Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism – Colin Baker

(en español)

Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism - Baker 2011

As I entered a bilingual preschool classroom I found myself filled with excitement, but also a little bit nervous.  It was a new group of students, a new program I had never been in before, and a new teaching model I had never experienced before.  I was to be one of two English language models in the classroom that also had two other teachers that were Spanish language models.  This is the classroom version of what Baker calls “The ‘one-person – one language’ parental approach in a family,” which he describes as “a well-documented and often successful route to bilingualism” (Baker 2011, p. 113).

It wasn’t long before I found myself well-adjusted in the classroom and fitting in with the language model well.  However, as Baker describes, “there is often a difference between formal policy and the informal practice of codeswitching, with ‘center stage’ and ‘back stage’ choices” (Baker 2011, p. 287).  While I spoke primarily English in the classroom as per our official policy, I would occasionally code-switch into Spanish for a variety of reasons with both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking students.  I noticed this trend among all four teachers in the classroom.

Baker reveals that “codeswitching is a frequent behavior among bilinguals, with a variety of valuable purposes and benefits” (Baker 2011, p. 112).  For myself, I relied on code-switching with Spanish-speaking students to help build a connection with them and help them feel more at ease around me, and also to insure understanding of difficult concepts or during times of stress.  I code-switched into Spanish with my English-speaking students to increase their exposure to Spanish, particularly during times of the day when we were doing a small group activity without one of the Spanish-language models.  After all, Baker tells us that “understanding (and speaking) a second or third language quickly grows once there is sufficient exposure and incentive” (Baker 2011, pp. 104-105), and by using more Spanish with my English-speaking students I provided that exposure.

However, the incentive seemed to be lacking.  The children knew that I was an English-language model and that, if they didn’t understand me at the time, they could rely on me for English a short time later when I switched back into my official role as English-language model.  As Baker states, “If language mixing by the teacher occurs, students may wait until there is a delivery in the stronger language, and become uninvolved at other times” (Baker 2011, p. 228)  Several months into school the year we noticed that the English-speaking students were not progressing in their Spanish as rapidly as we were expecting.  Most of the children were very reluctant to tell stories that included any Spanish, and even when they did they limited themselves to a handful of words.  For example, by late January Sally’s attempt at telling a story in Spanish included only three words:

My Little Pony Babies

Once upon a vez there was a princesa.  And her name was Aurora.  And another one was a mermaid.  And her name was Ariel.  Then another day there were 3 princesas.  They were ponies, but not people or princesses.  Then there was 10 My Little Ponies.  Baby ones.  Baby Applejack, baby Twilight Sparkle.  And then there was Rainbow Dash and Pinky Pie and Fluttershy.  And then so don’t forget Spike.  And then that’s The The End.

Baker reveals that “education cannot be separated from issues of power that affect the lives of bilinguals” (Baker 2011, p. 335).  In our society in general, it is the English language that is the language of power.  One of the reasons we conjectured for the difficulties of the English-speaking students related to the fact that, for a successful bilingual program using our language model, “The numerical balance of native speakers and learners of a minority language is important, possibly tilted to a predominance of minority language speakers” (Baker 2011, p. 305).  Our program, however, was tilted to a predominance of majority language (English) speakers.  While fifteen of the 32 students in the class listed Spanish as being spoken at some level in the home, only three students had Spanish listed as the primary home language.

We needed to do something to offset this balance toward English, and Baker gives us a clue as to the solution when he states, “the dominance of a majority language outside school can be complimented by a corresponding weighting towards the minority language in school” (Baker 2011, p. 223).  The teachers-as-language models approach in our classroom provided equal exposure to both languages in the classroom.  What we needed to do was change the model to favor exposure to the minority language (Spanish).  We did this with a time-based model, using Spanish three days a week and English two days a week.

An unforeseen, yet perfectly logical phenomenon resulted almost immediately from this change.  I began to notice the children engaging in more collaborative language exploration.  As Baker tells us, “Language learning is partly about becoming socialized through interaction with other language speakers in particular social contexts” (Baker 2011, p. 133).  Amanda, one of the quietest and most reserved children in the classroom, but one who also loved to tell stories, had never created a story that included any Spanish.  The day after the new language model officially went into effect, she created a story together with Ammon, a child who had recently begun exploring Spanish in his three most recent stories.  Though this was an English day, Ammon continued his exploration of Spanish by including it in this story as well, while all of the parts that Amanda told were entirely in English:

The Lion Ate the Bunnies

Once upon there was a little bunny.  And then there was a lion.  And then the bunny ran away.  And then there was a tiger.  And then the tiger ate the bunny.  The lion saw a other bunny and ate it.  And then uno conejo y pues una lion.  Then there was 100 bunnies.  And then there was another bunny.  And then there was a lion.  And then there was eleven bunnies.  And then the lion ate the bunnies.  The End.

Sally quickly latched onto the idea of creating stories together with other children, and the following day, Sally and Amanda created a story together:

Cat [Sally] [Amanda]

Hoy a gata.  And then it went all the way to [Sally].  But [Amanda] was the owner.  But [Sally] was the mom.  And dos gatos came.  And una vez una flower bought there was a big grande monstruo named Teacher Jeff.  But uno vez and dos gatos came again.  And then there was a kitten, a baby one.  And it went to its mommy [Sally] mamá cat.  And they love each other.  And the baby kitten was named [Amanda].  But dos más grande Teacher Jeff.  Love you, love you, love you, love you, love you, love you, love you, love you, love you, love you.

A word count reveals this story to be a whopping 16.67% in Spanish, a huge leap from Sally’s high of 6.78% from before the shift in language model, and Amanda’s 0.00%, and this time both children were using Spanish during the parts of the story they told.  In fact, by the time a month had passed from when we announced to the children that we would change the language model, Sally was creating collaborative stories that were as much as a quarter in Spanish, with herself contributing a great deal of the Spanish (as with the following story she created with Brandon, a child with less experience creating collaborative stories, in which the only Spanish word Brandon contributed was “plantos”):

Plants Versus Zombies

Once upon a time there were zombies.  And then there was plantos.  Then a cherry bomb came and explode the zombie.  Then there were sunflower with sun.  And una vez una grande monstruo como [Brandon].  Then there were still more bombs and explode the bad guys.  Then one hundred zombis como se llama [Brandon], [Brandon], [Brandon], [Brandon], [Brandon].  Then [Brandon] came and eated all of the zombies.  Then [Brandon] comió todos monstruos.  And they save everyone from the zombies and monsters.  To be continued…

The striking thing about this story is not just the quantity of Spanish used, but the sentence structure.  She’s using descriptive language (i.e. “grande monstruo como [Brandon]” – big monster like Brandon) and verbs conjugated appropriately for past tense (i.e. “[Brandon] comió todos monstruos” – Brandon ate all monsters), while at the same time continuing with the flow of a story that is engaging, with a clear beginning setting the stage, heightened tension in the middle, and an ending that resolves the conflict and sets the stage for the possibility of more in the future.

As for Amanda, the collaborative language exploration she was doing with other children helped her Spanish growth so much that she too, like Ammon, began including Spanish in her stories, even on English days.

Elsa and Anna

Uno vez Elsa.  And then there was Anna.  And then Elsa froze Anna.  And then there was Hans.  And then Hans got killed by Anna.  And then Anna and Elsa married with the prince.  Then Elsa said it was Anna’s birthday party.  And then there was Kristof.  And then Anna and Kristof married.  And then Olaf ate the cake.

By changing the classroom language model, we implemented an effective tool toward helping children on their road to bilingualism.  Baker tells us that “To allow students to make progress in both languages, there needs to be strategic classroom language planning” (Baker 2011, p. 288), and our conscious adoption of a new method served as that planning.


Next month I will most likely be looking at the book From Lullabies to Literature (Birckmayer, Kennedy, & Stonehouse 2008).  If there is a book you would like me to discuss in my blog please comment on the Recommended Reading page.



Baker, C. (2011). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism, 5th edition. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Birckmayer, J., A. Kennedy, & A. Stonehouse. (2008). From lullabies to literature: Stories in the lives of infants and toddlers. Washington, DC: NAEYC.


Documentar la vida de los niños y las niñas en la escuela – Rosa Sensat

Documentar la vida de los niños y las niñas en la escuela - Sensat 2011(in English)

He pensado mucho en cuál libro a leer para el regreso de este blog. Creo que es importante que discuto la observación de los niños en la clase, porque este blog es sobre mis observaciones con relación a los libros que leo. Pues, leí el libro Documentar la vida de los niños y las niñas en la escuela (Sensat 2011), mostramos nuestras observaciones de los niños por medio de la documentation.

He enseñado en muchas clases a través de los años, y los niños han aprendido mucho. Pero yo también he aprendido mucho por mis observaciones. Y también los niños, si lo saben o no, me han enseñado mucho. Como dice David Altimir, “los niños y los adultos tienen que estar, para aprender, en relación con los demás” (Altimir 2011, p. 38). Los niños y yo tenemos que estar en relación mutua. Cuando yo pienso en lo que los niños dicen, cuando yo reflexiono en lo que pasa en la clase, cuando yo hablo con mis estudiantes sobre mis reflexiones, nosotros ambos aprendemos. Una forma de observar los niños es escuchar. Altimir dice, “La escucha pone al adulto en la condición de observador, pero no de observador neutro y objetivo, sino en la condición de un elemento subjetivo que forma parte de la realidad que está observando y que no solo la describe, sino que construye” (Altimir 2011, p. 39).

En una de mis clases, Irene iba a clases de ballet. En el invierno yo observé a ella bailando el ballet de “Cascanueces.” A ella le gustaba contar historias de balet de no ficción. Ella me contaba frecuenemente sobre una “prima balerina” que necesitaba cirugía en su pierna y no podía hacer ballet por mucho tiempo.

A Irene también le gustaba contar historias de ficción sobre princesas. Una vez ella empezó una historia que yo pensaba fue una historia de ficción. Empezó así, “Una vez estaba una balerina. Y ella era una princesa. Y ella tenía una hermano. Que quaría la hermana. Y después estaba otra hermana. Y ella no era una balerina. Ella era una reina. Y ella se llamaba Isabella.” Pero ahora ella se detuvo la historia. Ella me dijo que no pudo recordar. Le dije, “No tienes que recordar. Tienes que imaginar.” Pero ella me dijo, “No quiero.”

La actividad de contar historias usualmente es una actividad de una dirección. Los niños cuentan, y yo escribo. Es una forma de observar por escuchar. Pero Mara Davoli revela que “’observar’ es un verbo activo, un acto creativo que requiere nuestra interpretación” (Davoli 2011, p. 16).

Cuando Irene me dijo que no quería imaginar lo que seguía en su historia, tuve que actuar en la observación. Pues, tuvimos una conversación.

Irene: El hermano no estaba una prima balerina. ‘Cause I forgot [Porque me olvidé].

Jeff: ¿Sí?

Irene: Don’t write that down [No escriba eso].

Jeff: ¿Qué, qué era el hermano?

Irene: Él, then, so, do you know Cristoran Col- Columbust [pues, conoces a Cristoran Col-Columbust]?

Jeff: ¿Quién?

Irene: Cristonal Canaldis.

Jeff: No ¿Quién es?

Irene: There was two sisters. Isabella was younger. And her mom was again named Isabella. And, um, and, um, she had two older brothers. Yeah. And, um, she had so many, like, goldens. And Cristobal Canaldis came. And he s- wanted to buy two boats. Three boats. First, there wasn’t anything here. They didn’t know about Sfran Ticisco. Yeah. [Hubo dos hermanas. Isabella era menor. Y su madre también se llamaba Isabella. Y tenía dos hermanos mayores. Y tenía mucho oro. Y “Cristobal Canaldis” vino, y él quería comprar dos barcos, tres barcos. Al principio, no había nada aquí. No sabían sobre “Sfran Ticisco”. Sí]

Jeff: ¿Dónde, de dónde estaba?

Irene: There wasn’t anything and they didn’t know about Fran Francisco. And Cristobal Columbus wanted, and he was going to get all the way there. And going to see, see, para ver. [No hubo nada y no sabían sobre “Fran Francisco”. Y Cristobal Colón quería, y él iba a ir todo el camino allí. Y iba para ver]

Jeff: ¿Y él vino a San Francisco?

Irene: Sí. And there was just water. And he putted all the gold into it. In there. And then people took some. And then they died. [Y sólo había agua. Y él puso todo el oro adentro. Adentro allí. Y pues la gente llevó algunos. Y pues murieron.]

Jeff: Awww…

Irene: I don’t think so [No lo creo].

Jeff: Porque, porque estaba hace mucho mucho tiempo, ¿sí?

Irene: Sí. Antes que personas, antes de esto estaba aquí. Antes una vez estaba aquí.

Ella contaba la historia de Cristobal Colón, pero yo cambié la historia por mis preguntas. ¿Qué era el hermano? ¿Quién es “Cristonal Canaldis”? ¿De dónde estaba? ¿Él vino a San Francisco? ¿Estaba hace mucho tiempo? Pero toda esta conversación no estaba parte de la historia escrita, porque ella me dijo que yo no escriba. Ayudó a ella pensar en su historia, y cuando ella regresó a la cuenta después de esa conversación, ella supo lo que quería decir.

Esta fue la historia completa, con el título A Long Long Time Ago [Hace mucho mucho tiempo]: “Una vez estaba una balerina. Y ella era una princesa. Y ella tenía una hermano. Que quaría la hermana. Y después estaba otra hermana. Y ella no era una balerina. Ella era una reina. Y ella se llamaba Isabella. Y lo dió responeras a Cristobal Colón. Y él fue a los barcos. Y quiere estuvió en San Francisco. The End.”

La documentación de la historia escrita fue una buena documentación, pero no era completa. Para entender toda que la niña decía, necesitamos la grabación también, porque la grabación de la conversación revela cómo ella hizo la historia. Irene escuchó a la grabación, y podía reflexionar no sólo sobre lo que había hecho, sino también sobre cómo lo había hecho, que es muy importante para aprender. Como dice Davoli, “Hacer es importante, pero no es suficiente. Hay que permitir a los niños y niñas, y a nosotros mismos, tiempo para reflexionar sobre lo que se ha hecho y sobre cómo se ha hecho” (Davoli 2011, pp. 18-19).

Escuchar la documentación no sólo ayuda a Irene reflexionar en sus pensamientos, sino yo también. Pienso en mis preguntas para Irene. Hay cinco preguntas importantes en aprendizaje: Quién, Qué, Dónde, Cuándo, Por qué. Yo pregunté Quién (¿Quién es ‘Cristonal Canaldis’?), Qué (¿Qué era el hermano?), Dónde, (¿De dónde estaba?), y Cuándo ( ¿Estaba hace mucho, mucho tiempo?), pero no pregunté “Por qué”, pregunta muy importante. Mientras reflexioné en la documentación, miré que yo pudiera preguntado “¿Por qué vino a San Francisco?”, o “¿Por qué necesitó tres barcos?” Quizás con esta pregunta ella pensara más.

Es importante que observamos los estudiantes, pero también es importante que reflexionamos en lo que observamos. Rosa Sensat dice “no es posible documentar solo, porque sobre lo documentado es necesario un diálogo, es necesario que el otro o la otra pueda comprender, hay que estar dispuesto a desnudarse y a aceptar la crítica” (Sensat 2011, p. 11), entonces yo quiero un diálogo aquí si es posible. Por favor hacen comentarios sobre lo que piensan de esta discusión.

El mes que viene más probable estaré discutiendo el libro “Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism” por Colin Baker (2011). Si haya un libro sobre que le gustaría que yo escriba en esta blog, por favor haga comentario en la página de Lectura Recomendada.


Altimir, D. (2011). Escuchar para documentar. En R. Sensat (Ed.) Documentar la vida de los niños y las niñas en la escuela (págs. 37-51). Barcelona, España: Octaedro.

Baker, C. (2011). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism, 5th edition. Bristol, RU: Multilingual Matters.

Davoli, M. (2011). Documentar procesos, recoger señales. En R. Sensat (Ed.) Documentar la vida de los niños y las niñas en la escuela (págs. 15-26). Barcelona, España: Octaedro.

Sensat, R. (2011). Documentar la vida de los niños y las niñas en la escuela. Barcelona, España: Octaedro.


White Teacher – Vivian Paley

(en español)

White Teacher - Paley 2000

The local library had recently added some toys to the children’s section. There was a large number of blocks in a variety of colors, but there were only two dolls: one White and one Black. Most of my students, however, were neither White nor Black. I recall seeing Jonathan, a Vietnamese student, playing with the Black doll one day. He was holding it very gently and carrying it around as any parent would their own baby. I smiled inwardly at the sight as I went to go help another child locate a book on a shelf. A moment later I noticed a commotion between Jonathan and Samuel, a Pakistani student. I went to see what was wrong, and now I saw Jonathan holding the White doll, while Samuel was holding the Black one. Jonathan said that he didn’t like the other doll because it was “brown.”

At first I wasn’t sure how to respond. Vivian Paley discusses how her training and her colleagues had brought her to the point where “I was unable to mention color in the classroom” (2000, p. 9). It was a taboo subject, so when the topic came up among children (as it typically does in a diverse classroom), she did not know how to approach it. In Jonathan’s case, I needed to get to the heart of his concern. As Paley states, “doll corner play at its best contains some of the freest expressions and most thoughtful observations in the kindergarten” (2000, p. 84). I needed myself to remain thoughtful and not react spuriously to Jonathan’s statement, so I asked him to clarify his desires. He told me that he wanted the doll that looked more like him.

Unfortunately, the reality was that neither doll looked like him. The White doll may have been closer in skin tone, but the facial features were far from being representative of Jonathan’s own face. Paley tells us that “The challenge in teaching is to find a way of communicating to each child the idea that his or her special quality is understood, is valued and can be talked about. It is not easy, because we are influenced by the fears and prejudices, apprehensions and expectations, which have become a carefully hidden part of every one of us” (2000, p. xx). How could I value Jonathan’s desire to find a doll he could identify with while not encouraging prejudice against those dolls that did not share his features.

I feel it would have been easier in some ways if Jonathan were White. I think about the term “White privilege,” and the idea that racism is an institutionalized oppression of a minority group by a dominant group. That is familiar territory. Ever since I was a child I have felt that oppression of minorities by a majority group is wrong, and I would speak out against racism when I saw it. For situations of expressions of identity by members of a minority group I instead applied the term “nationalism,” recognizing this as a means to confront the oppression that they face.

My years of teaching in diverse classrooms have helped me to realize, however, that nationalism is not necessarily a positive quality to promote. In this instance the nationalism I was observing was a member of one minority group seeking to express his identity by devaluing another minority group. As with Vivian Paley, I felt that “teaching children with different cultural and language experiences kept pushing me toward the growing edge” (2000, p. 112). I needed to rethink my approach to interracial and intercultural conflict in the classroom. The diversity of my classroom provided an opportunity for me to help the children address some deep-seated biases toward other minority groups.

It is important to help children see that, despite superficial similarities, underneath everyone is unique. As Paley states, “Friendship and love grow out of recognizing and respecting differences” (2000, p. 131). However, perhaps more important is helping children see that, despite superficial differences, underneath everyone is alike. As Paley suggests, “it’s a source of comfort to be able to identify with someone else’s feelings” (2000, p. 124). If I can help Jonathan see that beneath the differences are common interests perhaps he can grow to welcome the diversity in his life. I spoke to him about how some of the children he plays with are brown and that everybody has different skin tones. I pointed out two children he often enjoys playing with, both of whom had darker skin that Jonathan. I drew attention to Michael, an Ethiopian student, and to Samuel, the child with whom he had been in conflict that day. One day in the middle of the following week Jonathan spontaneously came up to me and said, “My Daddy is brown.” His father is also Vietnamese, but has a darker skin tone than Jonathan. This unprovoked statement of fact revealed to me that he was seriously taking to heart the conversation we had in the library that day.

Paley states that “children know they are each different in style and story; they listen eagerly and identify with one another’s separate visions of pleasure and pain, of strength and weakness, of love and loss. In their play, they reveal the intuitive and universal language that binds us all together” (2000, p. 135). As teachers it is our role to become a part of that story, to become a part of that binding. The more we can help children see that, though differences exist, there is something greater that makes us all human, the more we can help them to create a better world in which they can become agents for social justice and change.


Next month I will most likely be discussing The Night Is Dark and I Am Far from Home by Jonathan Kozol (1990). If there is a book you would like to see me discuss in this blog please comment on the Recommended Reading Page.



Kozol, J. (1990 [1975]). The night is dark and I am far from home: A bold inquiry into the values and goals of America’s schools, revised edition. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Paley, V.G. (2000 [1979]). White teacher. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Reading Magic – Mem Fox

en español

Reading Magic - Fox 2008

I recall attending a workshop on multicultural children’s literature. The presenters had a table displaying a large number of books. I instantly recognized a couple of them from a distance, but it wasn’t until I got closer that I realized that every single book was depicting African Americans in the illustrations. I recall wondering at the outset of the workshop why they were depicting only one culture in a workshop about multiculturalism.

Mem Fox indicates that “The more we read aloud to our kids and the more they read by themselves, the more experience they’ll have of the world through the things they encounter in books. And the more experience they have of the world, the easier it will be to read” (2008, p. 104). If we are only exposing children to books of their own culture, how are we going to help children to get that greater experience of the world?

The workshop presenters teach in a classroom with all African American children. They discussed the metaphor of books as both a mirror and a window, allowing children to see themselves as well as to open their eyes to new experiences. They presented these two images as side-by-side, with one graphic showing a full-length mirror and the other graphic showing an open window. As I considered this, I wondered if it might be more appropriate to consider books as a closed window, where one can see one’s own reflection in the glass imposed on a new landscape.

The challenge of finding appropriate multicultural books, then, is one of finding books which both speak to the experiences of a child while at the same time introducing them to new worlds they have not yet seen. A closer examination of the books in the workshop revealed that they all accomplished this. Fox states, “Entertainment is the teacher. Subtlety is the key” (2008, p. 53). Though the themes represented a wide variety of subtle concepts, they were all entertaining to the presenters’ students partly because they all depicted characters that the students could connect with.

This is where I have a dilemma. While books depicting African American characters are not as common as those depicting white characters, it has become possible to find a significant number of them. But in my classroom, the majority of my students are Vietnamese. Very few books depict the experiences of a Vietnamese child growing up in the United States in a way that allows children to connect with them. On top of the cultural disconnect, there is also the issue of language.

Having books in the languages that children speak are immensely valuable as well, not only for the ability of children to connect to the text, but also for children to build a foundation of understanding of the written word. As Fox reveals, “The more we know about a language… and the more of that language we know, the easier it is to read it” (2008, p. 87). Books that are not only bilingual but also bicultural are very valuable, but also very rare. I have in my classroom books that were written in English, and later translated into another language due to the popularity of the book. Much fewer are the books originally written in both languages by authors who represent the cultures. Most of the books that I have in my personal children’s library that meet these conditions tend to be very text-heavy and written for older children.

Fox tells us that “if every parent—and every adult caring for a child—read aloud a minimum of three stories a day to the children in their lives, we could probably wipe out illiteracy within one generation” (2008, p. 12). But this entails there being books available to read to the children. Not just three token books, but three genuinely engaging books because “It will do more for a child’s literacy to own one much-loved, beautifully written, trouble-filled book than to own lots of tacky, unappealing books in which the child shows no interest” (2008, p. 135).

My challenge, then, as a teacher, is locating such books. Given the scarcity of these books, I decided that I needed to remedy this. I approached a Vietnamese friend of mine with a proposal to create a children’s book together. With his expertise in Vietnamese culture and my understanding of what is appealing to children, we have drafted a book together that my students could connect with. But then we were faced with the problem of illustrations. Neither of us is very skilled at drawing.

This presented a major dilemma, as Fox reveals that “The pictures tell a thousand words and help unlock the action of the story” (2008, p. 58). I know that many publishers provide beginning authors with established illustrators to help increase the visibility of the book, but I worried about the lack of Vietnamese illustrators. How would someone unfamiliar with the culture depict a Vietnamese household? And what would we do if we are not able to find a publisher?

With the help of another one of my Vietnamese friends, I located a couple of artists in Vietnam who seemed interested in the project, but they quickly removed themselves from the project when they realized the intensity of work involved in illustrating an entire picture book. I decided to take my cue from one of my favorite children’s authors, Nina Crews, and utilize photographs to depict the backgrounds. At the time of this post I have currently completed illustrations on about 15% of the book using computer-generated character illustrations imposed on photographic backgrounds.

The text has already been translated into Vietnamese by my co-author, and I once asked the mother of one of my Vietnamese students, Danny, to read it to him. As she began to look at the text, she started to tell me that it would be too difficult for him. I found that interesting because the very same text had raised concerns from my co-author about possibly being too simple. As Danny’s mother began reading, I saw the excitement of recognition in his eyes as she read words to him that were unintelligible to me, but occasionally elicited excited exclamations from him in English that demonstrated understanding of the story. Fox tells us, “there’s no doubt that little kids—and big ones—love being read aloud to” (2008, p. 26). If this story, unillustrated, can provoke such enjoyment in Danny, I can only imagine what his response will be when the illustrations are added.

I have mentioned in a previous post my attempts at reading to the children in Vietnamese. Without my understanding of the language, my attempts met with humorous excitement from the students, but I am now fairly certain that they were just humoring me when they told me my pronunciation was right. Even if I was pronouncing it accurately, Fox makes it clear that “Reading isn’t merely being able to pronounce the words correctly, a fact that surprises most people. Reading is being able to make sense from the marks on the page” (2008, p. 79).

I have taken multiple steps to help remedy this. On one account, I recently began learning Vietnamese after assisting my co-author in developing a free online course for Vietnamese speakers to learn English. My fieldwork getting translations in various dialects helped build my awareness of resources available in my neighborhood to learn Vietnamese. But not all of my students speak Vietnamese, and after Micah, an Amharic-speaking student, raised his objections to my offering to read a book in either Spanish, English, or Vietnamese, I invited his mother to come read the book to the class in Amharic. Ever since then, our weekly trip to the library has usually been accompanied by a different parent come to read to the children. At times other children in the library have sat down to listen to the reading as well.

It’s wonderful to see such engagement from the children in the reading process. As Fox makes clear, “if we’re able to raise happier, brighter children by reading aloud to them, the well-being of the entire country will ramp up a notch” (2008, p. xii).

Next month I will most likely be discussing the book Learning and Not Learning English by Guadalupe Valdés (2001). If you have a book that you would like to see me discuss in this blog please comment on the Recommended Reading page.



Fox, M. (2008). Reading magic: Why reading aloud to our children will change their lives forever, updated and revised edition. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Publishing.

Valdés, G. (2001). Learning and not learning English: Latino students in American schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Teaching in 2 Languages: A Guide for K-12 Bilingual Educators – Reyes & Kleyn

(en español)


Teaching in 2 Languages - Reyes, Kleyn 2010Since I first began teaching more than seven years ago, I have had students who have spoken more than a dozen languages.  My students over the years have spoken Amharic, Arabic, Cantonese, English, French, Hebrew, Hindi, Korean, Mandarin, Polish, Punjabi, Spanish, Tagalog, Urdu, and Vietnamese.   According to Sharon Adelman Reyes and Tatyana Kleyn, “All teachers can and must find ways to show students that their languages and cultures are not just valuable tools for learners, but valuable parts of who they are” (2010, p. 39).  I have always valued the diversity of my students and sought to learn bits of their languages while they were in my care, and in more recent years have encouraged my students to do the same.  By demonstrating an interest in their language, I am also demonstrating that it has value and helping to curb the attitudes such as those found by Josie Freeman and Rebeca Madrigal in which “Not all of the families believe that learning their native language is an asset to their academic and personal growth” (2010, p. 124).

Because of my investment in connecting with my students and learning the languages spoken in my classroom, I am generally able to find parents willing to mentor me in their language.  But one year is not enough time for me to become fluent in a language from these few bits and pieces picked up from students and their families before they move on to another classroom.  Greater depth is needed and, while my community may predominantly use one culture or another, it is always but a pocket within an English-speaking world and my encounters with my mentor parents are too sporadic to be effective.  The act still held value in that “When we consider carefully what families bring, by conducting home visits or even just by asking questions, we find that parents can contribute to a wide range of content areas by sharing their real-world experiences” (2010, p. 146), but for my personal path as a language learner it was not enough.  I used to speak Spanish fairly well in early childhood, but even that language has eluded me through these basic interactions.  As Reyes and Kleyn reveal, “when there are aspects that differ from one language to the next, explicit instruction becomes necessary” (2010, p. 98).

However, language instruction programs usually require either attending classes (which can be complicated to work into a schedule that already includes both college and teaching), or paying a great deal of money for programs like Rosetta Stone.  However, just over four months ago I discovered a free program called Duolingo.  It was created only about a year before I found it, and its educational model uses translation of sentences to teach the language.  As you become more advanced you are encouraged to help translate articles from the internet (regular readers may have noticed over the past several months that I have been adding comments to my older posts which read “Thanks to the assistance of the Duolingo language community, this post is now available in Spanish / Gracias a la comunidad lingüística Duolingo, este publicación está ahora disponible en español”).

I was skeptical of the instructional model in the beginning.  After all, based on my knowledge of language instruction I feared that translation-only instruction was not an effective pedagogical method.  Elizabeth Silva indicates that it is also important to “incorporate links to prior knowledge, preview unfamiliar vocabulary, and provide visuals” (2010, p. 129).  However, as I was making a dedicated effort to learn the language, and I didn’t limit myself to Duolingo’s pedagogical strategies, I found it to be quite an effective primary learning tool.  I continued to follow my usual course of trying to learn all the languages of my students, including Spanish, by talking to them and their families.  I would also occasionally call up my Chilean relatives, play games like Scrabble in Spanish, and engage in online conversations in Spanish with other Duolingo users.  I found that as time went on I was able to communicate more and more effectively with my Spanish speaking students and their families.

I vividly remember the moment one of my students came up to me out of the blue and asked me, “¿Qué estás haciendo?” to which I replied, without even realizing the student had spoken in Spanish, “I’m putting away the food.”  We both laughed when we realized what had just happened.  Not only does this moment reflect a defining point of progress in my own development, it also represents one in that student’s as well.  When I first met this student they had attempted to deny that they spoke anything other than English.  Since that time the student has not only acknowledged that they speak Spanish, but even gotten to the point of code switching in the classroom.  Reyes and Kleyn reveal that “The extent to which a person actively alternates between cultures determines the ease with which competency in both cultures will be maintained” (2010, p. 33).

In addition to the language learning strategies I have already mentioned using to help me learn Spanish, I have also taken to reading to myself in Spanish.  At first it was a few books from my collection of children’s books, but the vocabulary in those books was rather limited.  While I realize that, as Reyes and Kleyn reveal, “learning vocabulary, unlike learning the phonological or morphological system of a language, is a never-ending process” (2010, p. 76), I wanted to do as much as I could to facilitate my vocabulary growth as I reached the more advanced stages of the structural knowledge I gained from Duolingo, so at a certain point I made a decision that I would find something with more advanced language that would also captivate my interest.  After asking a few bilingual teachers and getting suggestions that only partially appealed to my interest, I discovered that a book written in Russian and translated twice into English, and one that was the topic of the post that launched this blog, was available in Spanish as well.

As I read Vygotsky’s Pensamiento y Lenguaje (2012) in the classroom during our independent reading time, many children have taken to looking at it as well.  The idea that “children need to read to learn and not only learn to read” (2010, p. 69) is reinforced when the children see me reading an informational text and they decide to pick it up themselves, not because it has exciting pictures as the other books in the classroom do (which it does not), but because reading is an inherently noteworthy act.

It is my hope that, after taking a trip to Mexico to solidify my conversational skills this summer, I will obtain my bilingual endorsement and begin truly learning yet another language spoken by my students.  Duolingo has helped me to see that it is possible to learn a complete language rather than just a few simple words and phrases that are useful in the classroom.  Seeing how much I have learned from Duolingo in Spanish, I am constantly in search of bilingual people to help Duolingo develop courses for some of the other languages spoken by my students.  Currently it only offers courses in four of the fifteen languages mentioned at the beginning of this post, with bilinguals currently contributing to two others.  That leaves another nine languages with no foreseeable means to learn them in the same manner as I have now learned Spanish, but perhaps by the time I have learned those six languages the other nine will either be available or I will have discovered another free pedagogical source as effective as Duolingo.

In the meantime, I will continue reading and learning in Spanish.  I hope to have finished reading Pensamiento y Lenguaje in time to make it the topic of my one year anniversary blog post next month, which I hope to write in Spanish as well.  If you have other books you would like to see me discuss in the future, please comment on the Recommended Reading page.


Reyes, S.A. & T. Kleyn. (2010). Teaching in 2 languages: A guide for K-12 bilingual educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Vygotsky, L.S. (2012 [1934]). Pensamiento y lenguaje (J. Itzigsohn, Ed. & Tran.). Tlaxpana, México: Ediciones Quinto Sol.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature – Steven Pinker

(en español)

The Blank Slate - Pinker 2002 I have recently engaged in several conversations with people from outside of the field of early childhood education in which the conversations turned to the topic of nurturing.  These conversations have caused me to stop and think.  What does it mean to be a nurturing teacher?  How does that differ from the role of a nurturing parent?  How does my maleness impact both my ability to be nurturing as well as society’s interpretation of the nurturing role that I play?  What forms of nurture occur outside of the family and instructional environment to impact children’s growth and development?

A Nurturing Family

In his book, The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker argues that there may be no impact of nurture whatsoever on a person’s personality development.  He suggests that “the nongenetic component of personality is the outcome of neurodevelopmental roulette” (2002, p. 397) and that personality is shaped largely by random chance and not by any environmental factors.  While the idea that environment has no impact on personality may seem a bit extreme, Pinker makes the point that we need to view children not as “lumps of putty to be shaped,” but instead as “partners in a human relationship” (2002, p. 399).

Does this mean that we should not nurture our children?  Of course not.  Pinker suggests that a nurturing parental role is an essential part of this human partnership.  As a teacher, I see my students as my family, my children.  I see the children’s parents as extensions of my own personal family.  This bond is so strong that I am still in touch with the families of students even from my first year of teaching, now nearly seven years ago.

Pinker warns that “Family love indeed subverts the ideal of what we should feel for every soul in the world” (2002, p. 245) because “the balancing of competing interests that governs all human interactions does not end at the door of the family home” (2002, p. 251).  But he also suggests that, as with my extension of my students as part of my family, human beings in general have this capacity to widen their circle of definition for family, and that this capacity can ultimately serve a globally unifying purpose.

According to Pinker, “The observation that people may be morally indifferent to other people who are outside a mental circle immediately suggests an opening for the effort to reduce violence: understand the psychology of the circle well enough to encourage people to put all of humanity inside it” (2002, p. 320).  In answer to the question of what it means to be nurturing, I see it as having the emotional sensitivity to widen that circle and provide care for others as though they were family.

The Male Nurturer

With this definition of nurturing in mind, it should come as no surprise that human males have nurturing capabilities, particularly when Pinker points out that “the male of Homo sapiens differs from the male of most other mammals in a crucial way: men invest in their offspring rather than leaving all the investing to the female” (2002, p. 252).  In other words, one of the characteristics of our uniquely human nature is the nurturing capacity of our males.  This would seem to run counter to many of the ways men are encouraged to view themselves.

If asked to list the characteristics of masculinity, most people would probably be unlikely to include ‘nurturing’ on that list, whereas it would likely be one of the first characteristics of femininity.  In fact, if the two lists were to be put in a Venn diagram, the overlapping section would likely have little, if anything, written in it.  The reality, as Pinker points out is actually strikingly different.  “Men and women have all the same genes except for a handful on the Y chromosome, and their brains are so similar that it takes an eagle-eyed neuroanatomist to find the small differences between them” (2002, p. 344).

So why, then, is there a fear of men in nurturing fields?  I have repeatedly been advised to be wary of physical contact with children.  Sometimes it has come in the form of cautionary warnings, and other times it has come in the form of direct mandates not to allow the children to sit in my lap or not to change diapers or assist at potty-time.  It always comes from a benevolent place where they are providing me these cautions “for your own protection,” but I can’t help but wonder what message it sends to the children when the men who care for them are not engaging in a number of inherently nurturing acts that are regularly engaged in by women in the same position.  If people are trained from childhood to view gender roles in this manner, the discriminatory values will be passed on to the next generation.

While I disagree with Pinker on a number of his interpretations of contemporary cognitive theory, there is one point he makes that I absolutely agree with him on.  “One ought not to assume that the default human being is a man and that children are an indulgence or an accident that strikes a deviant subset” (2002, p. 358).  When we delegate nurturing roles solely to females, particularly in a society that, by and large, does not place value in those roles, we are creating a division that promotes discrimination and subjugation.

Next month I will be discussing the book Nature Education with Young Children, edited by Daniel R. Meier and Stephanie Sisk-Hilton.  If you have a book that you would like to see me discuss in this blog please comment on the Recommended Reading page.


Meier, D.R. & S. Sisk-Hilton. (2013). Nature education with young children: Integrating inquiry and practice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Making Content Comprehensible for English Language Learners: The SIOP Model – Echevarría, Vogt, & Short

(en español)

Making Content Comprehensible for English Language Learners - EJust over a quarter century ago, I was attending a grade school which specialized in language instruction.  My sister was in the French track and I was in the Spanish track.  My parents both spoke Spanish, but when I was in third grade my family moved to a different neighborhood, necessitating my transfer to a different school the following school year.  My new neighborhood was predominantly Puerto Rican, and I remember being excited at the start of fourth grade when I had learned that the new school offered ‘bilingual’ instruction.

But the term was a misnomer.  It was unidirectional language instruction for only native Spanish-speaking students learning English.  Native English-speaking students with some Spanish background like myself were excluded from these classes, and my classmates in the non-‘bilingual’ classes did not speak Spanish in the classroom or in the social settings in which I interacted with them.  As a result, my Spanish proficiency suffered.  Jana Echevarría, MaryEllen Vogt, and Deborah J. Short reveal that “students have a greater chance of mastering content concepts and skills when they are given multiple opportunities to practice in relevant, meaningful ways” (2013, p. 175).  My second elementary school denied me such opportunities, and I am now trying desperately to regain the language that I lost so many years ago.

As a teacher I always make an effort to learn some degree of the languages of the students in my classrooms.  While I do not do so with the expectation of attaining fluency before the children leave my care, I feel it is important for my students to have exposure to languages beyond English, and the more I can do to help facilitate children learning the languages of their peers the better.   As Echevarría et. al. point out, “When we know students’ backgrounds and abilities in their native language, we can incorporate effective techniques and materials in our instructional practices” (2013, p. 4).

Of course, as an early childhood educator, I have students that may not have complete mastery over their native language either.  Certain academic terms, such as the days of the week, are still difficult even for native English speakers in my classroom, due to the nature of the concepts to which they refer.  These are some of the items that I focus on learning in the children’s home languages.  As Echevarría et. al. suggest, “if we can give them the gist of what they will be learning in English beforehand through their native language, we can then build on that (new) prior knowledge, and, with careful lesson planning, advance their language skills and strengthen that content knowledge” (2013, p. 47).

Such efforts to learn the students’ home languages have added benefits beyond merely the instructional purposes in the classroom.  Echevarría et. al. point out that “teaching from a culturally responsive perspective is especially important” (2013, p. 66).  By learning some basic elements of students’ home languages I am able to take limited steps toward crossing some of those cultural barriers, and the students’ families certainly take notice, as can be seen in the following reflection I wrote following a home visit with a 4-year-old Vietnamese student:

Jason’s home visit today was a little bit awkward in the beginning.  The language barrier impeded, but his mother’s English skills were sufficient that it wasn’t an extreme impediment.  I think when I used the little bit of Vietnamese that I know (to say the days of the week when I was counting with Jason how long until the field trip) helped her feel more comfortable knowing that she wasn’t the only one who was struggling with a new language.  She was impressed by the little bit that I did know.

For Jason’s family, the fact that I had taken the effort to learn even a small degree of their language made a huge difference in the remainder of the home visit.  However, for this to happen, the challenge arises as to how to learn those bits of the language.  I spoke in my August blog post about my attempts to learn Amharic by attending Ethiopian restaurants.  But sometimes resources can be much closer at hand in the form of co-workers and even students with more advanced English skills.  Echevarría et. al. support the need for “clarification of key concepts in students’ L1 by a bilingual instructional aide, peer, or through the use of materials written in the students’ L1” (2013, p. 157).

The use of written materials is an important element.  Even though my preschool students are as yet unable to read, exposing them to the written forms of their home languages is crucial.  When, in a home visit with Jason’s classmate Jessica, her Ecuadorian mother asked her what her favorite book at school was, Jessica responded that her favorite book was Nieve (Mayer, 2006), a Spanish language book that I had recently read to the class as written while also translating key elements of the book into English for the students who did not speak Spanish.

Indeed, I make many efforts to include books in the classroom that represent a wide variety of languages.  I recall at one point having three versions of Bill Martin Jr.’s Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See (Martin, 1996) in the classroom, including one which had Vietnamese translations alongside the original English (Martin, 2003).

Echevarría et. al. state that, “Students should be active in developing their understanding of words and ways to learn them” (2013, p. 75).  I decided to take advantage of the classroom’s diverse literature to help build the children’s awareness of language and activate their curiosity and exploration of linguistic features.  We did not have a Spanish version of Brown Bear, but one day as I read the English version to them, I translated as much as I could into Spanish, asking Jessica to help me fill in the names of the animals that I didn’t know.  A few days later, I made an attempt at reading the Vietnamese version of the book.  While I could not understand a single word that I read, I relied on the fact that Vietnamese is mostly phonetic in its written language.  Every time I paused to check my pronunciation, Jason confirmed, amid his laughter, that he could understand everything I was saying.

By engaging in readings in multiple languages, I was helping the students to make associations between their native languages and other languages they encounter in their daily lives.  By doing so in relationship to books that the children enjoy, I was also exposing children to “Authentic, meaningful experiences [which] are especially important for English learners because they are learning to attach labels and terms to things already familiar to them” (2013, p. 43).

Next month I will most likely be looking at The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker (2002).  If you have a book that you would like me to discuss in this blog, please comment on the Recommended Reading page.


Echevarría, J., ME. Vogt, & D.J. Short. (2013). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP® model, Fourth edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Martin, Bill Jr. (1996). Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? (E. Carle, illus.). New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Martin, Bill Jr. (2003). Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? English and Vietnamese Edition. (E. Carle, illus.). London, UK: Mantra Lingua.

Mayer, C. (2007). Nieve: Observemos el tiempo. Portsmouth, HN: Heinemann.

Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York, NY: Penguin Books.