Dr. Robin Scarcella is Professor at the University of California at Irvine, where she also serves as the Director of the Program in Academic English and ESL. She has written over sixty scholarly publications on ESL teaching and L2 acquisition, edited numerous volumes, and written many methodology books and textbooks.
In the last four years, she has provided teacher professional development workshops to over 10,000 elementary and secondary teachers. Her most recent volume is Accelerating Academic English. She received her doctoral degree in Linguistics at the University of Southern California and her masters in Second Language Acquisition-Education from Stanford University. Dr. Scarcella is also featured in Colorín Colorado's webcast about academic language and ELLs.
In this interview with Colorín Colorado, Dr. Scarcella describes how she came to the field of academic language and ESL instruction, and offers some ideas for what teachers and districts can do to support effective language instruction.
How did you get into the field of linguistics and ESL education?
It all started when I fell in love with teaching at a young age. I grew up in San Francisco in the 1960's, and there was such an emphasis on equity issues during that time. That had a profound influence on me. As a teenager, I volunteered in a summer school program (preK-8) designed to help working parents. Parents could drop their kids off early and pick them up after work without worrying about childcare. We gave the kids swimming lessons and took them on field trips — the type of ordinary summer activities that they would enjoy, and we also encouraged them to study and read, because many of the kids were falling behind. We did our best to motivate the students.
At the end of the summer, I was tired, but I had loved it. I also knew, though, that I hadn't really known what to do as a teacher, and that I needed learn something more about instruction.
That began a long circuitous route. When I went to college, I got my degree in teaching and was ready to get back to the classroom.
What were your early teaching experiences like?
Well, one of my early experiences was actually in Mexico. I loved Mexico and I loved Spanish and I had a wonderful time there. I taught at the Colegio Americano's bilingual program, which was one of the first bilingual programs in the Western Hemisphere. It was a very good program, and I saw that bilingual education could work. The problem was that the program was only available to upper middle class and wealthy children, so the question was how to make it available to students from low-income backgrounds?
When I came back to California, I taught at the Luther Burbank Middle School in San Francisco's Mission District. By this point, bilingual education had become quite controversial. I taught ESL, history, and Spanish. I still loved it, but I also still felt that I didn't know how to teach very well. I was highly unqualified, and I wasn't prepared to teach English learners. I remember a biology teacher who would come into my classroom and just look at my kids, and they would behave as if it were magic.
I felt horrible about it — the teacher next door would just lock her door and wouldn't even bother to teach. It was a very difficult time for me.
Then I taught at Logan High School in the Bay Area. Again I taught ESL and Spanish, but this time I also taught bilingual homemaking with an organization of mothers. We were supposed to teach kids how to cook Mexican food, and that class was really a challenge for me as well.
How did you deal with this continuing frustration?
I still wanted to teach, in spite of these experiences. I decided I needed more training, so I went to Stanford University for my Master's Degree in Second Language Acquisition in Education. It was there that I got really interested in the research about language acquisition, but I must admit that I missed the classroom.
Then things took another interesting turn. My husband and I moved to Guadalajara so that he could attend medical school. It was a fun time in our lives!
I was looking for a job in Guadalajara, and I ran into a woman I knew while I was on the bus. Her brother was the dean of the medical school, and she helped me get a job, which was lucky for me because I didn't know anyone else who could help me.
I got to teach a lot of methods courses in ESL and teacher preparation, and I loved it!
Then my husband was able to transfer into the medical school at the University of Southern California, and I decided to pursue my doctoral degree, which I also received from USC.
What did you work on in your doctoral program?
It was really an interesting time. I was part of a group of researchers that was creating the field of second language acquisition. It was very exciting, and the work that came out of our collaborations had a major impact on instruction throughout the state.
Looking back, though, I think some of our work did more harm than good. It was a field that was often focused on trends, and we didn't have the training to do truly scientific studies. We would look at the results of foreign students who were learning English, and then we would look at the results of immigrants, both adults and children, and mix those results up. We started to use a lot of jargon and create these hypotheses that didn't always make sense. Then we would rename grammatical features and develop theories based on our new terminology.
These were ideas that sometimes captured the imagination of teachers, and other times didn't. But the research was becoming more influential in school districts, and was affecting instruction. I became disillusioned because even though I didn't have the knowledge to challenge what was happening around me, something felt wrong to me. I wasn't sure that as a field we always had the children's best interests in mind.
As much as I loved the research, I also continued to feel the pull of the classroom. In the meantime, though, I finished my dissertation, and had a child. As I began to receive offers to teach at different programs around the country, I knew I couldn't be away from my family. I taught at summer institutes here and there, but needed to find a way to pursue my career in Southern California.
I then applied for and was accepted as a lecturer at the University of California at Irvine, and from there became Director of the Program in Academic English and ESL. It was a pretty unusual move in academia.
What were you focusing on in your work at this time?
Lily Wong Filmore had a tremendous influence on my work during this period. We worked very closely and had long discussions about the effect of instruction on children. She renewed my interest in helping children. She encouraged me get into elementary and secondary schools and to observe what was happening in them. It was a crucial turning point for me.
Personally, I also wanted to raise my son bilingually, but it was so hard to get him into a good bilingual program (this was before Proposition 227). Good bilingual programs weren't available, at least not where we lived.
This was an important issue for me. In addition to my review of programs for my son, I was teaching a course in bilingual education and felt then, as I do now, that languages and language instruction must be a priority, so that we can communicate with each other, and so that our students can make contributions to their country and even to world peace — this idea kept pushing me forward.
However, every year we would have debates about bilingual education, and in California, it got worse and worse. The programs weren't teaching students academic Spanish — just informal, conversational Spanish. My students who came from bilingual families, but who didn't have a mastery of Spanish they would need to use in college or in their professions, told me that the bilingual schools they had attended had failed them.
At the same time, kids in my ESL program weren't learning academic English, because we weren't focused on academic language at the time. I saw this as a parallel to the students who weren't learning academic Spanish, and I began to think about academic language as tool that students needed to succeed, and that we needed to teach explicitly.
As I was doing a lot of teacher professional development during this period, I was seeing the results of students' not having good instruction. We didn't understand the importance of teaching students to read, write, and speak correctly, and I felt this horrible guilt about the kinds of methods I had promoted earlier in my career.
Did you see a remedy to improve instruction?
I began to promote more explicit kinds of language instruction, and looked for the most effective ways to teach students who couldn't read how to read. I then began lobbying for improved and explicit language instruction statewide in California.
We failed, at that time, in the state and across the nation to teach teachers the importance of grammar instruction. What did catch on a little bit more successfully was this idea of academic language. When we wrapped up grammar with academic language, it was more popular. Many have the attitude that grammar cannot be taught.This is an attitude which is a huge mistake on our part. Of course academic language includes much more than just grammar, and vocabulary and discourse are important and certainly have become popular, but we need to teach grammar, too. I started to look for good ways to teach grammar and academic language.
I worked with teachers from K-12 doing outreach work, and I also began to work at community college to help promote sound instruction for community college students.
Where has this work taken you more recently?
My mission in life is to make sure that our students have enough English to get into college or to get a good job, to have a good life, and to contribute to U.S. — to realize their potential. So I continue to work on professional development — recently I've been working with math and algebra teachers, literature teachers, and ELL teachers in California. I've also been campaigning to improve ELL instruction nationally, and have been looking at policy — how can we ensure that ELLs have access to excellent instruction, and that they aren't segregated to classrooms with bad instruction?
I have also becoming increasingly concerned that teachers don't know what language objectives to teach as part of the curriculum, because those objectives haven't been defined. I have worked with numerous publishers to design both ELL and non-ELL curricular programs — some focus on English language support throughout the curriculum for all students, including native English speakers, while others focus on English language development for non-English speakers. In addition, I have worked on creating language objectives for content areas such as biology and math, and have collaborated on ESL textbooks for community college and university courses.
At UC Irvine, which courses are you currently teaching?
With undergraduates, I teach ESL and academic language, an upper division writing course for students who have come from community colleges, and a freshman academic English course. I teach graduate students in our Department of Education, and currently my courses include second-language acquisition and applied linguistics. I also have some Ph.D. students working on research. In the past, I have taught policy issues in bilingual education, the history of bilingual education, ESL methodology, and language assessment.
Where are the students' language skills when they get to your class?
It depends, but I must say that I have been distressed in my writing course to see that many students coming from community college are not learning what they need to at community colleges. These institutions are in bad shape financially and most don't have the infrastructure necessary to support good ESL instruction. Students aren't required to really examine their strengths and weaknesses, and their writing is hardly communicable. We've developed a 2-course sequence to support that but we are just one program educating a handful of students. This is a crisis, and the nation needs to know about it. Large numbers of students go into community colleges — it's often their only option, and the numbers of ELLs going to community college will only increase. The colleges and the students need our support.
I've also had a chance to observe the difference between the foreign language learner who has recently come to the U.S., and the ELL who was born here. The language and cultural issues are quite different for these students. I was pleased when the concept of Generation 1.5 emerged — it meant that we were finally noticing those issues. Newcomer ELLs need a lot of specialized support, but the reality is that we have far more long-term ELLs in our schools than newcomers, especially in middle and high school. The stakes are higher for them because their ability to master English and/or become fully bilingual will affect their future prospects for college and for good jobs. At the same time, we need to be looking at the little ones — the early education piece for young children and getting them the foundation they need to set themselves up for success later on.
What do you see as some of the major challenges in this field?
I believe that student placement into appropriate services and courses is our number one problem. This is one of our great failures as a nation. We misplace English learners and don't get them into the right courses or programs to meet their language needs, which sets them up for failure. It's an issue at the state and national level.
I am a strong supporter of placement tests that are tied to the curriculum, and of district-wide curriculum programs so that everyone is on the same page, everyone knows what needs to be taught, and everyone knows what they need. Having seen the students I teach at UC Irvine, as well as in the L.A. Unified School District, I know that they are all over the place in terms of their needs and don't have a solid curricular background behind them.
Following up on that point, what do you believe is the role of assessment in language instruction?
I believe that assessment is a critical component of instruction, but must be reasonable. Assessments, whether proficiency assessments or formative must be valid. A major problem with our current assessments is that we are not assessing clearly defined standards or objectives. Right now many have the idea that academic language has been defined well for assessment purposes. Not so!
Assessments can be an important diagnostic tool in determining students' language needs — how successful have we been in teaching them what they need to know? I think it's also important when we can and it is useful to assess students in multiple languages to get the most accurate results.
One project I've been working in on is writing assessments — creating assessments designed to acquire language while measuring writing proficiency.
Part of this has to do with grammar proficiency. What is the effect of grammar instruction? Is it effective? Is direct instruction effective? Does it help to learn grammar features? Do students maintain their language development over time? What is the effect of instructional feedback? There's been a lot of research showing that instructional feedback doesn't help, but I believe we didn't control the right variables in those studies.
For example, let's say we give students a test: first students write an essay on one topic, and then we give them instructional feedback as an intervention. At the end of the research project we give them another essay assignment that elicits other grammatical features, rather than those we provided students with feedback on. There's no way to know if the corrective feedback worked or not because we aren't evaluating what we actually corrected and reviewed with the students.
If you were to outline your own method for language instruction, what would that model look like?
- Students need large quantities of exposure to language
- They need to practice using that language
- They need explicit instruction using the language
- They need feedback about their use of the language
Every new language feature can be taught using this model, whether it's conversation, writing, grammatical features, or vocabulary words. The question is then how much time do you spend on each step and how do you implement each step, but each of those steps has a tremendous research base of support.
Students need ESL instruction that will help them gain access to the core curriculum. They need explicit instruction in areas such as grammar, vocabulary, and discourse, and they need to practice, practice, and then practice some more. We also need to encourage students to read and expose them to language in large quantities.
I work closely with bilingual educators to help foster bilingual programs that develop a high proficiency in English and Spanish I believe this can only be done by giving students lots of explicit instruction.
What are some steps that teachers can take immediately to help their students in the classroom?
Scaffolding is so important — one way is to give students word banks and sentence starters so that they have something to work with. We should not promote a "sink or swim" strategy. Instead we should tell students what they can use and how they can use it — otherwise, how will students learn new information about language if they haven't had that kind of explicit instruction?
What is your hope for the future of the field of second language acquisition?
I fervently hope that we always keep the children's best interest at heart. In our schools, we need teachers, administrators, and staff who are committed to the students, to school-wide collaboration, and to doing what it takes to helping kids succeed. In the area of research, we really need more people in this field who know about language, and who have a strong enough background to steer clear of fads. It's tempting in this field to jump on bandwagons, but that can get us off track and do a lot of damage. If we can keep the children at the center of our policy, our curriculum, our research, and our classroom instruction, we can get these students on their way to realizing their full potential.