Monday, May 04, 2009

The Latino Literacy Gap: Why Traditional Education Fails

The Latino Literacy Gap: Why Traditional Education Fails

Judy Perlmutter and Norma Silva are principals at Para Los Niños’ charter middle and primary schools respectively. Para Los Niños educates children in Los Angeles’ Skid Row district.
A recent series in the New York Times entitled, “Remade in America”, (Where Education and Assimilation Collide - Series - has aimed the spotlight on recently immigrated children and their struggles to succeed, both academically and socially, in America’s public institutions of learning. The authors to these articles have pointed out the unintended problems associated with creating second language learning programs, including isolation, segregation, and prejudice, to name a few.

While second language learners make up the vast majority of the student populations at our charter and middle schools, our student populations are primarily Hispanic. Because of this cultural homogeny, our children have a tremendous comfort level and perhaps a greater degree of ownership over their environment than those described in the series.

That being said, our children share many of the same obstacles as those children interviewed or otherwise described by the Times; many are part of immigrant families or belong to a low socio economic demographic. In point of fact, nearly 100% of our students qualify for a reduced or free lunch. Like many of the teachers interviewed in the series, we too believe that English fluency is the gateway to achieving success over poverty, and our goal is to see our children reclassified as fluent in English by the time they matriculate from 5th grade to the middle school.
To this end, we feel that the greatest barrier to Latino achievement, or, for that matter, achievement by most non-English speaking children, is often the language of academics itself. In saying this we are referring to the jargon of academia, both as it relates to the technical content of words but also directions and context setting, for example, “Please compare and contrast..” or, “Please analyze…” and so on.

Very often the most difficult aspect of learning is the mastery of this type of vocabulary. And, because contextual understanding is critical to accurate assessment and problem-solving, a traditional, rote form of learning often fails. Here’s why: in many traditional academic programs, language is acquired through a process of decoding words themselves, rather than placing an emphasis on concept and context. Futher, this instruction is often provided at the lowest levels of decoding. So as the vocabulary of tests and text books becomes more complex, students who have achieved fluency at this low level are unable to think and understand at higher levels and are, therefore, unable to appropriately access academic vocabulary, assess and problem-solve.

To address this problem we have changed our educational approach to create a comprehensive literacy program that complements a comprehensive academic program. In other words, our instruction in literacy learning is not separate and distinct from our instruction in any other subject. While we offer subjects in traditional time periods, our instruction in the mechanics of literacy does not occur separate from the educational concepts being taught in other subjects.
So, whereas many schools take a unit approach to instruction in a given subject, we have year-long studies and we view each year as a journey in which we are building on the following year and preparing for the coming year. As a result, subjects like art and science are not taught as units in isolation of one another. Rather, our entire curriculum is integrated, helping children to make deeper connections. For example, in the third grade the California standard requires instruction in camouflage as part of a Desert Life curriculum. We teach to the standard, however, our children may be working on the higher learning concept of “interdependence,” from which we teach about animal habitat, of which camouflage is an important part. Art instruction will follow suit. Or, if we are teaching about states of matter in science we may discuss the characteristics of solids, one of which is texture. We will then use texture in art class to illustrate the lesson and attempt to forge a deeper connection.

In all subjects our emphasis is on experiential problem-solving, of which writing and discourse is an important part. This again bears contrast to more didactic, traditional approaches to classroom learning in which the teacher instructs and the students listen and respond. In our schools, the teacher instructs, but he/she also moderates and facilitates. As an example, we have what we call “turn and talk” triads where children are placed in groups of three to discuss the lesson at hand. The teacher’s role in this exercise is to conduct formative assessment by listening to the students and assessing their grasp of the concepts so that he/she can determine how to respond, or to change the method in which something is being taught. The teacher may also use this time as an opportunity to call out children who can serve as literacy examples to others.

Our test scores and the academic achievement of our students have demonstrated to us that this method is a powerful tool for learning, for all children, but especially second language learners.
We would like to hear from others with similar experiences, or from those who are either struggling with, or having success in more traditional classroom settings. Are your children hindered by their academic environments?

Do you feel academic language is a barrier to success? We encourage you to share your experiences for the benefit of teachers everywhere.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do agree that the jargon used in academia is unconducive to non-english native speakers. At the same time it seems that we need to be more involved in bridging that gap with more exposure to this semantic deficiency. My assertions are solely based on personal experiences--I was an immigrant child with no formal education in English and did not fully understand the language until my college years. I reflect on the fact that I was caused a disservice by not being exposed to more complex verbage while in Middle School and High School. It seems that my teachers were too concerned about helping decode simply ideas and did not think I would be able to grasp more involved concepts. In this sense I applaud the efforts being made to intergrate concepts and make them part of the vast curricula, but I still think that it is imperative that we expose our multi-lingual youth--at this early stage of life--to the norms of academics, while at the same providing support to ensure that concepts are being understood.

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