Okay, I confess I didn’t really attend the National Association for Bilingual Education last week in Austin. Actually, I didn’t even realize it was in Austin till a couple of colleagues e-mailed me to ask if I was going. I’ve been so immersed in my own research, conference travel, and trying to complete a couple of papers I’ve been sitting on that it just didn’t make it on my radar. But, I did hang out in hotel lobbies and hotel bars after sessions to meet up with people who DID attend. In fact, I had a drink with Alba Ortiz (also at UT Austin) whom I hadn’t seen in a while. Why do we not take the time to see the people with whom we have common interests and who are just a few blocks away more regularly?
Anyway, I had a chance to sit down and chat with Darren Woodruff from the National Center on Response to Intervention, Julie Esparza-Brown from Portland State University, Richard Figueroa from UC Davis, and Alba Ortiz. We chatted about the challenges in developing appropriate academic programming for children who are English language learners (ELL). We also discussed what specific needs are in terms of development of response to intervention models for this large and diverse group of children.
What became clear right away is that we can’t do for bilinguals what we do in English but just in the home language. Not that we can really have a one size fits all approach for monolinguals either. But, adding the factor of bilingualism makes it that much more complex. First, there are hundreds of languages spoken by children in schools. Children enter school with different levels of proficiency in English. They also vary tremendously in their previous educational experiences. If you add language or learning disabilities to the mix the complexity increases even more.
I think we’ve made a lot of progress on these questions, but we have more work to do. We’re homing in on better working definitions of language proficiency. I think we’ve moved from looking at whether a child can converse in a language to whether they can meet the academic demands of that language. What is less clear however is what the transition to a second language looks like across different domains (e.g., phonology, vocabulary, semantics, grammar, narratives, discourse, and so on). We are getting a better picture of these questions too and starting to understand what seems to be more language specific and what can and does carry over from L1 to L2.
I also have to say it was exciting for me to finally meet Richard Figueroa– I’ve been a fan of his book with Guadalupe Valdés on measurement since it came out and I was really sad when it went out of print.