An Evening with Mimi Met! Discussing Language Growth in Immersion Classrooms

The ACIE Newsletter, November 2002, Vol. 6, No. 1

By Amy Egenberger, Immersion Educator and Co-Active Life Coach, Minneapolis, MN

Eighty-eight immersion educators and supporters from the Twin Cities metro area turned out on a Friday evening last April to engage in professional dialogue inspired by guest speaker, Dr. Myriam Met. That so many attended this event after a long week of teaching speaks to the commitment and enthusiasm of immersion teachers, their hunger for immersion-specific professional development opportunities, and the popularity of Dr. Met. Exploring the relationship among literacy, academics, and language proficiency, the discussion encompassed information about and approaches to improving student learning in immersion classrooms.

Designed to support professional dialogue and promote connections across boundaries, the event was hosted by Park Spanish Immersion School in St. Louis Park, Minnesota and members of the Twin Cities Metro Area Immersion Network (MAIN). As participants socialized and connected with their peer professionals, the energy of the room came alive with animated inquiry and conversation about the unique combination of issues in immersion teaching.

Director of K-12 Initiatives at the National Foreign Language Center in Washington D.C., Dr. Met brings a wealth of experience and passion for the growth and development of immersion education. She served as Coordinator of Foreign Languages for Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland for fifteen years and, previously, was Foreign Language Supervisor for Cincinnati Public Schools, gaining experience in planning, implementing and supervising language programs. Because of these leadership roles, Dr. Met brings vision and experience in planning, implementing and supervising language programs. Her knowledge, humor and compassion resound with her audience.

Dr. Met’s address began with acknowledgement of how things have changed and improved in our field. Through trial and error and some important research, we have learned more about good teaching and learning. Where the premise once was that language learning results as a byproduct of learning content, we now know that content teaching on its own does not provide language teaching. Key questions now point to improving instruction in both content and language. How can we be good language teachers in the immersion classroom, making good content lessons into good language lessons? During the presentation, Dr. Met spoke to a variety of questions vital to immersion teaching.

Why is it important to encourage student language use in speaking and writing?

Dr. Met highlights literacy, as research findings suggest, as the key tool for content learning, for successfully gaining, storing, interpreting, and retrieving information. With oral language as its cornerstone, literacy is also the primary vehicle for language development beyond childhood. Distinct from merely the language used for learning, literacy combines thinking and information in such a way that understanding of content results. Moreover, linking oral language with literacy is key for understanding, because, Dr. Met argues, "it’s when kids are pushed to talk about what they understand that they come to understand."

What kinds of language do children need?

Expanding students’ "lexical loads" is critical for both oral language and literacy development. Students’ knowledge of word meanings needs to be developed in several categories—subject matter vocabulary, which is linked to content knowledge, general academic vocabulary, which includes the words that make texts or discourse "academic," and general vocabulary. Teachers need to help students expand their vocabulary by teaching them word families and helping them to see lexical connections. For example, when words begin with "habl..." in Spanish or "parl..." in French, their meaning will have something to do with talk or speaking. Explicitly drawing students’ attention to these base morphemes is useful. In addition, Dr. Met identified the importance of exposing students to various text types that are important for academic success. For example, narrative, expository, persuasive, and procedural texts need to be read differently according to their varied purposes.

Expanding on Think, Pair, Share: An Instructional Framework for Scaffolding Oral Language Use by Integrating Oral and Written Modalities. (Reconstruction of an overhead from Dr. Met’s presentation.)

Is it better to use culturally authentic texts or U.S. texts in translation?

In considering the question of using authentic texts versus U.S. texts in translation, Dr. Met reminds us to consider the instructional purpose we have identified for selecting a particular text. Because cultures express and organize thoughts in different ways, the textual presentation of information is different and must be read differently. Reading is harder when readers don’t have the background knowledge or cultural understanding necessary for understanding culturally authentic texts. At the same time, such texts can be valuable because they provide an authenticity of native language and culture that translated texts cannot provide. Dr. Met calls teachers to ask key questions. For example, is the text intended for developing vocabulary, for helping students to develop strategies for approaching a challenging text, or for attaining content knowledge? "What will my students know and be able to do after this lesson that they didn’t know or couldn’t do before? What evidence will let the teacher know?" Such inquiry shapes and improves instructional choices and needs to accompany text selection.

If literacy builds on oral language and oral language builds on literacy, what is recommended for immersion instruction?

Challenging the accepted notion that literacy builds on oral language, at least within an immersion setting, Dr. Met suggests that all four language learning skills, listening, speaking, reading, and writing be introduced at the same time from kindergarten on. One way Dr. Met suggests teachers create opportunity for this integration is with the "Think-Write-Pair-Share" strategy, for example (see diagram on this page). Students’ oral skills are supported by and strengthened along with the other three modalities. That is, writing down one’s thoughts and listening to and reading others’ ideas serve as scaffolds for students to produce oral language. Because learners build oral language proficiency by using the language, we need to push students to talk, but, Dr. Met cautions, too often teachers don’t provide the necessary support for students to produce extended oral language. The "Think-Write-Pair-Share" strategy provides the necessary support and shows how the four language skills can build on one another to further language development.
Dr. Met referred to a California study in which students were encouraged to write before producing oral language. Students used trial and error, dictionaries, and collaboration to draft their work on the computer. From there, student performance was used by the teacher to determine what needed to be taught.

How can teachers encourage students to increase their use of the immersion language and decrease their use of English?

Dr. Met sees it as essential for the school culture to hold the use of the immersion language as a shared value by acknowledging the ease, power, and status of English while overtly creating esteem for L2. This means that at the school level, all teachers need to make a commitment to using the immersion language not only in the classroom with students but throughout the school day with colleagues and others. For adults to say, for example, that "Sure English is easier, and I value Spanish so much that I choose to speak Spanish," communicates that there is room to honor both languages. Choosing to use the immersion language oneself and expecting the same from others promotes the use of the immersion language by everyone in the school community.

What works best for correcting errors in students’ oral language?

Self-correction is encouraged. It is important for the teacher not to correct that which is beyond the understanding and development of the student. Dr. Met points out that when the teacher recasts a student response, the student often hears this as simply being understood and the error persists. She suggests that we refer to the studies done by Roy Lyster and others on the how and when of corrective feedback.

In closing, Dr. Met notes that never before has it been so important to be bilingual, if not multilingual. Never before has the work of immersion education been so crucial. She deeply appreciates the hard work that immersion teachers do every day!

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