A couple of new research projects funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences indicate that the Obama administration may be more active than the George W. Bush administration was in exploring how schools can draw on students’ native languages to help them to learn English as a second language. Many people working in the field of English-language acquisition have observed that the Bush administration steered away from funding research or disseminating information that supported the use of students’ native languages. Russell Gersten, a researcher who headed up a panel that produced a practice guide for the education of ELLs commissioned by the Bush administration, for example, said the panel deliberately avoided a discussion about bilingual education in the guide, which I noted in Education Week. But education officials did host one conference toward the end of President Bush’s presidency that featured several presentations about the educational method.
In March, the Institute of Education Sciences awarded researchers at the University of Virginia a $1.6 million grant to create a test in Spanish that can be used to gauge the early literacy skills of English-language learners. Marcia Invernizzi, a professor of reading education at the University of Virginia who is working on the project, told me that she interprets the grant as a sign that the federal government has become more open to supporting education tools in students’ native languages that can facilitate the acquisition of English. “A few years ago, it wasn’t politically acceptable, but now we’re coming around,” she said.’'
In the round of grant awards given out by IES in March, the Education Department also funded a project called ESTRELLAS (which means “stars” in Spanish), which includes the use of Spanish translation as one aid for adolescent English-language learners to read electronic texts in English.
At a conference of the National Title I Association late last month, Invernizzi and Karen Ford, a research scientist at the University of Virginia, described how use of the Phonological Awareness and Literacy Screening, or PALS, test that they are developing in Spanish will help teachers to tailor their reading instruction for Spanish-speaking ELLs. They explained that the test in Spanish is intended for children in grades K-3 who are being educated in both bilingual and English-only settings, and it can be administered by teachers who don’t speak Spanish themselves.
The aim is to identify early literacy skills in Spanish that teachers can build on with individual students. Teachers of reading in English, for example, can start some ELLs at a higher level of reading instruction if they know that the students have already acquired certain skills in Spanish. The researchers said that many of the existing tests in Spanish for assessing ELLs’ reading skills aren’t adequate because they are translations of English tests and haven’t taken into consideration differences between the languages. Invernizzi mentioned that some of those translated tests, for example, assess reading fluency by giving children the same amount of time to read a series of words in Spanish that they would have in English. That doesn’t make sense, she said, because Spanish words have more syllables on average and thus more time is needed to read the same number of words in Spanish than in English.
The IES grant for the PALS test is for $1.6 million over four years.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.