At the beginning of the year, I found it difficult to motivate some of my students. One boy refused to write. He would look around the room at the other children and cross his arms. Gradually I realized what to a more experienced classroom teacher would be obvious: he refused to write in part because he could barely read and hadn’t a clue about where to begin. Previously, I had worked with children who were all on about the same level in English or I had worked with children in small groups and could thus help them individually. Working with children at diverse levels was a new and confusing experience. And, teaching children who were unable to work for more than a few minutes independently was another challenge. Several had an extremely short attention span. This I understood. Learning a new language is mentally exhausting.
BICS and CALP
There is no question that the pressure for bilingual teachers to follow a prescribed curriculum designed for mainstream third graders adds to on-the-job stress. Third grade bilingual students have gaps in their knowledge when they’re compared to mainstream students--this is normal. If these students were able to do third grade level academic work, they wouldn’t be in a bilingual classroom.
Talking to another person, where the language learner can use gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, and follow-up questions to be understood and to understand what’s going on is referred to as BICS: Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills.
These basic skills are different from the skills needed to read a text on sharks, for example. This difference has been studied at length and documented in the English as a Second Language literature. A much higher level of language proficiency or CALP: Cognitive-Academic Language Proficiency is required in order to reason cognitively, and understand nuance, for instance. Academic texts generally require a broad background and a mastery of at least some of the common linguistic clues and key words and phrases that are used to introduce an important point. Academic proficiency is often very demanding because of the lack of context.
Jim Cummins, a professor at the University of Toronto and an expert in the field of bilingual education and second language acquisition, feels that the “... individual differences in CALP are strongly related to academic progress whereas individual differences in BICS are largely unrelated to academic progress.” (“The Entry and Exit Fallacy,” p. 114) An earlier study that Cummins conducted among immigrants to Canada showed that “...it took (children)...after the age of six, between five and seven years, on the average, to approach grade norms in English CALP.” (“The Entry and Exit Fallacy,” p. 116) Cummins repeated this view in a more recent speech at a TESOL conference in 2002.
Is anyone out there listening?
Given this information--and it has been well-researched-- it is surprising that young children are drummed out of the bilingual program before they’ve had a chance to develop their language skills more fully. It is harsh but by state law, students are exited from the bilingual program after thirty months and placed in a mainstream classroom. Usually, there is additional support from the bilingual department.
Even with additional support, bilingual teachers find their students needy and frustrated, unable to grasp basic concepts or to write simple journal entries. How can these children complete a writing prompt where magic jelly beans, three wishes, a few adventures, and elaborative detail demonstrating sight, smell, and touch must all come together? In truth, how many adults can write a mildly interesting one-page scene that “shows” instead of “tells”?