Thank Goodness for Alternative Discourse

There’s something that I am really worried about and I just can’t get it out of my head. I keep asking myself the following questions: Should I return and get my doctorate? Or, should I stay in the school system and make a difference at a grass-roots level? I feel that I really want my cake, and I want to eat it, too.

There are times that I want to return back to the doctoral program and finish my studies. Today is one of those days, for example. When do I start feeling this sense of stress and conflict? Well, let me explain. I feel that some of the research that has been coming out over the past years has been so politically motivated against bilingual education and can cause serious harm to our children. In California, educators were subjected to forty hours of “Reading First” training and the “National Reading Panel” research was beat into their head. (I’ll save my comments about Reading First and the National Reading Panel  for another post. In a nutshell, the research was not on ELL students at all.) Teachers in bilingual education programs were basically taught to teach reading in writing in both languages through discreet, isolated, low-level texts. Years and years of research on bilingual education programs and effective bilingual pedagogy were completely suppressed because they did not meet the criteria for scientific-based research that “they” had established. 

Now teachers have to attend an additional forty hour English Learner Professional Development and I’ve literally been depressed over the state of the professional development modules that are approved by the state. To top it all off, there is only one state approved provider for bilingual education programs. The training for this curriculum is so low-level, with an overemphasis on decontextualized, isolated skill instruction for the English Language Development (ELD) section of the training. The training is very influenced by behavioralist psychology, isolated contrastive analysis, and what is termed the “transferability model’ of teaching English. Talk about going back in time-I’ll save my criticism for later on the overemphasis on contrastive analysis, transfer and the language “interference” that guides the entire training.

I’ve been so depressed that everyone is jumping on this bandwagon. Regarding second language acquisition, I most definitely do not subscribe to the behavioralist paradigm and it is really alarming to me that people can’t see how low-level this stuff is. I started digging around and low and behold…I found that it is not that difficult to submit a professional development module for review and approval of the state. The way that this political game works is that the state approves/”suggests” certain recommended reading that can be used for the training. As I was looking through the materials, I began to become depressed once again over the research that is highly guided by the behavioralist way of second language (L2) development.

I called one of the state providers because I became so perturbed over some of the language that was being used in the presentation. It really irks me when people talk about language being a “barrier”, or an interference. In fact, the training suggested reading the book “Learner English: A Teacher’s Guide to Interference and Other Problems”. Now, I haven’t actually read this book, but the title just makes my skin crawl in that it suggests that students’ primary language negatively interfere with English, that their primary language is a problem or deficit to their learning English. 

I asked the state provider, “When English-speaking children enter into kinder they typically begin to write with invented spelling in English. Do we ever say that their oral language skills in English are causing negative interference with their writing? No. We simply say that students are using invented spelling. When middle-class English-speaking children in Dual Immersion programs begin to learn Spanish and they possibly use English phonetics to spell something in Spanish, do we ever say that their English is interfering with their acquisition of Spanish? I’ve never heard that. Rather, someone would simply say that students are using the English sound-system to write in Spanish. Then, why do people not even think twice about stating that Spanish-speaking students’ primary language may be negatively interfering with English? Hmmm”.

I’ll let you answer that question for yourself. Do you get my point?? We’ve got to start looking at this research with a more critical eye.

So here I was, depressed, thinking that bilingual education teachers were going to be subjected to being taught all this interference and “problem” hogwash, as opposed to having intellectual conversations about how the primary language influences the second language, as opposed to “interferes” with acquisition of English. The state provider told me that she would change the articles and terminology if I could get her something to replace it with. Lo and behold-tonight I was floating around in the bathtub and reading one of the state approved articles by Genesee and company (sidenote: yes, I do read research while relaxing in the bathtub!) and I came upon the topic of language “influence”. I much prefer the way that they explain it:

English L2 literacy development is influenced by emergent literacy in the L1 and being read to in the L1 at home…; knowledge of L1-L2 cognate vocabulary…; knowledge of sound-letter relations in the L1…; and phonological awareness in the L1…In most cases, these cross-language influences are facilitative so that ELLs with emergent L1 literacy skills, prior experiences with L1 literacy in the home, knowledge of cognate vocabulary, and well-developed L1 phonological awareness acquire reading skills in English more readily thatn ELLS who lack these L1 skills. In other cases, there can be “negative” cross-language influences, as when Spanish-speaking ELL students erroneously apply Spanish L1 phonological and orthographic rules to English spelling. Even in these cases, however, it is important to keep in mind that these effects speak to an active and productive strategy on the part of ELLs in the initial stage of learning to read and write to draw on relevant, albeit inappropriate , knowledge about the L1 to bootstrap into English reading and writing. pg. 372

This makes me feel so much more comfortable, talking about how one language can influence  another language, as opposed to “interference” which has such a negative connotation. The authors even put “negative” in quotations, which somewhat even invalidates the phrase for me and let’s me know that they are using the term loosely because it is a commonly used term perhaps. I appreciate the last sentence that states that even though bilingual learners may be erroneously using their prior knowledge about their L1 sound-system to read in English, they are simply using their background knowledge to apply to English. The way this is stated doesn’t make it necessarily seem like it is such a bad thing.

Two years ago I was at La Cosecha dual language conference in New Mexico and a colleague of mine invited me out to drink some mojitos with Dr. Genesee and one of his students. At the time I had just gone on my leave of absence from the doctoral program and Dr. Genesee suggested that I return. “Who else is going to carry on the torch if you all don’t get your doctorates? You know that we will retire sooner than later and we need people to take our places”. 

So, tonight I’m asking myself if I should go back to get my PhD. What will happen when the experts on bilingual education research retire? Who will take their place? Do we have enough people to take their place? I feel that itch to return and finish so that I can carry on the legacy of so many people who have provided an alternative discourse to the English-only ideology.

But then again, sometimes I think I should stay fighting in the school systems. Like today-I was able to convince the state provider to make changes to the curriculum which will influence many teachers. I just might throw my hat in the ring and write my own curriculum for teachers in dual language programs, my own little way to provide an alternative discourse to the behavioralist mumbo jumbo that is being offered by the one provider for bilingual programs.

What to do, what to do??

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  1. Josette
    April 3, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    I definitely think that you should get that PhD. I am in your same dilemma but I know that eventually I will stop all my other paraphernal activities and concentrate on what is most important.

    • The Unapologetic Polyglot
      April 3, 2009 at 10:36 pm

      Thanks for your feedback! I have to keep thinking about it!!

  2. April 15, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    I think you should get your phd. It may seem long, but it will go quickly and you will be taken SOOO much more seriously in all the projects you undertake for the rest of your life. THEN you can write your own curricula and do all the community intervention, and have more weight everywhere.

    • multilingualmania
      April 16, 2010 at 7:33 am

      That is something that I keep debating. I actually completed about two and a half years of my doctorate and then I just dropped out because I wasn’t sure if it was the route that I wanted to take. Lately I keep vacillating between whether I should complete it or not. It’s just that I want to work on some internet projects about education and bilingualism, and if I am completing my doctorate then I won’t have the time to do so. So I am really trying to reflect on what is the best route for me. I still need to reflect on that a bit.

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