject areas. For tips on planner modification, see the following articles.
Scheduling is another important factor in the success of your bilingual program, which is why you will need to consider how to best structure your program time-wise. In my experience, teaching students concepts in their native tongue first, and then re-introducing those concepts in their second language works best as it allows learners to gain a solid understanding of what is being taught minus the language barrier. To give an idea of how this could be accomplished, one could schedule classes in students’ native tongue in the morning and repeat similar concepts in the afternoon in the second language, or have individual classes start out in the students’ native tongue and then re-introduce concepts in the second language.
Finally, you need to consider how you will be assessing students on their second language skills because, as stated in last week’s article, frameworks such as the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (CEFR) are not meant to assess academic language skills. This means you will need to devise a way to evaluate students’ knowledge of their second language in relation to how they apply it to subject areas (i.e. math, science, social studies, etc.), which can be done using learning outcomes from the native language curriculums as a base and tweaking them to work for assessing students in the second language.
The above considerations are just a few to help you on your way to setting up an ideal bilingual program; if you feel like you can use more guidance, contact us! We’re happy to help. Have you recently set up a bilingual program and have additional tips to share? We’d love to hear them!
As a child, I grew up following the French Immersion program in Canada, and for me, the logic behind it makes sense – teach all subject areas in French and assess students based on their academic knowledge of French. Students are evaluated based on content taught, which means that for the most part, a learner’s ability to carry out a day-to-day conversation in French is not the focus – the focus is on their ability to explain topics covered in science, social studies, math, etc. As long as one is clear that the main objective of French immersion is academic French, one can acknowledge that it is a strong program.
Which brings me to bilingual programs and it isn’t that I’m not for them – the idea of teaching students both in their native tongue and in the second language at the same time is a good one; in fact, while I was working at the Netherlands Inter-community School (currently NAS) in Jakarta, students in both the Dutch and English streams were grouped together for certain subjects and taught in both languages with success. My issue with bilingual programs isn’t with their potential benefit for students: it’s the clarity of the expectations of bilingual programs and the assessment of students’ language abilities that’s the problem.
When we look at the definition of a bilingual program, most of us would agree that it is to provide students with academic instruction in two languages – native tongue and second language. And if bilingual programs stuck to that, they would work just fine. Where the confusion arises is in how students should be evaluated in both languages. To address this issue, the tendency is to evaluate students on their academic skills in their native tongue and then to bring in a framework such as the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) to evaluate students on their ability to communicate in the second language. And this is where things fall apart – frameworks such as the CEFR were not designed to evaluate academic language, they were designed to evaluate conversational language – i.e. one’s ability to talk about family life, to shop at the grocery store, order food at a restaurant, and to talk about one’s interests, etc. While these topics may be covered briefly in a bilingual program, more time is spent on topics related to core subject areas, such as math, social studies, and science, so to use a scale such as CEFR to evaluate students’ ability to communicate in the second language simply doesn’t match the objectives of a bilingual program.
What is the solution for assessing student language ability in a bilingual program? Keep it simple and focus solely on students’ ability to communicate in a second language academically. To do this, one needs only to look at the academic curriculum set out in the learners’ native tongue and hold them to the same learning outcomes in the second language, which means eliminating the use of proficiency scales such as the CEFR. For example, if students in grade 1 should know how to count to 100 in their native tongue, then assess them on their ability to do the same in the second language. In this way, content taught is the focus of the evaluation, which directly aligns with the goal of a bilingual program is – for students to function academically in two languages.
A bilingual program can be just as strong as an immersion program if one approaches it with the same mindset and understanding – that the second language students acquire is based on academics. Our next article touches on tips and considerations for setting up the ideal bilingual program at your school - Setting Up a Bilingual Program at Your School.