Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Playing Fair in Education: English Language Learners

Today is March 13, 2013.

One of the greatest obstacles to academic success in school for English Language Learners (ELLs) is their limited mastery of English, specifically vocabulary.  Basically, they don't know enough words to do well in school, even if their grammatical structure is OK.  In fact, lack of vocabulary is a great obstacle to kids who speak English only, as well.  If there were one way of leveling the playing field, it would be to give these kids extra help with oral language development early in life, even before they reach school age, and to give elementary students more direct help with language learning, specifically vocabulary development.  Language development is the basis for learning how to read, specifically, and for success in school, in general.  Otherwise, for these kids, school is just not fair.

It's impossible to get an accurate count of the number of words in a language.  For one thing, are you going to count words such as "walk, walking, walked, walks" separately?  What about "child" and "children"?  Nowadays, most linguists who have counted the number of words in English have decided to count what they call "word families," which are like the examples above: the base word and all its forms and inflections.  For many studies, Webster's Third International Dictionary, published in 1963, has been used.  Unfortunately, that dictionary doesn't list more modern terms such as those related to computers, etc. However, we're not really interested in an exact number, because we know that new words are cropping up all the time in any living language.  Basically, our best information is estimates.  That said, when compound words, archaic terms, abbreviations, proper nouns, alternative spellings and dialect forms are eliminated, the rest of the words can be classified into about 54,000 language families.

Counting the number of words in the dictionary is hard enough, but ascertaining how many words a native speaker knows is a headache of a different kind.  The words that every person knows varies according to their age, general intelligence, and level of education.  Not only that, but there are two kinds of vocabulary: active or productive vocabulary – the words you can actually say and write, and passive or receptive vocabulary – the words you can understand, but not necessarily use for yourself.  Our passive vocabulary is much larger than our active one, but it's very hard to ascertain how many words a person understands.  Once again, we are forced to estimate.  There is also something called "degree of knowledge" of words.  For example, there are words you've heard or read before, but cannot define, words that you can recognize only in certain contexts, words you can grasp the meaning of, but are not sure you know how to pronounce, and words that you know one or two meanings of, but not all the meanings of.   In addition to degree of knowledge, there is also "depth of knowledge."  For example, you may know the meaning of the word, but do you also know how to spell it, pronounce it, define it, use it in a sentence not only meaningfully but also with respect to whether the word is used appropriately in a given social situation, can you form other words based on the given word, do you know the parts (base, prefix, suffix) of the word, and can you think of other words that are related to the same topic (for example: camp, tent, fire, sleeping bag, etc.)?

Given the difficulties of figuring out who knows what, once again we are left with only estimates.  However, even these can be very useful.  Studies have shown that there is a distinct variance in the amount of vocabulary a child knows as early as the age of three, based on the economic status of the family the child is raised in. 

A child growing up in a family where the parents are professionals might have a vocabulary of 150-300 words at the age of two, with about 2/3 of what he says being intelligible.  The child will make statements or requests using only 1 or 2 words at a time.  Some of the words the child knows might be used as a generic term, such as the word "dog" for all four-legged animals.

By the age of three, a child should have between 900 and 1100 words, and about 90% of what he says should be intelligible.  By now, instead of just nouns, he can use verbs (action words).  He can demonstrate understanding of most simple questions, even if he doesn't answer them verbally.  Here is where the difference in economic status starts to come into play.  Kids from working-class families tend to know only about 750 words by age three, and kids from welfare families know only about 525 words.

Why is this so?  There are a number of reasons, not tied to economic status, per se, but which occur with some regularity among poorer families.  Most people know that if you want your child to learn to speak, it's important to read to them.  What a lot of people forget is that talking to children is just as important, and at the very earliest stages of language development, even more important.

In working class families, if the parents work, their jobs very likely only pay minimum wage, and if there are two parents in the home, both of them have to work to make ends meet.  In fact, both parents may even have to juggle two or even three jobs each.  (I once had a Hmong girl as a student who asked me what my second job was.  When I told her I had only one job, she asked me, "What are you – lazy?"  In her world, every adult has at least two jobs.)  This means that parents don't have a lot of time to spend talking to or even being with their kids.  When they are home, they are tired and generally unavailable to talk to or play with their kids.  Moms, and single parents of either sex go right from work into the kitchen to make dinner when they get home, or they might work evenings when their children are home from school.  Lots of folks have night jobs (cleaning office buildings and movie theaters after hours, for example), so they are unable to tuck their kids into bed at night with a story.  This lack of contact is one important reason why their kids know fewer words than kids from families with more money.  The other factor is that the parents of these kids tend to be less educated and they, themselves, know fewer words than their more educated counterparts.  A lot of these kids spend time watching TV, so their passive vocabulary (what they can understand) far surpasses their active vocabulary (what they can say).  One study found that kids from professional families heard an average of 2,115 words in a typical hour at home, while working class kids heard only 1,251 words and welfare kids heard around 616 words per hour.  When you multiply that by four years, the numbers are 13 million for welfare kids, 26 million for working-class kids, and 45 million for kids from professional families.  When you realize that you have to hear a word some at least a dozen times before you are able to remember it and know what it means, you can see why the poorer the family, the less developed the child's language skills are going to be.

With welfare families, the situation is even worse, because there are parents who are absent or on drugs or alcohol.   Many of these kids learn to stay quiet when confronted with an angry adult who has been drinking, for example, especially if the alternative might be as severe as being beaten or thrown against a wall.  (If I had a dollar for every poor kid who showed up at school with cuts and bruises, burns, a black eye, a chipped tooth, or a broken bone, I could take a nice little vacation to Hawaii, and that's certainly not a good thing.)

By the time a child gets into kindergarten, he probably knows between 2,000 and 5,000 word families, with welfare kids at the lower end of the scale and kids of professionals at the top.  Some kids may know as many as 8,000 - 10,000 words.  Compare this with the average ELL student, who may know several thousand words in his native language, but only a handful of words in English.  The ELLs can't tell the teacher that they have to use the toilet or that they are sick or in pain, which makes it extremely important to watch body language. Nurses aren't the only ones who get vomited and peed on, believe me.

By age 6 (first grade), an average child knows around 13,000 words and by age 10 (fourth grade), he probably knows around 40,000 words. This is generally enough to read a newspaper.  By the time he graduates from high school, he should know around 80,000 words (around 20,000 word families), but many less-educated adults only know 5,000 to 10,000 word families.  A university graduate may know 20,000 - 25,000 word families. 

What about ELL students?  Their vocabulary grows just about as fast as that of native speakers, but they are coming from behind, and it takes an average of five to seven years, and often as many as twelve years to reach the point where their language skill approaches that of native speakers. 

When kids are learning to read, it's obvious that  the more words they know, the more words they can read by simply sounding them out.  Besides the words that one typically sounds out, there are a number of words that simply have to be memorized because they can't be sounded out.  (said, was, people, etc.)  These are called sight words.  But if a child doesn't  know the meaning of a sight word, there is little chance of his memorizing it.

Many kids in the intermediate grades (4th through 6th) can read fluently, but they still don't understand what they are reading.  Here's an example.  An ELL fourth-grader was reading a passage about the Great Flood of 1993.  She read with fluency and expression, her oral reading skill was nearly flawless.  But when I asked her questions about what she had just read, she gave me answers that were a little "off," and it finally dawned on me to ask her if she knew what a "flood" was.  She said no.  Because of only one key word, her comprehension of the passage that she had read without any mistakes was severely reduced.

As soon as kids get to the point where they can read nearly anything on their own, the world is their oyster, and they encounter thousands of new words per year, some of which they learn right away, and others of which they will eventually master when they are a little older.  Obviously, reading increases the number of words a child is exposed to exponentially, so the gap in vocabulary knowledge between competent and struggling readers (those whose oral language is insufficient to allow them to learn to read normally) keeps growing wider.

ESL teachers, whose job is overseeing the language development of their students, try to figure out how many words a child needs to know to get through school at each level.  But it's not enough to know how many words; one must know which words to teach.  Obviously, we cannot teach a child every word in the language.  We can only hope to teach kids a critical mass of useful words that will allow them to continue learning as they grow older.

In their book, Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeowan, and Linda Kucan divide words into three tiers.  Tier 1 words are basic vocabulary, the type of words we expect most kids to know by the time they come to school.  These words are not typically taught, which is a distinct disadvantage for ELL kids, who generally do not learn all of these words at home.  Tier 1 words include items such as book, girl, sad, run, dog and orange.

Tier 2 words are so-called "high-frequency" words that are especially useful in school, and for adults.  Many of these words have multiple meanings, including some very specialized meanings.  These are the words that teachers try to teach, often working from lists of high-frequency words. Sight-word lists are composed of high frequency words, both those which can be sounded out and those which cannot.  In this list you would find words such as masterpiece, fortunate, industrious, measure, and benevolent.

Tier 3 words are lower-frequency words, especially ones that are used in one particular area of study, such as math, biology, chemistry, geology, and so forth.  Some of these words include economics, isotope, asphalt, Revolutionary War, membrane, and crepe.   These are often the words that are defined within the textbook, or  listed in a glossary in the back of the text.   These are the words that are listed as key words for each unit of study.  These are the ones many teachers spend the most time on, particularly at the high school level.

Here's an example from my own experience how a Tier 1 or 2 word can trip up an ELL student.  Jon Vang was in sixth grade, an excellent student, but his classroom teacher was perplexed, because although he was good at math, at least computation, he had a great deal of trouble with story problems.   The teacher came to see me, to ask how I might help.  My schedule was jam-packed, but I offered to see Jon the last 20 minutes of the day to work on one problem per day.

The first day, he came into my room and slammed his math book down on the table, letting me know that he was royally pissed off about having to miss art time in his classroom.  I asked him to show me one problem that he'd had trouble with.

Referring to a drawing like the one at right, which had some numbers to define the measurements, the problem was as follows:

The dimensions of the house are fifty feet by thirty feet.  The dimensions of the lot are 150 feet by fifty feet.  What is the area of the yard?

 "Well, what is it, Jon?"

"Three feet," he answered.

"No cigar," I said, to Jon's evident consternation.  "Besides, for area you need square feet, Jon, not just feet."  I tried another tack.

"What are dimensions?"

"Length and width," said Jon, rolling his eyes.

"OK, what is area?"

"Length times width," said Jon, clearly offended that I doubted his knowledge.

"OK, so what's the area of the house?"

"Fifteen hundred."

"Fifteen hundred what?"

"Square feet."

"OK, good.  Now what's the area of the lot?"

Jon's face was blank.  "What's a lot, Jon?"

Spreading out his arms, Jon said, "Well.... a LOT,"   He was totally exasperated with me at this point.

A light went on in my head.  "OK, so 'a lot' means many or much, you know that, but there's another meaning of the word 'lot."  It means the land that you build a house on.  This rectangle is the 'lot."

A light now went on in Jon's head.  "Oooooohhh!" he said.  "So... the lot is seven-thousand five-hundred square feet.  Done!"

"Good job, Jon, but we're not done yet.  The problem asks, 'What is the area of the yard?'"

"THREE FEET," said Jon.  Another light went on in my head.

"No, listen, three feet is an area of length, and you're right that a yard is three feet.  But there's another meaning of 'yard'."   Jon's face was blank again, so I continued.  "A yard is all the land around the house."

"OOOOOHHHHH!  It's a take-away!" shouted Jon in delight.   He was right, it was a subtraction problem.  If you subtracted the area of the house from the area of the lot, you would get the area of the yard.

Jon slammed the book shut and ran back to class just as the bell rang signalling the end of the school day,  I was riveted to my chair, mulling over this encounter.  Any number of children might not understand that land is parceled out in lots, but why didn't Jon know what a yard was?  How many times does a mother tell her children to go play in the yard?

Then it hit me.   Jon didn't speak English at home.  He spoke Hmong.  If his mom told him to go out to the yard to play, she said it in Hmong.  And that's IF they had a yard, which a lot of poor kids don't.

The word "yard," simply defined as the land around your house could be called a Tier 1 word,  Certainly most kindergarten kids know it.  But as a word with multiple meanings, one of which was a specialized math term, it fell into the category of Tier 2.  It wasn't that Jon was a bad mathematician.  The problem was that Jon still didn't know enough words.  No matter how bright he was, he would be dogged by this problem for several more years, until his level of vocabulary knowledge caught up with those of his English-only peers.

From then on, I resolved to pay a lot more attention to beefing up my students' vocabulary, to the point where many of their classroom teachers were amazed at what my students knew.  My students would always have to work twice as hard to make as much yearly progress as the English-only kids.  There was no time to fool around.  They had to catch up, the faster, the better.

One final thought: it is now understood by neuroscientists that learning is not "hard-wired" into the brain.  Instead, we now know that people change the way their brain functions in response to their experiences.  This suggests that if we can offer disadvantaged kids experiences at school that make up for their lack at home, maybe we can make a difference.

Otherwise, it just isn't fair.  :-/

Sources for this blog:

Beck, Isabel L., Margaret McKeowen & Linda Kucan. (2002) Bringing Words to Life. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

"Big Ideas in Teaching Reading." Center on Teaching and Learning, University of Oregon.  (Accessed March 13, 2013.)

Hong, Zhang & Nola Kortner Alex.  "Oral Language Development Across the Curriculum, K-12." ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English and Communication.  (Accessed March 13, 2013)

"How Many English Words Do I Need?"  ELL Technologies. (Accessed March 13, 2013)

"How Many Words Should a Child Know?"  The Language Fix (blog), February 2, 2009.

"Language Development in Children."  Child Development Institute Parenting Today.  (Accessed March 13, 2013)

Lucchese, Fernanda, MA & Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda, PhD.  "Fostering Language Development in Children from Disadvantaged Backgrounds."  Encyclopedia of Literacy and Language Development.  Published online: October 22, 2007.

Nation, Paul & Robert Waring. "Vocabulary Size, Text Coverage and Word Lists." (Paper) Université catholique de Louvain, faculté de philosophie, arts, et lettres. (Accessed March 13, 2013)

O'Hara, Susan & Robert Pritchard. "Socioeconomic Status and Vocabulary Development." (Accessed March 13, 2013)

"Oral Language Development, the Foundation of Literacy."  Ideal Curriculum. (Accessed March 13, 2013)

"Scientists Find Learning is not 'Hard-wired.'" Education WeekJune 4, 2012. 

"Vocabulary."  Wikipedia. Page last modified on March 12, 2013.–in–the–U.S.A

"Vocabulary Development."  ¡Colorín Colorado!  (a bilingual site for families and educators of English language learners).  2007.

"What Your Child Should Know by Age 6." (Accessed March 13, 2013)
"Why Reading Matters" Top Documentary Films. (Accessed March 13, 2013)

No comments: