Posts Tagged vocabulary

Learning English differently

Young dual language learners with language impairments always amaze me. I love to observe how they negotiate communicative needs, ideas, and understanding of the world with the mind tools they possess. Some of them have maintained their home language; others let it behind. Some have a strong desire to use and live in English while others appear to drift between their home language and English. You can never tell.

I find this variability, these differences, fascinating. What do these children pay attention to when they are learning English? What do they do to learn new words and new ideas? What do they do to make friends, in their emerging English, for example?

This week, I observed a young 3rd grader from a Spanish-speaking family. In the school system, he is considered an English language learner at the Beginning stage of English Language Development. His parents shared that he understands Spanish but he rarely, perhaps never, uses or used Spanish. He may ask for “agua” or “pollo”, but that’s it! Mamá and Papá speak to him in Spanish, he responds in English, and life goes on. The child is also a child with a language learning disability. How does he manage to learn at school, to have fun, to be another kid in the playground?

I was lucky to observe a fascinating interaction the child had with a graduate student I was supervising. My student “read” him a frog story and after the retelling and other comprehension questions, he asked the child what part of the story was the most unbelievable. He was attempting to assess the child’s comprehension skills. My student also asked “Do you know what unbelievable means?”
And this is what the child said: “Yes, awesome!” As my student started to say “No, that is not the right meaning”, the child provided an alternative: “Excellent!” The child, of course, did not explain frogs cannot be pets or frogs do not wave their little “hand” to children. But, of course, unbelievable is many times awesome and excellent!

What do we do with this type of observations as clinicians? What is the child showing us? He has definitely (at least partly) acquired the word “unbelievable”, he also knows that there are synonyms in the language. How is this little interaction aligned with the Beginning stage of English Language Development? He did not appear to use his home language to learn the word “unbelievable”. Perhaps more importantly, how can we acknowledge his insights and guide him forward?

Have you ever asked yourself these questions before?

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Happy New Year

It’s been a busy year., and we have more to come. This year one of our big accomplishments was to launch the BESA, a speech and language test for children 4 to 7. It was a long project, but we are very satisfied with the test and how well it works to identify speech and language impairment in bilingual children. A serous problem in the field has been that there are so few instruments to properly identify impairments in bilinguals. There result is that these kids are assessed with instruments that have not been proven to work well with bilinguals. Worse some may overidentify children as having impairment when they are in the process of learning English as a second language. Another problem is that these kids can be missed altogether. Sometimes district personnel will wait for the child to have enough English to test them. Waiting can result in falling further behind because services that might have helped are not provided.

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Vocabulary Learning

There’s been at least two articles recently on the SAT verbal drop in scores over the last 40 years. One article notes that verbal scores are associated with communication skills, learning, and holding a job. Indeed verbal skills are important, I certainly think they are anyway, it’s the focus of my research. One of the problems that Hirsch notes in this article is that this drop is associated with changes in curriculum. Specifically, a shift from a focus on deep knowing and interacting with course content, to what he calls a “skills-based” approach to learning. I think kids need both skills and deep interaction with content (e.g., literature) that can help children build verbal skills. An important thing he notes is that verbal skills can be taught. Read the rest of this entry »

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Word Gaps in Low SES Children

This discussion on language log about the word gap based on SES brought to mind early work I did on dynamic assessment of word learning (Peña, Quinn, & Iglesias, 1992; Peña, Iglesias, & Lidz, 2001). The word gap issue focuses on the differences between low and high SES children in the number of words that they hear. The number of words they hear is related to the number of words they know. In our work on DA, my co-authors and I were not interested so much in how low SES children stacked up in terms of number of words they knew (indexed by a standardized expressive single word test) but in their word-learning abilities. Read the rest of this entry »

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Bilingual Education Can Benefit All Students

This is the title of Alexandra Sabater’s post in the Dallas news opinion blog.  She writes eloquently about the benefits of bilingual education from her perspective as a teacher. It got me thinking about beliefs about bilingual education for children who have language impairment.

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Why do people react so negatively to the idea of dual-language programs?

In Austin, the school district is looking to start a dual-language program. If you read the comments in reaction to this you see a lot of mixed reactions. It seems that many people don’t (or don’t want to) understand the purpose of dual-language education. Or is it that they’re afraid of people who speak other languages?

What I find so surprising is that people would be threatened by the idea of using state and federal money to educate children in two languages (English and another language). The negative comments seem to indicate that some people believe that teaching in two languages will cause children to not learn English. But, that is simply not true. People all over the world speak two languages. English is a very common language all over the world. I don’t think there is any way that the language is threatened.

Dual-language programs do work. Children can and will become bilingual given input and opportunity to use the two languages. Knowing two languages can be a benefit educationally. Culturally, knowing more than one language can help you connect with people from other backgrounds and cultures. I think that knowing two languages can help children understand that there can be other ways of constructing words and sentences. Even one’s vocabulary can be enhanced by learning vocabulary in another language and translating to your own.

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Bilingual Babies

I thought this article today reported by forbes.com on 12 month old babies exposed to two languages was really interesting. I haven’t yet read the article in Science, but I will. In this study babies who were learning language in a bilingual environment seemed to be able to demonstrate more flexibility in learning new words. This finding could be due to the fact that they have to learn different words (at least one in each language) for the same thing.  Read the rest of this entry »

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So, where’s the GOLD?

Recently, I posted in my lab blog (or is it on my lab blog? I don’t know) about the challenges in developing a test for bilingual children. In collaboration with Aquiles Iglesias, Vera Gutierrez-Clellen, Brian Goldstein, and Lisa Bedore, I worked on development of the Bilingual English Spanish Assessment (BESA)– a test for Spanish-English bilinguals designed for identification of language impairment. The challenge that we faced when we began this 7 year project (in 1998) is that there was very little data on markers of language impairment in other languages. In fact some of this information had just begun to emerge for language impairment in English speakers. Read the rest of this entry »

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The role of input

I read this news article while ago, January of this year to be exact and I thought it was really interesting. Paul Sulzberger proposes that people can begin to learn a second language by listening to it. This goes against conventional wisdom in teaching a second language. Often, the focus is on meaning and practice. The idea of focusing on meaning and practice makes sense because in learning a second language one can build on what you already know. You can use the ideas and meanings you know in L1 to match with new words (but same meanings) in L2. Similarly, you can use what you know about grammar in L1 to learn L2. Even if the grammar is different (and it is) you at least can think about the fact that there needs to be a way to talk about the past, present, and future. You know that there’s got to be a rule to talk about one thing vs. more than one thing. So, what does just listening do? How can you learn another language without knowing the meaning? Read the rest of this entry »

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Dynamic Assessment with Bilingual Children

A particular challenge in assessment of bilingual children is to distinguish between differences in their language performance due to not knowing English and differences (or low scores) due to having language impairment or learning disabilities. I’ve been doing research in dynamic assessment for a number of years to explore whether this is an option for children from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds. Two of my research studies focused on evaluation of children’s naming skills and included bilingual children in a Head Start program: Peña, Quinn, & Iglesias (1992) and Peña, Iglesias, & Lidz (2001).

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