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April 1, 2009
Vol. 66
No. 7

There's More to See

To reach struggling language learners, teachers first have to learn to think about them differently.

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A Middle Eastern folktale provides a metaphor for how the field of education tends to look at underachievement. It goes like this: Just after sunset, some villagers saw Mullah Nasruddin (a folk figure who teaches the wisdom of life through his foolishness) looking around under one of the village's few streetlights. He seemed distressed, so they asked what was wrong. Mullah Nasruddin said, "I lost my bag with all my money in it!" The villagers started crawling around in the dust helping him look. After a while, one said, "Are you sure you dropped your bag over here?" "No, I dropped it over there," he replied, pointing through the dark to an alley. "You donkey!" they shouted. "Why are we crawling around in the dust over here?" Mullah Nasruddin shook his head at their ignorance. "Well, look—there's no light over there! So I came over here, where I could see better" (Shah, 1972).
Like Mullah Nasruddin, the field of education often overlooks the obvious. Many of us have been trained through an accepted set of universal "best practices," such as whole language or constructivism (Bailey & Pransky, 2005; Pransky, 2008). Even as a well-trained English as a second language (ESL) teacher, with 20 years of experience, I have often overlooked the deeper cultural and linguistic underpinnings of learning interactions (Rogoff, 2003)—and have even neglected to look carefully at my students.

Taking a Second Look

Too often, we try to fit all underachieving culturally and linguistically diverse learners into familiar models that work well for most other students. We think those models are based on "best" ways of thinking, problem solving, and using language. In fact, these models fit well with certain populations of English language learners (ELLs)—but not all. Chronic underachievement plagues certain communities of ELLs.
ELLs are not a monolithic group. There is even debate about which students should be called English language learners. Many English-dominant students born in the United States to parents who are not English proficient find school more of a challenge than do many new immigrants and speakers of English. Educators need to think beyond the usual categories we use for culturally and linguistically diverse learners—especially to rethink "native speaker" and "non-native speaker" as the most relevant categories. One learner we need to focus on is the student who comes from what I call a non-literacy-oriented community.

Non-Literacy-Oriented Communities

Whatever their language background, students typically fall into two general groups: those from literacy-oriented communities and those from non-literacy-oriented communities. To paint in broad strokes, by a "literacy-oriented community" I mean a home where parents are typically well-educated and where they weave into children's upbringing preparation for success in school and in a technological society. In such communities, parenting is often more like coaching, and parents strive to make their children independent learners at a young age—the faster the better! It's not unusual for parents to interact with children in ways that develop children's critical thinking, conversational and argumentative skills, and vocabulary.
By non-literacy-oriented, I mean a home community that also values education, but in which parents may have less formal education themselves and generally spend less time interacting with their young children in ways that develop adultlike thinking and language skills. Parents in such communities know that their children will think and use language more like adults as they grow—there's no rush.
Both communities turn out intelligent, able children. A literacy orientation is not better, but it is more matched to what schools expect. The "learning problems" of non-literacy-oriented children come when they step foot into our schools. Students having difficulty keeping up academically are not our problems; the schools are these students' problems.
I don't advocate labeling students as coming from one kind of community or another. Culturally and linguistically diverse learners need to show teachers who they are, and for that to happen, we need to see them in a more genuine way, to learn as much as we can about them and their families, and to develop a reflective practice around each student's actual background and predispositions.
Many great resources for ELLs (such as Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2008; and Peregoy & Boyle, 2008) support the transference of literacy-oriented skills from a student's first language into English. Literacy-oriented ELLs often do well in our schools once they attain enough oral proficiency. What is more pressing to me is how we can accelerate the academic achievement of students from non-literacy-oriented communities who need to learn those skills—which stretches the boundaries of the ESL field.
This task is doubly pressing because as students from literacy-oriented homes use the skills they were raised on to succeed at school, the school curriculum and classroom instruction amplifies those skills within these learners (Cole, Newman, & Griffin, 1989). This mutual reinforcement is a hidden curriculum, through which the rich get richer.

What a Literacy Orientation Delivers

Consider the following ways of thinking and using language that children from literacy-oriented communities acquire at young ages, accompanied by suggestions for how to foster each practice in those English language learners who have not naturally acquired it.

Standard Dialect Skills

A standard dialect is the language of formal schooling and text. Use of nonstandard dialect strongly affects people's perceptions of students' intelligence and of their organizational and writing skills. In contrast to the clear differences between ELLs' first and second languages, the differences between standard English and a dialect may be so subtle that younger students who speak nonstandard dialects are often not aware of them. And as underachieving speakers of different dialects become more aware of such differences, language often becomes enmeshed in controversial issues involving identity and motivation.
How to foster it: Teachers need to be more explicit and sensitive when guiding students to use standard dialect. Focusing students' attention on how language is used in the classroom as contrasted with how it's used in their home communities—through songs, role-plays, and the like—is helpful. We need to be careful about what we call errors and how we communicate language differences to students. If a student thinks you are calling his or her English "wrong"—especially if it's his or her family's language—this may eat away at that student's self-esteem, motivation, and sense of belonging.

A Large Vocabulary

Research shows a huge vocabulary gap between children of different social classes (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). Non-literacy-oriented students typically know few descriptive synonyms in English for common words. Students need such words to succeed academically: They may encounter words like relieved, pleased, joyous, or content more often than happy, especially as they get older.
How to foster it: Create a variety of activities—such as index card games, adapted TV game shows, word sorts, graphic organizers, and word clusters—to help broaden students' vocabulary and recycle words periodically. These activities also channel students' thinking along semantic memory lines.

Strong Metacognitive Skills

Metacognition, essential for independent learning, means being aware of your own thinking. All children develop metacognitive skills over time, but a literacy-oriented upbringing develops them at younger ages.
How to foster it: Use puzzles and skill games to strengthen students' metacognition. By watching a student work a puzzle, a teacher can get a sense of how that learner solves problems and use that information to help that individual develop metacognitive skills in the context of moment-to-moment decision making—first while doing puzzles, then when learning content. Ask kids to write journal entries about how they solve problems successfully in nonschool activities.

A Sophisticated Level of Personal Narrative

Narrative form is not the same across all cultures, so diverse learners might bring differing forms of cultural narrative to the classroom. However, the narrative sophistication with which we link our thoughts through language, connecting thoughts across time, space, and ideas, does transfer across languages regardless of cultural form. Students with under-developed narrative skill struggle to comprehend grade-level text and to produce strong writing. When students—especially students who primarily speak English—are stuck creating simple sentences linked withand or and then in their writing, this signals that narrative is an issue.
How to foster it: Teachers of underachieving students should learn more about narrative, how to recognize language features that signal narrative stages, and how to help students develop narrative skills. I encourage readers to visit www.mindwingconcepts.com, a Web site devoted to working with narrative, or study Moreau and Welch's (2005) developmental theories of narrative.

Strong Executive Function

Executive function is the ability to skillfully manipulate multiple sources of information. As with metacognition, all children eventually develop executive function, but immersion in a literacy culture speeds the process up.
How to foster it: One helpful way to target executive function is to use graphic representations to symbolize ways of thinking, steps in problem solving, and so on. For example, a magnifying glass can cue students to look for important words, or a foot can mean "Take a step back and think before you start."

A Predisposition Toward Semantic Organization

Semantic memory is the organization and storage of information based on taxonomic, hierarchical categories, such as animal–mammal–meat eater–wild–mane–lion. There are other equally valid ways of organizing memory, such as autobiographically or functionally, but a predisposition to semantic memory organization is essential for success in formal schooling. For example, if during a lesson a teacher says horse, a student with a good semantic memory might call up something like animal–mammal–four legs–hooves. A student drawing on autobiographical memory might call up I wish I had a horse, and one using functional memory might call up a horse pulls a wagon. It would take learners who are primarily organized around autobiographical or functional memory extra time to hunt down the semantically oriented information they need for this lesson. Students who lack a predisposition for semantic memory seem to learn more slowly and appear to have organizational difficulties in reading and writing, particularly with expository text (Payne, 1998).
How to foster it: Because a strong semantic memory is the flip side of a strong vocabulary, vocabulary activities that deepen comprehension of word meanings, such as Venn diagrams, also work on semantic memory organization. Expand students' familiarity with attribute categories. For example, challenge early elementary-age students to think of an object they know well and compare it with and contrast it to a person in many different ways (a plant and a person both exhibit colors, but not the same colors; they both take up nutrients, but not the same ones).

Comfort with Abstraction and Generalization

Being comfortable with ideas that are neither concrete nor tied to present context is essential to reading and independent academic success. The ability to generalize enables us to independently create broader meaning from a specific learning activity.
How to foster it: When students struggle to generalize their learning at school, have them reflect on out-of-school experiences; they will realize that they do generalize quite often in their lives. For example, point out to students that in basketball, if they make a particular move and this move ends up giving an advantage to a player on the other team, they may avoid making that same move later when that player is nearby. Connect that to how, in classroom learning, they can abstract the essence of learning from one specific situation, relate that learning to new circumstances, and apply their previous learning.

Effective Internal Scripts

When people launch into a learning task, they automatically use subvocalized speech to orient themselves to the situation at hand. Literacy-oriented subvocalized speech (what I call organizational speech) marshals all the skills I've listed. For example, in facing a new task, a literacy-oriented person's script might be, "This looks like the problem we did last month. Let's see, how did we do that one?" If a student's internal speech is, "Where's the teacher?" or "What am I supposed to do?" that student will struggle with exploratory learning activities.
How to foster it: Have students practice organizational speech by using a learning log to reflect on what they did successfully—or unsuccessfully—and what they hope to do in the same way or improve on when faced with a similar task or concept. Use prompts like, "Next time I see this type of problem, I will…" Encourage students who don't have school-matched organizational speech to refer to their learning log before they start on tasks, if needed.

Organizing Around Literacy-Oriented Skills

If we organize schooling for non-literacy-oriented students around the development of such skills, they will come to achieve as highly as literacy-oriented students. Underachieving students do develop literacy-oriented skills in classrooms that encourage them, but not quickly enough to close the achievement gap. We must guide students in these practices systematically and consistently and apply them directly to their classwork.
Many of us may say that we teach these skills already. Indeed, it often appears we are teaching these skills, because we set out to teach them, and some students apparently learn them. However, if we were really teaching these key skills, both literacy-oriented and non-literacy-oriented students alike would learn them and be able to apply them independently—which is not often the case. In reality, our "teaching" of these skills is actually just activating skills that literacy-oriented students already have.
To teach skills inherent in a literacy orientation, we must focus underachieving ELLs' attention on the processes of their own learning as much as—if not more than—on specific content. The current push to teach more content faster makes focusing on learning processes difficult, but this approach is in non-literacy-oriented students' long-term interests.
Coach students to focus on the processes of their own thinking by drawing on material they already know well. For example, suppose a student working on a multistep math problem uses an unsystematic approach. That approach is the main issue, not the math. If this learner avidly plays video games, a savvy teacher might draw on that familiar learning and explore with the student how he makes decisions to help him move through levels in a game. This teacher might discuss how, in the same way the student chooses to get the magic suit that gives him power before he goes through the monster maze, he could evaluate the math problem before starting, see what he needs, and proceed one step at a time. Teacher and student might create a slogan about solving problems that the student could access next time.
When we understand who our ELL students really are as thinkers and readers, when our attention is centered on providing students with the internal skills and practices of a literacy orientation, our approach changes. Typically, teachers would give a struggling reader extra practice in "reading skills" like phonics or more comprehension practice. But with my non-literacy-oriented readers, I periodically set aside entire blocks of reading time for interacting around sentence-level or paragraph-level processing. Students paraphrase a sentence at a time, then a paragraph at a time, focusing their attention on metacognitive skills related to comprehension. This counteracts unskilled readers' tendency to process a text word by word without attending to overall meaning. Students may read a miniscule amount of text, but we focus on the quality of their self-attention and self-regulation as readers. To balance these times of a sharp focus on quality over quantity in school, I have students read a lot of independent-level text for pleasure at home.
Have students reflect on their learning after these activities—not on the content, but on the process. What did they do well, and how did they know? What successful way of thinking will they be sure to repeat tomorrow? To help non-literacy-oriented students develop school-appropriate organizational speech, ask them to reflect on those conclusions and tell you how they're going to approach their learning the following day.

It's All About Seeing

When we start looking where we need to, we will not only recognize our underachieving students' true thinking styles, strengths, and weaknesses, but also see how essential it is to build strong relationships with students and their families. We will closely monitor disempowerment, knowing how easily culturally and linguistically diverse learners can feel excluded, which saps their effort and motivation and is deadly to learning. Moreover, we will realize how easily this can happen in our classroom as soon as we stop proactively attending to it.
We will also realize that we can't rely on progressive pedagogy to equalize the playing field, knowing that literacy-oriented students raised in the dominant culture almost always "win" that way. We will understand that every methodology, philosophy and technique in education is value laden, and we will filter everything we think through what we see about our students, not what others say about what is best for them. No learning can be "student centered" until we center it on who our students really are.
In the end, no pedagogy, text, scope and sequence, district policy, administrator, or politician knows better than you what is best for you to do in the moment with your particular students—providing, of course, that you really see them.

Bailey, F., & Pransky, K. (2005). Are other people's children constructivist learners, too? Theory into Practice, 44(1), 19–26.

Beck, I., McKeown, M., & Kucan, L. (2002).Bringing words to life. New York: Guilford Press.

Cole, M., Newman, D., & Griffin, P. (1989).Working for cognitive change in school. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2008).Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP model (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson Education.

Moreau, M. R., & Welch, B. S. (2005). Talk to write, write to learn, Springfield, MA:Mindwingconcepts.com.

Payne, R. K. (1998). A framework for understanding poverty. Highlands, TX: RFT.

Peregoy, S. F., & Boyle, O. F. (2008). Reading, writing and learning in ESL (5th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education.

Pransky, K. (2008). Beneath the surface. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Rogoff, B. (2003). The cultural nature of human development. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shah, I. (1972). The exploits of the incredible Mullah Nasruddin. New York: E. P. Dutton.

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