Thursday, August 03, 2006

Here's the report on our workshop from June. Please

Tufts Workshop on Linguistics in Education

On June 23-24, 2006, the Center for Cognitive Studies and the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University hosted a workshop on Linguistics in Education, organized by Ray Jackendoff and Maryanne Wolf and held at the Center for Reading and Language Research, with the generous support of the Tufts administration.

The workshop brought together a mix of classroom teachers, teacher educators, and researchers on linguistics in education. The goal was to develop better ways to equip language arts teachers in the US to deal with teaching reading and writing Mainstream English, particularly in the face of the increasing linguistic diversity of American schools.

As a result of the workshop, several plans are developing for collaborative work among participants. In particular, the participants agreed to develop a two-day course for teachers, to be held at Tufts next summer. This course is envisioned as a steppingstone toward a larger curriculum usable in schools of education, in in-service course settings, and on the web.

Overview of problems, goals, and outcomes

The workshop grew out of a situation widely perceived among linguists concerned with education and educators knowledgeable about language. The situation is that schools of education for the most part teach little about the contemporary understanding of language: the structure of Mainstream English, the systematicity of dialects, the cognitive challenges faced by beginning readers and English language learners, and the sociology of language prejudice. Most teachers therefore are typically left to deal with language problems in classrooms in terms of what they take to be “common sense”, which in many respects proves counterproductive to the educational enterprise.

∑ Most teachers have little formal knowledge of the structure of language: phonology (sound structure), morphology (word structure), syntax (sentence structure), semantics (structure of meaning), and pragmatics (integration of language into context), nor of the strong dependence of skilled reading on all of these components. The teaching of the structure of language as part of language arts was largely abandoned 25 years ago, so most teachers do not even have any background from their own primary and secondary education.
∑ They think there is a uniform “proper, correct English”, not recognizing the distinctions between formal and informal language that every speaker commands, and not recognizing the distinctions between the styles of written and spoken language.
∑ They have little knowledge of the systematic principles behind the complexities of English spelling, and of how these complexities affect both native English speakers and English language learners.
∑ They think that children speaking non-mainstream dialects such as African-American Vernacular (AAVE) and Appalachian English are speaking “sloppy” English, showing little appreciation of the grammatical principles associated with dialects.
∑ They think that children will get confused if they speak more than one language, or that children speaking another language at home won’t be able to acquire English – showing little understanding of multilingualism.
∑ At the same time, they think that English language learners ought to be able to pick up the language within a year and then succeed in mainstream classes, showing little understanding of second language acquisition, the impact of immigration, and the process of assimilation to a new culture.
∑ The use of a language or dialect other than Mainstream English in the classroom is discouraged, even by teachers who know how to speak these languages or dialects.
∑ Children’s poor Mainstream English skills are frequently diagnosed as learning disability, which in turn is treated with inadequate tools, and which also results in social stigma that can last for the rest of the child’s school career.

The result is large populations of schoolchildren who do not command Mainstream English adequately for educational purposes. For example, 44% of fourth graders are diagnosed as having some sort of reading problems; the figure jumps to 85% when we look at African American fourth graders.

In fact, the databases on reading disability don’t take the differences between AAVE and Mainstream English into account. For instance, “Da mouse run by da cat” may be taken to be an erroneous reading of “The mouse ran by the cat” rather than a translation into AAVE that reveals perfect reading comprehension.

All the workshop participants agreed that what needs to be taught in school above all is speaking, understanding, reading, and writing in Mainstream English. This is essential not only for its own sake but for success in every other subject, from history to science and mathematics – not to mention for success in later professional settings. Difficulties in language arts strongly impact on the rest of education: a child who can’t read also can’t do word problems in mathematics or read science texts. This situation is particularly problematic in light of the large proportion of students who either come from non-English-speaking homes (as much as 25% in California and rising everywhere) or speak non-Mainstream dialects.

The goals of the workshop were to start to develop materials that can be used to train teachers about language, and to pair these materials with practical materials and techniques that teachers so trained can use in their classrooms. Neither of these is especially useful without the other. The idea was to develop a collaboration among linguists, teacher educators, and classroom teachers in order to determine what is needed, what is feasible, and what can work. Most of the participants were invited on the strength of their ongoing work toward these goals. Several participants have developed pilot projects of various sizes. The hope was to stitch these pieces together, to determine what other pieces might be needed for a program of more comprehensive scope, and to discuss how to get such a program out into the broader community.

Many of the participants made brief presentations of their work, in part based on materials that had been distributed in advance of the workshop. Discussion was lively and intense, often extending into breaks and continuing in small groups through dinner on the first evening. Connections were forged between issues arising in teaching AAVE speakers, in teaching Latino speakers, in teaching reading-impaired students, in teaching in all-white classrooms – and in teaching teachers themselves. By the second day, several collaborations were beginning to develop among participants who had just met each other the day before.

Issues constantly arose in the course of the workshop concerning the best way to deliver such material, as well as the practical and political obstacles that it may well encounter. A tentative agreement was reached to keep these questions in the background (though not to ignore them altogether). It seems more pressing at the moment to develop the materials. Once we have something that works, it can be adapted to different venues such as pre-service courses (several states require a linguistics course for Language Arts certification, and this could be the course), shorter in-service courses or modules, and web-based presentation. As for winning wider acceptance, the feeling was that little can be done in advance of having the materials; other projects have become fixated on issues such as changing state standards rather than on delivering content.

Therefore the major goal at the moment is to work out and test a curriculum. During the final discussion of the workshop, a perfect first step toward this goal emerged: the possibility was suggested of offering a two-day course for teachers next summer, through the Center for Reading and Language Research, taught by participants in the present workshop. We have already more than enough material for such a course. The challenge will be in selecting and arranging it into a coherent whole. The members of the workshop eagerly endorsed this suggestion and agreed to stay on after the course for a day in which we assess the course and discuss how to continue from there. Thus the present workshop has been successful, not only as a single exciting event in itself, but, more importantly, as the beginning of a much larger project.


Ray Jackendoff, Philosophy, and Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts
Maryanne Wolf, Child Development, and Director, Center for Reading and Language Research, Tufts
Stephanie Gottwald, CRLR, Tufts
Sasha Yampolsky, CRLR, Tufts
Marion Reynolds, Child Development, Tufts
Lynn Schade, Child Development, Tufts
Carolyn Adger, Division Director, Center for Applied Linguistics
Rebecca Wheeler, English, Christopher Newport University
Anne Charity, English and Linguistics, The College of William and Mary
Anne Lobeck, English and Linguistics, Western Washington University
Kristin Denham, English and Linguistics, Western Washington University
Maria Luisa Parra, Modern Languages and Literatures, Boston University; Child Development, Tufts
Samuel Jay Keyser, Linguistics and Philosophy, MIT
Deidre Carlson, Willowwood Schoolhouse, Bellingham, WA
Amy Jackendoff, Wildwood School, Amherst, MA
Beth Keyser, Superior Jr. High School, Superior, MT
David Pippin, Billings Middle School, Seattle, WA


Carolyn Adger: What teachers need to know about language
Anne Charity: Identifying the features of AAVE that lead to linguistic prejudice
Beth Keyser: Computer-aided teaching of syntactic tree structures to 5th through 8th graders
Rebecca Wheeler: Teaching the Mainstream English vs. AAVE distinction as linguistic code-switching, both to teachers and to their students
Kristin Denham, David Pippin, and Anne Lobeck: Teaching children to discover linguistic structure, and using linguistic structure in the study of literature
Sasha Yampolsky and Stephanie Gottwald: The RAVE-O program (developed at Center for Reading and Language Research) for improving reading fluency in reading-impaired children
Maria Luisa Parra: Educational issues in multilingual classrooms

Saturday, July 08, 2006

David Pippin

I would be interested to know what specific folk linguistics you've
encountered in your teaching and how you've handled them. As we start
to develop a curriculum for next year's workshop, I think it would be
good to share some of the ideas that students have brought to
discussions of linguistics. I also wonder if these ideas change over
time. I'll chime in with some of my observations later.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Linguistics and Education Workshop Follow-up

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