In the United States today, approximately 10 million to 11 million public school-children come from homes where English is not the only spoken language. Of that number, some 5 million—about 10 percent of all K-12 students in the country—are assessed as “limited English proficient” and qualify for English language instruction services.
When it comes to acquiring language and developing literacy, these English language learners (ELLs) often face unique challenges compared to their monolingual peers. But being from a bilingual or multilingual home isn’t the problem, says Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez, an associate professor of literacy instruction who joined Peabody College’s Department of Teaching and Learning last fall.
“In other countries, where multiple languages are commonly spoken, it’s not an issue. There’s no cognitive disadvantage,” she said. “Rather, there’s a slew of factors that must be considered, with poverty being such an important one.”
Mancilla-Martinez was one of three daughters raised in a bilingual home in Inglewood, California, about a dozen miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles. Her parents emigrated from Mexico because their families, like many across the globe, “were very much looking for opportunities here in the United States,” she said.
Though Spanish was her first language and the primary language spoken in her home, Mancilla-Martinez received plenty of exposure to English at an early age—from television, her siblings, at school—which is typical of many non-native English speakers, she said.
Also typical is the desire of immigrant parents, like her own, for their children to master English and thrive academically.
As a teenager, she began to consider a career in education and tutored students at her former elementary school, but a pregnancy at 15 threatened to derail her dreams. With help from her family, she graduated high school on time and become the first in her family to pursue higher education, at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, all while raising a young son.
“In retrospect, I think I became even more motivated to stay in school and do something with my life,” she said.
In the Classroom
Mancilla-Martinez majored in liberal studies with concentrations in English and Spanish and earned her degree, along with her teaching credential with an emphasis in bilingual, cross-cultural language and academic development. She did her student teaching at a dual-language academy in Santa Monica, California, where half of the students were native English speakers and the other half were native Spanish speakers. It was here that she first noticed a discrepancy in how the two groups seemed to acquire language skills.
“Too many of the Spanish-speaking kids were not developing the language and literacy skills they should have in English or in Spanish.”
The school’s Spanish-English immersion model required that 90 percent of the instruction be conducted in Spanish and 10 percent in English at kindergarten, gradually leveling out until instruction was split 50-50 between the languages by fifth grade. In addition to bilingualism, the goal was to teach biliteracy, with the students reading and writing in both languages.
“What I found was that too many of the Spanish-speaking kids were just not developing the language and literacy skills they should have in English or in Spanish by the time they exited fifth grade,” said Mancilla-Martinez, “while a lot of the native English speakers not only had pretty fantastic language and literacy skills in English, but their Spanish was quite strong as well. I thought, what is happening here?”
There were marked social and economic differences between the groups, she noted. “By and large, the Latino students were from the local community and lower-income homes in which the parents didn’t have much schooling.”
The native English speakers were from families with middle to high incomes. Some of those families were willing to commute more than an hour for their children to attend the dual-language academy.
Mancilla-Martinez saw a similar pattern in her first full-time assignment as a first-grade teacher at a predominantly Latino, low-income school in Inglewood, and again as a fourth-grade teacher at a more racially and economically diverse school in Culver City, California.
“By fourth grade, kids are supposed to be transitioning from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn,’” she said. “A lot of my students who were from non-native English-speaking homes could decode words quite well, but they struggled with reading comprehension—a lot more than my native English speakers did.”
Convinced that she needed to learn more about the science that underlies reading development to better support her struggling students, Mancilla-Martinez decided to pursue graduate school. “As an educator, I can’t pretend that I’ll ever conquer the poverty issue—I wish I could,” she said. “I think what we can do, at minimum, is focus on what can happen in the classroom. And I think we have a long way to go instructionally.”
Mancilla-Martinez and her son relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts, so that she could attend the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where a one-year master’s program turned into six years of study and research en route to a doctorate. Her dissertation was a longitudinal study of students from Spanish-speaking homes from preschool through fifth grade, tracking their vocabulary and decoding skills and how the development of these might influence reading comprehension.
For the first time, she was looking at ELLs whose countries of origin were largely different than those in her native California—the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Central and South America are heavily represented among East Coast Latino families—but the struggles she found were the same.
“Their vocabulary skills were quite low—much lower than their monolingual English-speaking peers” she said.
In faculty appointments at the University of Illinois at Chicago and later at the University of California–Irvine, she continued her research involving children from age 2 through middle school and began to draw some conclusions.
“It became pretty clear to me that what we need to focus on is developing the complex language skills of students who come from non-native English-speaking homes,” she said. “And I say that cautiously—there are certainly monolingual English speakers who come from families that are low-income, living in poverty, or have the same kinds of risk factors as many English language learners. For all of these students, boosting complex language skills could go a long way in improving reading achievement.”
“If we don’t give students the opportunities to speak, it’s very hard for them to develop their language skills.”
— Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez
Last year Mancilla-Martinez conducted research in a California preschool classroom in which she audio-recorded routine interactions between teachers and ELLs. She found that the teachers tended to ask questions that elicited only basic responses, versus asking open-ended and follow-up questions that would encourage more meaningful conversational exchange.
“If we don’t give students the opportunities to speak, it’s very hard for them to develop their language skills,” she said.
Having studied English language learners on the West Coast, East Coast and in the Midwest, Mancilla-Martinez is now turning her attention to the South. “The South is actually the region of the U.S. that’s experiencing the fastest growth in non-native English speakers, which is one of the reasons I came to Peabody,” she said.
Her latest research focuses on equity in assessment for non-native English speakers. Current standardized language tests, whether given in English or Spanish, are generally normed on students from middle-income homes, which “doesn’t reflect the experience of most U.S.-born children of immigrants,” she said.
“There are clear and concrete efforts to ensure that issues of language—along with issues of race and ethnicity—are discussed at just about every juncture at Peabody.”
— Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez
In addition, the tests don’t tap conceptual knowledge. This typically leads to lower single-language test scores among non-native English speakers and gives the false impression that these students may have cognitive disabilities.
Mancilla-Martinez recently completed a grant proposal with colleagues at three other institutions to examine the extent to which conceptual vocabulary measures may better predict reading comprehension outcomes and special education placement than traditional single-language measures. If funded, the longitudinal study will involve Metro Nashville public school students.
“It seems to me that there are clear and concrete efforts to ensure that issues of language—along with issues of race and ethnicity—are discussed at just about every juncture at Peabody,” she said. “Faculty are working hard to make sure that diversity is always at the forefront—students are increasingly reading about it, talking about it and seeing it in practice in their teaching placements and classroom observations.”
Peabody students are being exposed to the realities faced by English language learners, whom they will no doubt encounter early and often in their teaching careers—and that’s a very good thing.
“I really like what I’m seeing and hearing,” she said.