When a 5th grader on the Crow reservation in Montana, who was one of the best students in her class, asked to do a science experiment for extra credit, her teacher was happy to oblige. The teacher told the student she could write up the results of the experiment and use the report to satisfy a writing requirement at the same time. The girl was enthusiastic.
But then the teacher said, “You’ll be killing two birds with one stone.” The girl was horrified. She knew what the words meant, but—not knowing they were an English language idiom—took them literally. After a night spent worrying that she would be required to kill birds, she went to her teacher and said she would rather not do the experiment.
Such incidents are not rare, says Mick Fedullo, a language-development specialist in Indian education. And Fedullo believes they are a symptom of a major problem hampering Indian students’ efforts to succeed academically.
Almost everyone whose first language is English understands the hundreds of idioms used in everyday speech, such as:
“Don’t beat around the bush.”
“You don’t have a leg to stand on.”
“He had me in stitches.”
But for people learning English as a second language, idioms can be a difficult challenge. Fedullo believes this basic fact about idioms and language learning has been overlooked at most schools on Indian reservations.
Fedullo, who has taught language arts on 17 Indian reservations during the last decade, says, “[Young Indians] are not given a consistent exposure to common idiomatic expressions.” He points out that, outside of school, most reservation children do not have regular contact with non-Indians. Children for whom English is truly a second language, such as many Navajo and Crow Indians, never hear English idioms in the home. Even among Indian children for whom English is the primary language, Fedullo says, “Idiomatic usage tends to be limited” in the English they hear and speak.
This lack of familiarity with English idioms causes Native American students serious problems in school, according to Fedullo and others. Marlene Walking Bear, federal programs director of the Harden Public Schools in Montana, gives this example: “A Native American who speaks English as a second language might be having a hard time understanding a textbook. When he comes up against an idiom, he tries to translate it literally, and he can’t understand it. He gets confused and falls further behind.”
Fedullo argues that this means Native American children need special early training in the use of idioms—but most are not getting it. According to Angela Branz-Spall, director of bilingual education for Montana’s office of public instruction, “We know when we’re teaching foreign speakers English that idioms are troublesome, but most schools have never really considered teaching idioms to Native American English-speakers.”
At a Navajo reservation, Fedullo tested the familiarity of 101 7th and 8th graders with 25 common idioms. On average, the students had not even heard of almost two-thirds of them.
Fedullo is trying to educate teachers and other educators about the problem. He is also conducting a nine-month survey to determine more precisely how widespread the problem is, and—with the support of the Montana Office of Public Instruction—he is completing a handbook on teaching idiomatic English to Native American students. The book will use Native American folk tales and scenes from daily life to teach the idioms.
Those familiar with Fedullo’s project are enthusiastic. Branz-Spall, whose office is funding the handbook, says, “We’re hopeful [Fedullo’s work] will make a difference in the achievement levels of the Native American students in our state.” Marlene Walking Bear says Fedullo’s handbook “will be really helpful for our students.”
Fedullo plans to have the handbook, to be called Spilling the Beans, finished by the spring of 1991.
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Expressions Of Discontent