"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein
Showing posts with label Mother Tongue Based - Multilingual Education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mother Tongue Based - Multilingual Education. Show all posts

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Languages in the Philippines: A Challenge for Basic Education

By 1987, all schools in Singapore are using English as a medium of instruction. Singapore's education policy however requires schools to offer a choice of Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil as the second language. This second language may also be used as the medium of instruction for social studies. The English language was seen as the unifying factor since no ethnic group in Singapore can claim ownership of English. Singapore also saw that English was becoming the language of choice in science and technology. Since 1990, the number of households speaking English in Singapore has risen:

Above capture from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Singapore
The Philippines, on the other hand, has been changing its language policy for decades. Presently, there is even an online petition asking for the removal of the current chairperson of the Commission on the Filipino Language:

The situation in the Philippines is similar to that of Singapore. The new DepEd K+12 curriculum is embracing the Mother Tongue - Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE). Students in the primary years are taught all subjects (except Filipino and English) in their mother tongue. This is dramatically different from that of Singapore. The requirements, first of all, on teachers are more diverse. Teachers need to be able to teach math and science in the mother tongue of their pupils. Of course, not having science as a formal subject in the early years, teachers then do not have to worry about teaching science in the native tongue during the first few years of elementary school.

Singapore's approach is a lot more practical. Since the mother tongue is only taught as a language and culture subject, one need not worry about what mother tongue should be used in any given school. The choices are there and schools simply need to have a teacher or a group of teachers (depending on the demand) who can speak fluently and teach the mother tongue. Math and science teachers simply have to know how to teach their subjects in English. The school does not make a choice on what language should be used as the medium of instruction. This has practical aspects especially in a place where there is significant heterogeneity in languages. Take, for example, the following region in the Philippines:  (The following tables and figures shown here are copied from Jose Ramon G. Albert's (National Statistical Coordination Board, Philippines) article, "Many Voices, One Nation: The Philippine Languages and Dialects in Figures"

In the Cordillera administrative region (CAR), there are clearly five major languages, and these five account for less than 80% of the households. A school in this region needs textbooks in at least five different languages. A school in this region requires teachers who can instruct in these languages. CAR is not an exception, unfortunately. The following are other regions in the country demonstrating that even at the regional level, there is no homogeneity:

With this in mind, MTB-MLE is indeed a challenge. Currently, there are 19 languages considered by DepEd in its MTB-MLE implementation. These are enumerated by Albert in his article: Tagalog, Kapampangan, Pangasinense, Ilokano, Bikol, Cebuano, Hiligaynon, Waray, Tausug, Maguindanaoan, Maranao, Chabacano, Ybanag, Ivatan, Sambal, Aklanon, Kinaray-a, Yakan, and Surigaonon. The spellings of the names of these languages differ, but one should be able to see that 16 of these languages are among the top 20 languages spoken in the country in 2000:

Ivatan, Sambal and Yakan are not among the top twenty, but these are included in the list of DepEd. This means Kankanai, Masbateño and Capizeño, although among the top 20 spoken languages, are not among those languages included in MTB-MLE of the DepEd K+12 program. Masbateño is a language spoken by a significant fraction of households in region 5:

Mother tongue education is important. With Singapore, for example, household use of the other Chinese languages is dropping dramatically. The use of Mandarin is on the rise at the expense of other Chinese languages. The Philippines since it is much larger than Singapore has much more languages. 150 languages have been identified in a 2000 study. Some of these languages are fast declining, as shown in the following table:

These languages are about to disappear. This is one reason why teaching the mother tongue as a subject in schools is important. It is to preserve a cultural treasure. Asking that a mother tongue be offered as a subject is asking a lot less than asking for a mother tongue to be used as a medium of instruction. MTB-MLE, because of its cost, can only select a fraction of the languages. Otherwise, it is prohibitive.

These are real issues that Philippine basic education faces. The country is indeed a colorful tapestry in terms of spoken languages as depicted in the following figures:

DepEd K+12 aims to teach students in the Philippines their mother tongue, English and Tagalog (Some call this language Filipino or the national language while some claim that the national language, Filipino is really a mix of the above languages). Looking at the above figure, one should not be surprised why such language policy in the Philippines still causes people to be angry.

"My view: We should become tri-lingual as a country.Learn English well and connect to the World.
Learn Filipino well and connect to our country.
Retain your dialect and connect to your heritage."

-Philippine president Benigno Aquino III
It sounds good as a slogan. Unfortunately, this is simply impractical....

Friday, October 4, 2013

Talking to Children

How language relates to thinking is still a continuing debate among psychologists, linguists and neuroscientists. Nonetheless, there seems to be no doubt that these two are related. Children learn language first at home. Children hear words from various sources. Some are in fact directed to a child, while others are simply overheard. Of course, inside homes where there is a radio or television, these provide additional opportunities for a child to hear spoken words. The vocabulary gap at the beginning of formal schooling cause by socio-economic status is important to analyze if one desires to reduce this gap. A child's vocabulary is crucial in the early years. Its effects on a child's education are long term. In fact, the gap only widens through the years of basic education.

There are now several studies that indicate that only conversations by adults directed to a toddler have an effect on the child's vocabulary. Adults talking directly to toddlers is the only factor that has been shown to correlate with how fast a child develops vocabulary. Children talking to toddlers does not. Overheard speech does not. One of these studies is nicely summarized in a YouTube video by Laura Shneidman:

The paper "Language input and acquisition in a Mayan village: how important is directed speech?" is published in the journal Developmental Science:

The above study is independently supported by another work, this time, from researchers at Stanford University. Their paper, "Talking to Children Matters: Early Language Experience Strengthens Processing and Builds Vocabulary", is published in the journal Psychological Science:

Language acquisition is important in a child's education. Some even have this notion that learning through the mother tongue is more efficient. It is difficult to address all the various factors that may influence learning outcomes especially when these factors themselves are not really independent from each other. Some of these factors correlate with each other. Children from poor families tend to hear fewer words because adults do not talk directly to their children in these homes. In multilingual societies, the weaker languages are usually spoken inside poor households. Thus, it is indeed refreshing to see studies that allow for a clear conclusion to be drawn.

Talk to your toddler....

Friday, July 26, 2013

"Should Spanish-Speaking Students Be Taught in English Only?"

This is the title of a report from the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) aired on 18 July 2013. It is about a school district in New Britain, Connecticut. Most of the students in this district have Spanish as their mother tongue. Currently, only one in four students in the district can read proficiently at the end of third grade. One of the major problems the schools face in New Britain is absenteeism starting in kindergarten. Out of 1000 students, about 300 have missed at least 18 days during the school year. Among these students who miss kindergarten often, more than eighty percent are behind reading by the time they reach third grade. Home visits reduce the rate of absenteeism from 30 percent down to 18 percent, but test scores in reading are still far below satisfactory. A large majority (about 85 percent) of the students whose mother tongue is Spanish are still failing Connecticut's reading test. The new superintendent, Kelt Cooper, is working on changing this by implementing the English Language Development (ELD) method. Apparently, in Texas, Cooper had some success. The school district in Texas Cooper supervised rose from near the bottom in English proficiency scores in the state to near the top:

Captured from PBS video
"Should Spanish-Speaking Students Be Taught in English Only?"

Monday, May 20, 2013

Learning in the Early Childhood Years

Human learning is inextricably linked to the physical development and changes within the human brain. Research in both neuroscience and behavioral psychology over the past few decades have provided rich insights on how the brain develops during the early years and how this affects learning, behavior and health in the later years. As in any building task, the foundation is formed at the early stages. The strength, stability and resilience of a building rest on how well the foundation is built. For human learning, most of the foundation is formed in the early years. The physical connections that the brain uses (neurons) are shaped by experience. The brain is designed from birth to learn. What neuroscience currently shows is that this network, the circuitry in the brain, its architecture, is influenced by early childhood experiences. The brain is highly flexible at the early stages. However, with time, this flexibility disappears and rigidity sets in. The plasticity only remains for a short time in early childhood as connections in the brain that have been rarely used are shut down in a pruning process.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has provided a brief summary of where research in neuroscience and behavioral development currently stands on early childhood learning.  The following figure provides a good idea of when most of the network architecture inside the brain is developed. One must pay close attention to the change in the x-axis to appreciate fully the fact that the earlier part of this growth curve has been expanded into months while the later part is compressed into years:

The following is a video that helps visualize what is going inside the brain during the early formative years:

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University provides the following bullet points that summarize what is currently known from research:
  • Brains are built over time, from the bottom up.
  • The interactive influences of genes and experience shape the developing brain.
  • The brain’s capacity for change decreases with age.
  • Cognitive, emotional, and social capacities are inextricably intertwined throughout the life course.
  • Toxic stress damages developing brain architecture, which can lead to life-long problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health.
Clearly, a very important take-home message from these studies is the defining role of early childhood care in a person's development. What happens or does not happen in the early years greatly influences life in adulthood. What experiences shape the brain in its early years can affect learning in the later years. These seem to be clear points.

I would like, however, to explore the third point from the above list, "The brain’s capacity for change decreases with age." The brief specifically mentions:
The brain is most flexible, or “plastic,” early in life to accommodate a wide range of environments and interactions, but as the maturing brain becomes more specialized to assume more complex functions, it is less capable of reorganizing and adapting to new or unexpected challenges. For example, by the first year, the parts of the brain that differentiate sound are becoming specialized to the language the baby has been exposed to; at the same time, the brain is already starting to lose the ability to recognize different sounds found in other languages. Although the “windows” for language learning and other skills remain open, these brain circuits become increasingly difficult to alter over time. Early plasticity means it’s easier and more effective to influence a baby’s developing brain architecture than to rewire parts of its circuitry in the adult years.
Language learning is a major issue faced by basic education. There is one camp out there that advocates as far as suggesting that mother-tongue based instruction is more effective. The implication from the neuroscience studies is that language learning occurs at an early age. The breadth and robustness of the brain architecture formed during early childhood depends on a child's exposure to a language. Clearly, this does not depend on what language an infant is first exposed to. What matters is the richness and depth, the vocabulary and precision. The two countries, Finland and Singapore, offer two seemingly opposing options. In Finland, the mother tongue is used as medium of instruction while Singapore teaches primarily in English. What these two countries probably have in common is a childhood marked with rich conversations between infants or toddlers with their parents or caregivers. It is amazing that difficulty in English language learning across the globe is often associated with socio-economic background as well as educational attainment of parents. These are factors that are likewise expected to correlate quite strongly with the type and level of the language used at home. It does not really matter what language is used. If conversations are limited to "No", "Stop it", the vocabulary of a child entering school is poor. More importantly, as neuroscience suggests, the network connections are more likely not optimized for learning. In these cases, even if a child's mother tongue is English, the child may still be challenged in education. As well controlled studies have shown, it is not the medium of instruction but the quality of instruction that matters most. Mother tongue instruction equally fails if conversations in the early years are void of richness and depth in that language. It is perhaps one of the reasons why even children from English-speaking homes, but with parents less inclined to talk intelligently with their children, find themselves performing at the same level as children who are raised in homes with a different language, but also with parents less likely to engage their children in intelligent conversations.

Elsa Di Ruggiero cites in her blog the following study:


In a bilingual context, the mother tongue plays a key role in a child's social and personal development, in education and in second-language learning. There is a complex relationship between these three areas. Support for children receiving education through a second language is often in the form of additional learning opportunities in the second language. However, first-language competence has been shown to affect learning in the second language. This paper looks at pre-school migrant children in a bilingual context and investigates the nature of the children's bilingualism. Findings show that they do not have the same level of mother-tongue competence as children brought up in their country of origin. The paper goes on to consider the reasons for these differences in mother-tongue competence and possible responses. The paper concludes that for these children, nursery education in the mother tongue could raise levels of competence in the second language and increase wider educational opportunities, as well as contributing to mutual respect, social cohesion and harmony. There is a complex relationship between mother-tongue development, children's self-esteem, educational opportunities and second-language learning. This paper considers how this complex relationship affects groups of children in four European contexts: Turkey, Norway, Germany and Austria.

Elsa Di Ruggiero adds:
The learning of a second language is highly dependent on the effectiveness with which a child learned his/her mother tongue. Children with high grammar and vocabulary levels in their mother tongues have reportedly found it easier to learn a new language within the school setting and consequently, read and wrote more fluently and earlier. Therefore, the higher the mother-tongue competence, the greater readiness for reading in either the first or second languages (Yazici, Ilter & Glover, 2010).
Neuroscience research is telling us when it is optimum to achieve competence in mother tongue.  It is in the early years (not in the elementary years). The following paragraph by Patricia K. Kuhl in "Early Language Learning and Literacy: Neuroscience Implications for Education" highlights data from neuroscience studies and their implications of early childhood learning:
These results are theoretically interesting and also highly relevant to early learning practice. These data show that the initial steps that infants take toward language learning are important to their development of language and literacy years later. Our data suggest as well that these early differences in performance are strongly related to experience. Our studies reveal that these early measures of speech discrimination, which predict future language and literacy, are strongly correlated to experience with “motherese” early in development (Liu, Kuhl, and Tsao, 2003). Motherese exaggerates the critical acoustic cues in speech (Kuhl et al., 1997; Werker et al., 2007), and infants’ social interest in speech is, we believe, important to the social learning process. Thus, talking to children early in life, reading to them early in life, and interacting socially with children around language and literacy activities creates the milieu in which plasticity during the critical period can be maximized for all children.
Advocates of mother tongue-based multilingual education perhaps need to pay attention to what they are in fact facing. The real problem may actually lie in the early years - before kindergarten. A child who does not get exposed to language and literacy activities even in the mother tongue during the early years is already at a disadvantage before school starts. The solution may not lie in the elementary years.  Returning to the Harvard study, it concludes:

The basic principles of neuroscience indicate that early preventive intervention will be more efficient and produce more favorable outcomes than remediation later in life.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Bilingual Children Have Advantage in Working Memory

A post in this blog, "Mother Tongue Based - Multilingual Education : A Barrier to Cognitive Development?"
last year shared the results of a study in India that demonstrated better cognitive development among bilingual school children. The authors' explanation for their findings were as follows:
"...Getting education through English involves differential curricular pressure and cognitive demands on the part of the students. The student has to understand the instructions presented in English which is not his mother tongue, to develop linguistic competence in it and simultaneously master the course content. For Odia medium children the task is much simpler as they have to master the course content only using a language already acquired earlier at home. However, this tougher task demand at an early age helps in faster development of cognitive processes in the children being educated through English medium...."
This year, a recent paper has been published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology that examines the effect of bilingualism on working memory. The article, "Working memory development in monolingual and bilingual children", has the following abstract:
Two studies are reported comparing the performance of monolingual and bilingual children on tasks requiring different levels of working memory. In the first study, 56 5-year-olds performed a Simon-type task that manipulated working memory demands by comparing conditions based on two rules and four rules and manipulated conflict resolution demands by comparing conditions that included conflict with those that did not. Bilingual children responded faster than monolinguals on all conditions and bilinguals were more accurate than monolinguals in responding to incongruent trials, confirming an advantage in aspects of executive functioning. In the second study, 125 children 5- or 7-year-olds performed a visuospatial span task that manipulated other executive function components through simultaneous or sequential presentation of items. Bilinguals outperformed monolinguals overall, but again there were larger language group effects in conditions that included more demanding executive function requirements. Together, the studies show an advantage for bilingual children in working memory that is especially evident when the task contains additional executive function demands.
The children included in these studies have been carefully chosen so that the grouping between bilinguals and monolinguals does represent the only major difference between the students. Parents in both groups all have college education and the students all live in a somewhat homogeneous middle class neighborhood. In terms of English vocabulary, the monolingual children (those who speak English in both home and school) perform better. On "Pictures Task", an exercise that measures working memory and speed, bilinguals are significantly faster than the monolinguals although both groups have similar accuracy. A second study described in this paper makes use of a test similar to a Corsi block task:

An example of a Corsi block task
Downloaded from Gebhard Sammer, "Working memory load and EEG-dynamics as revealed by point correlation dimension analysis"
In this test, monolinguals do as well as bilinguals when the children are asked to recall only which blocks had a figure. However, when asked to provide the correct sequence, 5-year old bilinguals had a higher score (50% correct) than the 5-year old monolingual children (41% correct).

The paper then concludes with the following paragraph:
"The current studies fill an important gap in our understanding of the bilingual mind. Working memory is crucial to cognitive development, and its precocious development by bilingual children is important evidence for developmental effects of experience. The results also contribute to the growing literature on the effect of experience on cognitive outcomes. In this regard, bilingualism is particularly important because, unlike experiences such as musical training and video game playing, bilingual children are not typically preselected for talent or interest. The children in the current studies were bilingual because of a family history of immigration and not because of a talent for learning languages. This is powerful evidence for the role of experience in shaping the mind and directing the course of development."

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Are We Teaching Math and Science through a Good Medium or Are We Teaching Math and Science?

"DepEd K to 12: Teaching Math and Science" is one of the most viewed articles in this blog. There is no doubt that educators around the world are examining basic education in the math and the sciences. Both math and science are seen as central to the 21st century. Some studies now even focus on demonstrating how learning in math and the sciences can facilitate education in other disciplines. Unfortunately, there are countries that are currently struggling in math and science education, and are continuing to fail in grasping the fundamental problems plaguing their educational system. Instead of identifying what the real problems are, these countries venture into various hypotheses that have not been validated by data. Recently, I received a comment that claims that one reason why children in the Philippines are not doing well in math and science is that these subjects have been taught in a foreign language. One simply has to cross the South China Sea to see an example that repudiates this claim. That example is Singapore:
Math in Focus explains the role of the medium of instruction in Singapore Math
Downloaded from  http://www.hmheducation.com/singaporemath/ell.php
Singapore not only ranks high in international standardized exams, the country is also among those with the lowest fraction of students performing below the "Low" benchmark of performance:

Table 1. Proportion of Students Below the “Low” Benchmark in 2011
Grade/ SubjectSingapore (%)International Average (%)
P4 Mathematics118
P4 Science319
P4 Reading312
S2 Mathematics127
S2 Science423
Table downloaded from a press release of the Ministry of Education, Singapore

Yet, the medium of instruction for math and the sciences in Singapore is not the mother tongue, but English. Outside Singapore is the country of Malaysia. Malaysia, like the Philippines, is facing problems in math and science education. The Malaysian Insider reports:
"...64 per cent and 66 per cent of Malaysia’s secondary students who had participated in the TIMSS study scored “Low” and “Below Low” in mathematics and science respectively...."
Similar to the Philippines, the medium of instruction has also been used as a scapegoat. Malaysia likewise has been experimenting on which language should be used as medium of instruction for math and the sciences. Over the years, policies seem to easily shift without careful research or gathering of evidence. And if there is evidence, there is no guarantee that the government would actually listen to research. In 2010, the following paper was published in the Journal of Science and Mathematics, Education in Southeast Asia:

The authors of the above paper conclude:
"The differences in their achievements highlight an important matter – the inaccuracy of the accusation that English as the medium of instruction in mathematics is the cause of the pupils’ less than ideal achievements in the said subject. This is because both groups of pupils were weak in content knowledge as evidenced by their low mean scores in both tests. Noteworthy as well was the fact that learners from the rural area were not significantly handicapped by the said language in their mathematics achievements. As for the urban pupils, while it was shown that they were slightly advantaged by the use of Bahasa Malaysia’s accommodation, the bulk of their inaccurate answers seem to originate from errors in content-knowledge. To reiterate a point made earlier, the pupils’ lower scores in the English Test should not summarily be assigned to the use of the English language as the medium of instruction alone. It is important to acknowledge that mathematical acumen also has a role to play in determining the pupils’ achievements in the said subject."

The difference between Singapore and Malaysia in math and science education is huge. More than 95% of Singapore children pass international exams in math and science. On the other hand, only about a third (34-36%) of Malaysian students pass. As the authors correctly state, perhaps, it is about time that we ask ourselves if we are in fact teaching students mathematics and the sciences. I actually do not think it is a wild guess that the problems lie in content teaching.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Early Childhood Education and Reading Comprehension

Now, these initiatives in manufacturing, energy, infrastructure, housing, all these things will help entrepreneurs and small-business owners expand and create new jobs. But none of it will matter unless we also equip our citizens with the skills and training to fill those jobs. And that has to start at the earliest possible age. You know, study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than three in ten 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives. So, tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America. That’s something we should be able to do.Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on, by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children -- like Georgia or Oklahoma -- studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own. We know this works. So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.
-US President Barack H. Obama - State of the Union Address , 2013

President Obama reiterated in his address the importance of early childhood education. It is at this stage of basic education that a child learns the basics of social interactions, reading, writing and counting. The early years set the stage for lifelong learning. Children are taught to read in the early grades so that by grade 4, they are ready to read to learn. Reading comprehension is the next step and it is hoped that the later years produce citizens who can read critically. In the reading dimension alone of the human mind, there are levels and basic education helps bring a child from one level to the next.

Reading comprehension requires more than recognition of letters in the alphabet. To make sense of a text, understanding how sentences are structured is important. Stories and ideas are expressed in writing but these can only be extracted by reading with familiarity and knowledge of the words used. There is no doubt that vocabulary plays a crucial role in reading comprehension. Without the knowledge of what words mean, reading comprehension becomes a daunting task.

When children are introduced to a language, vocabulary instruction is necessary. This is one of the reasons behind the need to provide high quality preschool education especially to poor children. As noted in a previous post in this blog, "Vocabulary and Learning", one major root of the achievement gap is the fact that children in poor households have been exposed to a very limited number of words. Children whose parents are professionals have already developed a vocabulary twice as big as those of children from poor families. Without knowing what words mean, reading comprehension, a key to learning content, becomes impossible. Enriching the vocabulary of children is therefore an important objective of early childhood education. How effective these early years of schooling in developing a child's vocabulary can be measured. One example has been recently published in the Elementary School Journal of the University of Chicago, "Vocabulary Instruction in Commonly Used Kindergarten Core Reading Curricula" by Tanya S. Wright and Susan B. Neuman. In this paper, the four popular kindergarten curricula were examined:
"...Using market research data, we selected the four most commonly used core reading curricula in kindergarten classrooms. Together, these four programs accounted for 52.3% of the market penetration in 2009–2010: Houghton Mifflin Reading (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) (18.3% market penetration), Scott Foresman Reading Street (Pearson Education, 2008) (13.7%), Harcourt Trophies (Harcourt, 2007) (10.8%), and Treasures (Macmillan/McGraw Hill, 2009) (9.5%). Because our goal was to understand curricular supports for vocabulary instruction, each curriculum was assigned a letter name to maintain its anonymity...."
These curricula were evaluated in terms of weekly scope and sequence, word selection and difficulty, frequency of instructional practice, review and progress monitoring, and instructional structure. With the first criterion, scope, as measured by the number of target vocabulary words per week, the four curricula were found to vary widely. One curriculum averages 21 words per week, a second one does 14 per week, while the other two average 3 words or less per week. Noting that children whose parents are professionals already have 1,100 words in their vocabulary by the age of 4, while those in welfare only know 500. The rate of 3 words per week leads to only 150 words per year. Clearly, to close the gap, at least a dozen target vocabulary words per week must be covered. Two of the four most popular kindergarten reading curricula do not meet this need.

The above concerns vocabulary breadth which depends solely on the number of words that are familiar to a student. There is also vocabulary depth. Proctor and co-workers outline three means by which a student can develop vocabulary depth in a 2011 paper in the journal Reading and Writing, "The role of vocabulary depth in predicting reading comprehension among English monolingual and Spanish–English bilingual children in elementary school". The first one is morphology, by knowing the root of a word, a child can have a clue of what the word means. It begins with inflectional morphology (e.g. boy + s = boys) to compound morphology (e.g. man + power = manpower), to derivational morphology (e.g. magic + ian = magician). A second means  is semantics, which highlights relationships between words. Words are related to concepts which sometimes bind such words into a family. Consider, for example, this set of words: cell, row, column, table. These words are related to each other within the context of presenting data in a particular fashion. Used separately and in a different context, a cell can mean a unit of a living organism, or a table can correspond to a furniture in a house. The last one is syntax. A language has a structure. There are subjects, verbs, objects, adjectives and adverbs. With syntax, a child maybe able to decipher the meaning of a word when one sees how such word is used in a sentence. A word that is appropriately and precisely used lends clues to what it means. It is one reason why James Paul Gee highlights the role of language in science:

Downloaded from  http://www.jamespaulgee.com/sites/default/files/pub/TeachingSciencetoELL-Ch07.pdf
The question in hand now is: How does this relate to Mother Tongue Based - Multi Lingual Education? How does a child taught in his or her native language develop both vocabulary breadth and depth in that language?  How many words in the native tongue does a child know before enrolling in kindergarten? These are important numbers for these provide an idea of what the starting point is. How many words in the native tongue does a child learn to read after kindergarten? How does the curriculum in the mother tongue achieve the objective of increasing vocabulary in the mother tongue? Can we quantify the number of words a child learns (breadth) and does a child develop skills necessary to navigate and discover new words (depth)?

Lastly, how does the transition to English instruction really occur? Are any of the vocabulary schemes transferable? Both breadth and depth in vocabulary allow for greater reading comprehension. In this aspect, reading is not solely seen as an objective of basic education. More importantly, reading is seen as a means for learning. The above studies concern the early years of education since vocabulary is seen as a foundation for the later years. Neglecting the foundation precludes building.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How a System Responds to Change

In the quest for alternative sources of energy, microorganisms can be tapped for the production of biofuels. Some Clostridium bacteria, for example, can produce butanol from the sugar that these microorganisms are fed. This scheme has not reached the desired yield yet to compete with industrial processes. One of the reasons involves unwanted responses from these living systems to the imposed perturbation. The desired product, for instance, when present in significant amounts, can be toxic to the bacteria. The microorganism can also alter pathways in its "chemical factory" that will reverse the process of producing the desired fuel and convert it into a nutrient that the microorganism can actually use. Photosynthetic bacteria also hold promise if the intrinsic ability of these organisms to harness sunlight can be utilized to produce fuel such as alkanes or hydrocarbons. Similarly, in these cases, the bacteria use sunlight to produce its nutrients for growth and survival. Channeling this process into production of something else elicits unwanted responses from the bacteria. Unable to use sunlight to generate its own food because it is forced to produce fuel instead results into the death of the organism. Systems respond to changes. Thus, it is necessary to analyze a system, understand how each component depends on each other, in order to anticipate possible responses to a perturbation that will be introduced.

Public basic education is a system and education reform is a major perturbation. An intelligent reform not only weighs and examines how the proposed changes will improve the system, but it also must put in place good monitoring measures to see in real time how the reform is taking place. Of course, pilot studies are important, but even with the best preliminary studies, problems of scaling as well as transferability still arise. In health care, when a physician prescribes a medicine, follow-ups and tests are usually necessary to monitor how a patient is responding to the therapy. Education is no different.

Recently, France Castro of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) spoke in a forum on DepEd's K to 12 at the Ateneo de Manila Uiversity:

These photos were downloaded from ACT's Facebook page
I was not in attendance in that forum. I do not have a transcript or a record of the presentation given by ACT's France Castro. However, based on the photos above, it is clear that this talk was not about praising DepEd's K to 12. The objections raised by ACT against DepEd's K to 12 have been related in various posts in this blog so it is probably unnecessary to repeat those points here. After all, DepEd's K to 12 is now simply awaiting the president's signature to make it completely legal in the Philippines. The perturbation, after all, has already been applied.

What is worth noting are some of the comments I saw provided by teachers to the photos posted by France Castro on Facebook. Some of these comments may appear to be trivial or "old story". However, these comments do carry very serious implications. The first comment (and this is perhaps expected because of the enormity of the reform) is about not having the materials necessary for the new curriculum. Related to this is the required training for the new curriculum is not reaching all the teachers that need to be trained. Teacher training is done by selection. A principal chooses from the teachers those who would be sent to regional seminars or training sessions and one teacher complains that this scheme plays to favoritism. These are "old stories". So what is new? Keeping the above comments in mind and looking at how language is taught in the new DepEd's K to 12 curriculum leads to serious implications:

The above figure, screen captured from
The above summarizes in a way the language component of the curriculum of Grade 1 in the new DepEd K to 12 curriculum. The lack of materials is important especially when the text for reading is not available in the mother tongue. Without any text to read, there is really nothing in the curriculum that allows students to learn to read. Everything seems oral. Thus, one comment (which I have translated and edited) goes:
...There is no reading in grade one. What will happen to our pupils when they go to grade 2. All they could do right now is to express their ideas by speaking and singing. Is this not the same as kindergarten? Formal lessons in reading start only in grade 2.. I really do not know where this new DepEd K to 12 curriculum will lead us. As they say, it is already here so we might as well embrace and do everything we can....

Friday, February 1, 2013

Quality of Instruction, Not Medium of Instruction

Education involves so many factors. The ideal is a well-controlled data-driven study with quantitative significant testing. This is a comment I heard from a scientist at Johns Hopkins University. This scientist even adds that "Decisions impacting children's future should be based on statistically proven results with at least a 95% confidence level." When I asked this scientist to describe in detail how a study should be performed, the response was:
"I would start simply - just select at least two classes on the first year, assign about equal students in each class at random, and use the method to be tested on one class and the conventional on the other. Use standardized tests before, during and after the school year. Analyze with a paired t-test. All other variables beside the method of instruction should be the same, hence the analysis is only for the effect of the two instructional methods. You can continue this for years...."
Browsing through journals, I found an example. And coincidentally, the first author of the published study is also from Johns Hopkins (different person, though). The paper's first author is Robert E. Slavin. Slavin also writes for the Huffington Post so one could find the following on the Post's website:
Robert Slavin is Director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, Director of the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York (UK), and the co-founder and Chairman of the Success for All Foundation. He is an expert on research-based school improvement, reading instruction, English-language learners, and federal education reform policy. Slavin has authored or co-authored more than 300 articles and 24 books. He received the Distinguished Services Award from the Council of Chief State School Officers in 2000, the AERA Review of Research Award in 2009, the Palmer O. Johnson Award for the best article in an AERA journal in 2008, and was appointed as a Member of the National Academy of Education in 2009 and an AERA Fellow in 2010.
Slavin is one of the world's experts on education research. The paper I came across is from the following journal:

 The following is the title and abstract of the paper:

The study fits the description. This is randomized, students were assigned either to a Spanish medium or an English medium class without prejudice. Parents' permission was obtained for all the students participating in the study but the parents had no say to which class their children would be assigned. All children were pretested in both standardized English and Spanish exams. With the Spanish language, learning resources as well as assessment tools are readily available. The Spanish pretest scores at kindergarten were used to ensure that all the students participating in the study were indeed "Spanish dominant" (Spanish is their mother tongue). The rest of the study took five years. Each year the students take pretests and post tests. And as the abstract above points out: In terms of both English and Spanish tests, there is no difference in learning outcomes between the two languages of instruction. 

The paper is not only useful in that it provides a well-controlled study but it also spends quite some time in its introduction discussing previous studies on multilingual education. The paper correctly notes the lack of consensus among studies in the area. However, the results presented in this paper actually agree with the few reliable long term evaluations of bilingual education that have been done in the past.

The paper also highlights the following important result:
"...Yet in this study, fourth graders who had been taught to read in Spanish from kindergarten to second grade scored nonsignificantly better than those taught only in English on measures of Spanish language and reading."
This is quite similar to non-Tagalog school children in the Philippines doing as well or even better in the Filipino section (which is mostly Tagalog) of the National Achievement Test.

Finally, this study concludes with the following very important statement:

The findings of the present study reinforce the frequently stated conclusion that what matters most in the education ... is the quality of instruction, not the language of instruction... Schools may choose to teach ... in either their native language or English for many reasons, including cultural, economic, or political rationales. Yet the data from this experiment do not support the claims that this choice is crucial for ultimate learning of English or Spanish reading.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Foreign Tongue Based - Multilingual Education

There seems to be something wrong with the title of this post.

A child in Los Angeles, California was asking his mother, “Mom, you don’t understand, I’m going into this classroom, but I’m supposed to be over there because that is where the English speaking kids are.” (http://projects.scpr.org/bilinguallearning/) There are indeed a wide variety of opinions regarding what language should be used as medium of instruction in schools. Preserving and nurturing the mother tongue is, of course, a valid reason for why the native language must be taught in schools. The controversial part is the claim that children learn better with the mother tongue as the medium of instruction in the early years. This is where viewpoints and studies diverge. To find the correct answer to this question is challenging since the medium of instruction is only one of the many factors that can influence learning. High in the list of factors that affect learning is the teacher. A highly motivated teacher can really make a difference and in studies that lack control, oftentimes, the teachers who are participating are those who are innovative, effective and well prepared. Well designed studies in this area are therefore demanding for so many reasons, not to mention the fact that there are ethical considerations since such research involves human subjects. 

There are some scientists who are addressing this question from a physiological basis. In this manner, one is then able to extract the specific question of language learning from a myriad of factors inside a classroom setting. One example is Barbara Conboy, a professor at the University of Redlands in California. Her work has been featured in Southern California's "Bilingual Learning" website (a special report from Southern California Public Radio). Conboy has examined brain activity in both infants and toddlers as these young children are exposed to a second language. This area of research is still emerging, yet the following opinion given by Magary Lavandenz, a professor at Loyola Marymount University, provides insights of what scientists in this area have found so far:

Lavadenz said that as infants get older and are only exposed to certain languages, “we delete those other language sound systems.” 
The brain begins to focus more exclusively on what it is hearing, losing the ability to understand different languages. Conboy said this process is called “neural commitment.”

The brain is committing itself to the languages it is hearing. So the younger a child is, the more the brain will be open to trying to process new sounds and languages. 
The younger brain is simply working on it more than an older child or adult as the child has still not become completely entrenched in a language. 
But as children hear only one language, they “delete” other language systems from their brain, according to Professor Lavadenz. 
That’s why kids who are older when they are immersed in a language they’ve never heard before can struggle. It can require more motivation from the child to stick with it.

Since there are indeed schools in California that now offer "foreign tongue based - multilinngual education", data regarding how a foreign language affects learning are not confined to the brain studies mentioned above. The El Marino Language School is one example. In these schools, children are taught in a target language (different from the child's mother tongue) sometimes as much as ninety percent of the time. These schools participate in statewide standardized tests. Since these programs have been in place for so many years now, test results are available, and students from El Marino scored an API of 931 in 2011. API is the Academic Performance Indicator obtained from the standard tests in California. A score of 931 ranks El Marino as one of the best schools in California (well inside the 90th percentile).  In this school, children receive only 10% of the instruction in English at kindergarten. With each year, the amount of English is increased by 10% so that by fifth grade, the instruction is now 50:50 between the foreign language and English. Of course, one could ask the question of why parents would enroll their children in such a school. Why would a parent whose child had only heard and spoken English send the child to learn Kindergarten in Japanese? There must be something special with these parents. The program of instruction is demanding enough that it may tend to filter the type of families that would avail of such programs. The motivation and participation of parents in early childhood education are known to be important factors. This is the reason why brain studies provide an independent means of extracting the role of language acquisition in a child's education.

To learn more about the role of language in a child's education please visit "Bilingual Learning":

The following is an introductory video from this website:

Thursday, January 10, 2013

"The Costs of the Aquino Government's K to 12 Program"

Anne Marxze D. Umil delivers yet another report on the present state of Philippine basic education in bulatlat.com. The report entitled, "The Costs of the Aquino Government's K to 12 Program", sadly, is probably not going to be widely read. And if the article is read, it is probably going to be ignored. And if not ignored, one of its important messages is very likely to be missed.

We all prefer to hear messages like the one above (These hearts were prepared for me by elementary school teachers in Paete when I visited them in 2004).
However, we need to listen to messages that may not be pleasing to hear, if we are truly committed to improving Philippine basic education.
Umil, in June 2012, already cited how unprepared the government was in the implementation of DepEd's K to 12 in her article, "K+12, Worsening Shortages to Greet School Opening". This had been pointed out by others but the Aquino government and the Congress pushed ahead even with the obvious lack of resources as well as the poor working conditions of teachers. Even among Filipino Americans, objections to DepEd's K to 12 were perceived as hollow criticisms. These people seemed to be irritated by efforts to wake everyone up to reality. Somehow, lofty goals were enough, never mind if these goals were not founded on evidence. It was no longer important if these education reforms were properly planned, efforts were seem adequate. It was already inconsequential to people if the education reforms were in fact going to exacerbate the problems of public school education in the Philippines. At least, people were satisfied enough that the Philippines had a government that was now pretending to be tackling problems in education.

Umil writes in her recent article:
Despite strong opposition from progressive groups, the K to 12 program was still implemented. It worsened the shortages in the public school system: lack of books, chairs, classrooms and facilities, and teachers. Classrooms were divided in half to accommodate the big number of enrollees. Teachers have to stretch working hours to mitigate the shortages. Some students were forced to transfer to the home schooling program to decongest classes.

“Our situation is already difficult. The implementation of K to 12 made our lives even more difficult,” Miss Jane said. She said because there are no regular teachers for Kindergarten, grade one teachers are forced to teach Kindergarten classes. She said teachers are overworked, some are already getting sick and some have opted to resign. Out of frustration, Miss Jane once told her principal, “I would rather be a domestic helper than a teacher to lessen my problems.”
Miss Jane said when the school opened in June last year, 18 sections of kindergarten classes were opened for enrollment. Because there is only one permanent kindergarten teacher, they, grade one teachers, had to take on the load. She said they are being paid P3,000 ($73) for the extra load. Their teaching hours were thus increased from six to eight hours a day. This does not yet include the time they have to spend for preparations. “It is really exhausting. My time for my family is also suffering – I could no longer tutor my own child because of time constraints.
There are also other chores that I still have to do at home.” 
To mitigate the shortage, the DepEd hired voluntary teachers. Some have not yet passed the Licensure Exams for Teachers (LET) and some are licensed teachers who are left with no choice but to grab the job. Because they are either considered as volunteer-teachers or are contractuals, they are underpaid. ACT Teachers Party Rep. Antonio Tinio criticized this as a violation of RA No 7836 or the “Philippine Teachers Professionalization Act of 1994.” Section 27 of the said law provides that: “No person shall practice or offer to practice the teaching profession in the Philippines or be appointed as teacher to any position calling for a teaching position without having previously obtained a valid certificate of registration and a valid professional license from the Commission.” The P3,000 honorarium is even inhumane, Tinio said. 
Miss Jane also said in their school, there are no new books being distributed to grade one pupils. She said they had to make do with the old books and from there get activities that are applicable for grade one pupils. Worksheets for students also came late; the said materials were only distributed to them last August 2012. “The worksheets came late. We had already taken up the topic when it came,” she said. She added that the pages of the worksheets are so thin, it gets easily torn. Worksheets for the third semester have not yet been distributed.
To most of the readers of this blog, the above is old news. However, the more important point of Umil's article that I hope would not be missed is related in the paragraph preceding the above cited section:
Miss Jane (not her real name) another grade one teacher from an elementary school in District 6 also in Quezon City said the K to 12 curriculum made teaching more difficult. This teacher requested Bulatlat.com not to identify her and the school where she is teaching because of fear of being reprimanded by her principal.
Incompetent authority is one thing. Being abusive is another. It does not bode well for Philippine basic education if its teachers are afraid to speak. This is perhaps the biggest cost of Aquino's K to 12 program, the silencing of the opposition. How can we teach critical thinking to our students if we do not allow teachers to think?

Umil has additional points that warrant our attention. To read completely her article, please visit "The costs of the Aquino government's K to 12 program". I highly recommend it.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Vocabulary and Learning

My grandmother used to tell a story about "tibi-tibi". I am not sure how that word is correctly spelled. As far as I understand, "tibi" refers to hard dry stool often associated with constipation. In Paete, Laguna, where sewage mixes with storm drains, "tibi-tibi" is a character that floats with the flow, meeting others in the story as it finds its final destination. I think my grandmother got tired telling the story before I got tired hearing it. Oral tradition was the only way to tell stories then. There were no books, no pictures. I was not required to read, but I simply had to imagine inside my head the scenes and characters portrayed in the story. 

During my early years in school and this continued up till college, I found comfort in mathematics. Especially in first grade, all I had to know are the numbers and the plus, minus and equals signs. Algebra was a shock because I had to read problems to construct the equation. I could solve for x given the equation, but it was difficult for me to formulate the equation from sentences. Throughout high school and even in my early college years at the Ateneo, both reading and writing were particularly challenging. I survived mainly because of calculus, stoichiometry and equations. Even chemistry was difficult until I found myself reading.

Reading and writing are essential not just for literary purposes, but also for content learning. It is thus important to pinpoint what factors are important in developing reading comprehension. We learn both math and science from reading. We learn to relate and reason from what we read, and express this ability as we write. One of the factors that have been identified as a culprit in the achievement gap among learners in the United States is vocabulary. The following data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show a very strong correlation between a child's vocabulary and reading comprehension.

NOTE: The results for grades 4 and 8 are from the 2011 reading assessment, and the results for grade 12 are from the 2009 assessment.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2009 and 2011 Reading Assessments.
About two years ago, a program in National Public Radio, "Closing the Achievement Gap with Baby Talk", highlighted the work of Hart and Risley.

...Hart and Risley embarked on an ambitious research project. They decided they would follow 40 families — rich, poor and in between — for the first three years of their children's lives. Literally, they would record and count the words that were said to these children. 
"We really wanted to know everything that was happening to the kids," Hart says. "Who talked to the child, how long, how often, how many different words were said and how many total words were said. How many past-tense verbs and in what circumstances... 
...Hart says it took close to 10 years to transcribe these tapes so they could be fed into a computer for analysis. But the results were worth it. Hart and Risley discovered many fascinating things about the differences between the way rich and poor families on average speak to their children. 
But in the end, the finding that most struck people, Hart says, was not about the quality of the speech — how often rich versus poor parents asked questions or positively affirmed their children — but about the quantity. 
According to their research, the average child in a welfare home heard about 600 words an hour while a child in a professional home heard 2,100.
The results have been presented in various web sites. The following table shown by the Department of Education at the University of Oregon in its webpage, "Big Ideas in Beginning Reading", is an example.

  1. Emergence of the Problem
    In a typical hour, the average child hears:
    Family StatusNumber of words heardEncouraging words versus discouraging
    Welfare616 words5 affirmations, 11 prohibitions
    Working Class1,251 words12 affirmations, 7 prohibitions
    Professional2,153 words32 affirmations, 5 prohibitions

  2. Cumulative Vocabulary Experiences
    Family StatusWords heard per hourWords heard in a 100-hour weekWords heard in a 5,200 hour yearWords heard in 4 years
    Welfare61662,0003 million13 million
    Working Class1,251125,0006 million26 million
    Professional2,153215,00011 million45 million

  3. Meaningful Differences
    By the time the children were 3 years oldparents in less economically favored circumstances had said fewer different words in their cumulative monthly vocabularies than the children in the most economically advantaged families in the same period of time.
    Cumulative Vocabulary
    Children from welfare families:500 words
    Children from working class families:700 words
    Children from professional families:1,100 words

No wonder, Hart and Risley wrote an article with the title, "The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3". This is just the oral side of the story. The vocabulary of a child is influenced later on in life by reading. Hayes and Ahrens pointed out in a research article (Hayes, D. P. & Ahrens, M. (1988). Vocabulary simplification for children: A special case of ‘motherese.’ Journal of Child Language, 15, 395–410.) that there is a dramatic difference in the distribution of words used between oral and written forms:

Downloaded from Cunnighan and Stanovich, "What Reading Does for the Mind"
The "Rank" shown in the heading of one of the columns above refers to a standard frequency count of about 80000 English words. In this ranking, the word "the" ranks first, "it" is number 10, "know" is 100, "pass" is 1000, and "vibrate" is 5000 ( Cunnighan and Stanovich, "What Reading Does for the Mind"). The column "Rank of Median Word" then provides a measure of how common the words are in a particular communication. Abstracts of scientific articles use words that are seldom used while preschool books employ much more common words. However, the dramatic difference is seen when one compares written against oral communication. Television shows as well as conversations between college graduates do not really surpass children books in terms of richness in vocabulary. The last column lists the number of rare words per 1000 observed in these different forms of communication. Here, comic books are even richer in vocabulary than television shows and expert witness testimonies in court.

The vocabulary dimension of scientific articles sets it apart from all the rest. No wonder, with my limited vocabulary, I had difficulty in college. But enough about me, in light of the above observations, I would raise an additional question, one that was raised by Zanele Buthelezi in "Researchers, Beware of Your Assumptions! The Unique Case of South African Education":
"...There is even a shortage of books written in English. Up to five children can be found sharing a book in a classroom. The situation is worse for reading materials written in indigenous languages. Therefore, “bedtime story” does not exist in the African home vocabulary, especially in rural areas. This situation does not foster the habits of reading for pleasure and, thus, African children are at a disadvantage at school and do not become competent in reading textbooks designed to develop knowledge in different learning areas. The socioeconomic gap becomes even wider when richer children move on to computer-based learning, while poorer students continue not to have access even to ordinary books. Thus, computer technology merely privileges the already privileged. 
Many African parents tell stories from the oral tradition to their children. Folktales are important because they link children with their culture and help them to build a strong identity. But the typical patterns of meaning of oral stories are quite different from those of written stories. The elaboration of characters, events, and settings, and the relation of illustrations and text are highly distinctive in written stories. But an even more significant difference is the role of parent-child interaction in interpreting the meanings and words of written stories (Rose, 2003). Many African children are not exposed to this kind of orientation, which is crucial in preparing them to become independent readers and writers in school. The majority of children in South Africa start school without the necessary preliteracy skills. As a result, they have little concept of what reading means and have not developed the skills that make subsequent acquisition of literacy easier...."
These are important studies, one that should inform us in finding ways to solve problems in Philippine basic education. What does instruction using the mother tongue really require? We simply must have the answer to that question. Otherwise, we are simply jumping from a cliff. In English, the difference between oral and written text is simply staggering. Television shows likewise lack the richness in vocabulary.


By the way, one could improve vocabulary and at the same time donate rice to the hungry of the world:


FreeRice is a sister site of the world poverty site, www.poverty.com

FreeRice has two goals:

Provide English vocabulary to everyone for free.
Help end world hunger by providing rice to hungry people for free.
This is made possible by the sponsors who advertise on this site.

Whether you are CEO of a large corporation or a street child in a poor country, improving your vocabulary can improve your life. It is a great investment in yourself.

Perhaps even greater is the investment your donated rice makes in hungry human beings, enabling them to function and be productive. Somewhere in the world, a person is eating rice that you helped provide. Thank you.