Language and Culture in ELL Education

Dr. Maria E. Brisk is a professor in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. She also heads BC's Title III-Project ALL program and its efforts to equip all pre- and in-service teachers with the knowledge and practical experience they need to serve the increasing number of ELLs in schools across the country. Dr. Brisk has published five books and many articles and book chapters on the subject of teaching linguistically and culturally diverse students.

A native of Argentina, Dr. Brisk is editor of Language, Culture, and Community in Teacher Education, a book that addresses common educational needs among all ELL students. Dr. Brisk recently spoke with Colorín Colorado about the book and the status of ELL education in America.

How did the idea for this book come about?

I was the chair of a multicultural committee at AACTE (the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education), and they were beginning to become more involved with the education of ELLs, which is one of the reasons they asked me to be on the committee.

I suggested that the main area they should focus on should be mainstream teachers because ESL and bilingual teachers already have a lot of knowledge and support in this area.

How has your background as a non-native English speaker influenced your work?

I've had an interest in bilingualism since forever. I had majored in English in Argentina, and I came to the States to study language. I did a Masters in linguistics at Georgetown and my Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico. That's where I started working with bilingual education.

For 25 years, I prepared bilingual and ESL teachers, and for the past eight years, I've been working with mainstream teachers.

In Boston, schools have anywhere from 30 to 80% of kids who have a language background other than English. My area of interest is literacy, particularly writing, and lately I've been working a lot on how to help teachers teach writing and how to teach kids the academic writing that schools require.

What's the biggest difference between your book and others on the subject?

One of the unique features of this book is the notion that bilingual children are any children who speak a variant of English that's not what's considered "standard" English. We have a chapter on deaf children, and we recognize American Sign Language as a second language. We have a chapter on African American children, or, for instance, children who come from the Caribbean, who speak English only, but it may not be standard English.

So the notion is that if those children are considered bilingual then the language they bring with them is to be respected. It's not a question that they speak bad English, and we're going to correct them, but you show them when it's appropriate to use their own English and when it would not be.

What would be considered an appropriate use of another language or non-standard English?

When they are working with a group in the classroom, maybe solving a problem among themselves, they can use their own English or another language. It's perfectly acceptable for children to converse that way socially, but when the teacher asks them to report their solution to the class or they're going to write a report about the problem they're solving, you want to encourage them to use the standard form because it's the language used in more formal situations. You make them notice the difference.

So you teach the children about context?

That's one of the things I teach the teachers: that the type of language used needs to be guided by the context. If they are writing poetry or writing a letter to a friend who uses the same variant of English, that's an acceptable use of the language.

Can you give an example?

We had an activity in which a fourth grade teacher told the children to write a letter to a friend about their first week in fourth grade; then they were to write one to their mothers and then one to the President of the United States. All were about their first week of fourth grade.

They got into a rich discussion about the differences between the letters. The structure, salutation, signature, and tone were all different for each letter, and they understood that they were all right, but because of the context, they were different.

Children need to preserve their identity and not feel bad about using a language other than English. They have a better chance to learn to the standard if their language is respected. As a teacher, if you reject their language, they're going to reject the language you present to them. That's the way the world is. And we need to make teachers recognize that.

Is there anything that teachers might find surprising in your book?

The emphasis on the fact that good teaching is not enough is an interesting part of the book. You also have to recognize the importance of language and culture.

For instance, when we are covering the teaching of reading, there is so much emphasis on phonics. But the bilingual children need first to learn vocabulary. Phonics doesn't matter if they don't know the words.

So how do you teach phonics?

They can learn the principles of phonics through their own language and apply them to the other language.

How can culture affect good teaching?

Issues of culture are very important. For instance, some cultures don't like their children to read stories that have morals in school because they may not agree with the morals or because they want to teach morals themselves.

Or, some cultures don't like children writing personal narratives. They don't think that's academic material, so they feel that's not what schools are there to do.

Also in writing, different cultures organize text in different ways. Here, we tend to put the main idea at the beginning of a paragraph. Other cultures may put that at the end.

One should never generalize, of course, but one has to be aware of those kinds of issues.

Can you think of a specific example of this?

I was working with a first-grade teacher, and she had a little boy she wanted to conference with. But he wouldn't talk to her at all. I said, "Don't do it one-to-one, bring another student and let them talk with each other about what you want to conference with him about." This kid came from a culture that was not used to kids interacting with adults, but it was OK when there was another kid there.

Having a conference with children is considered good teaching in our culture, but if you don't bring the element of their culture in, it might not work for you. So sometimes you have to revise the culture of teaching to be more successful.

What's the best way for teachers to learn about the cultural differences that will affect their teaching?

When you have kids of many different cultures, it becomes difficult, but with time, you begin to acquire the knowledge you need. There are usually people in the community who can help you.

What other resources might be available to teachers?

They can talk to the parents, although they may not be able to because of language barriers, or there might be a relative or a friend who can help bridge the conversation. If you want to, there are always ways to do it.

As you have more practice, you'll get more knowledge. The thing to be careful about is not to stereotype, because there are always differences, too.

What's a good way for a teacher to start the process of understanding a culture?

One of my first experiences when I started working with teachers was to ask "Why don't you send a questionnaire home to see what languages they speak at home and where they're from?"

That just opened the door. This teacher thought she only had two ELLS, but two-thirds of her class spoke a different language at home. Kids in elementary school pick up the oral language very quickly, so sometimes teachers don't know that a different language is spoken at home. For this teacher, it is a very good thing for her to know that she has so many kids who speak another language at home. Before, the kids wouldn't talk to her, but because she showed interest, they became very enthusiastic.

Did other teachers in the school do this too?

A fourth-grade math teacher took it on as a project, and they sent the questionnaire to the whole school. They made charts and graphs. The school had no idea that they had 20 different languages spoken at home.

What's a key point in your book that would be most helpful for teachers?

That the language used in literacy needs to be taught very specifically.

This is important because 90% or more of teachers are native speakers of English and are middle class, literate people. They have internalized standard English, and they don't realize that kids don't know it or how to use it.

But if you teach it more directly, the children have a better chance of learning what they're supposed to do, and they will do better in the requirements of school.

How do teachers teach language more specifically?

The project that I've been doing for the past couple of years is taking persuasive writing or fictional narratives or personal narratives and breaking them into components. Teachers can talk about what kind of expectations they have. What kind of structure should the writing have? What form of verb tenses should be used?

The teacher can talk about differences. A report might use the present tense. History would use the past tense. You just tell them what's expected. Teachers have found the idea of being more specific very, very useful.

How do content teachers incorporate these ideas into their teaching?

All content areas need a consciousness about language and culture. In math, for instance, you have to pay attention to prepositions. A student might understand what "divide" means, but if the problem uses "into" instead of "divide," they might not understand what they are being asked to do.

In science, I was looking at the results of some of the written science text of fourth graders. The students had been asked to write up a procedure from an experiment. They were to set up the experiment and then write up the procedure for someone to do it.

When you write procedures, you have to use imperatives like "Put the seed in the soil." I saw that the child who got the highest grade was the one who used imperatives. The one who got the lowest grade used a future tense like "I will water the plant."

As literate adults, we know that you don't use that tense when you're writing procedures because the person doesn't realize you are giving them instructions; however, there's no reason why the kids would know that. If you teach them that, though, they understand. But the teacher needs to know to teach that. And not only the teacher needs to know, but teachers who are preparing the teachers need to know that, too.

How do you deal with faculty development in your book?

The last piece of the book is related to faculty development, because that's the beginning of the spiral. How are we going to prepare teachers if the faculty themselves don't know these things?

Most of the pre-service teachers don't realize what they will face in the schools. As students themselves, most didn't have bilingual children as classmates so they're not really aware of the issues.

But ELLs are not just in the urban areas anymore. They are in suburban and rural areas, too. We send our pre-service teachers into the field very early on, and as soon as they go into the field, they come back asking lots of questions.

What do you think is missing from your book?

I think there's not as much emphasis on culture because culture and multicultural research have been covered much more in other books. We thought the element of language was the most ignored, so, on purpose, we made language the main emphasis of the book.

How do you think the current political climate affects what you are trying to do?

My experience is that the teachers have the will to do the best they can for the kids. The political agenda increases the stress in schools and in communities and in parents. It doesn't make anybody's life any easier, and it also allows for those who have prejudice to be much more open about it.

But to talk about narrowing the achievement gap, if we don't do more about teaching the language the kids need and respecting the languages they have, I don't think the schools will get anywhere in teaching the kids what they need to get ahead.


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