The Language of Tests

by Ruslana Westerlund

I remember sitting in the International Conference on Language Immersion in Education offered by the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition back in 2003 or 2004.  (Forgive me if I am off by a year, I’m writing this from memory.)  Rod Ellis, Fred Genesee, Myriam Met, Elaine Tarone, and many other big names in Second Language Acquisition, language immersion, and ESL education were there.  To a teacher who studied theories of Rod Ellis’ Form-Focused Instruction, Fred Genessee’s young children’s bilingualism, Selinker’s interlanguage, etc., meeting these people in Minnesota, the state where I worked at that time, was a big deal.  I remember telling my husband it felt like the SLA Hall of Fame.  One of those big names I still respect to this day was Lily Wong Fillmore.  She gave a plenary where she was talking about language demands of math problems from the NEAP test and why our ELLs should not be sheltered from the rigorous language used in the academic content standards and tests.  The example she used was:

“A thin wire 20 centimeters long is formed into a rectangle. If the width of this rectangle is 4 centimeters, what is the length?”

Fast-forward to 2008 when my third or fourth grade ESL students were taking the NWEA MAP test.  As an accommodation, I remember reading the math test out loud to them.  It didn’t help a thing.  Zilch. Was this a culturally-biased item?  No. Was this text too long to process?  No, most of the math items had about one  or two sentences of text in them and most of my ESL students didn’t do well that year and the year after.

What’s going on here?  Shouldn’t accommodations help ELLs?  Shouldn’t we be giving them extra time (not really because most tests are not timed)?  Shouldn’t we be reading math so that the math test does not become a reading test to them? Shouldn’t we be administering tests in small groups to alleviate anxiety? Or maybe we should have translated the math item into their first language and that definitely would have helped. Well, not really.  Not unless they studied math in their first language which was not the case for these children.  The answers to the previous questions depend on many factors.  It depends on the reading level of ELLs and on their time in country, their literacy in L1 and their level of schooling in L1. These students were reading just fine.  They were reading short stories and fiction just fine.  They were fluent readers all around.  They were reading math items at a 100 words per minute and yet they were not getting them.  Here is my brief linguistic analysis of the math problem stated above.  Should we be simplifying the language of math and getting straight to the computation?

NAEP 7th Grade Math Problem
NAEP 7th Grade Math Problem

Now let’s go back to my ESL days: what was happening in the ESL classroom?  What language was I teaching them?  I’m not very proud to tell you, but I wasn’t teaching the complex sentences to my ESL students.  I remember chunking the complex sentences into two simple declarative statements and feeling successful that they “got it”.  One key factor here is that these were ELLs in 4th grade who were born in the United States. They didn’t need sheltering.  They were not newcomers from a refugee camp learning to hold a pencil or write using word boundaries marked with spaces between words using their thumb.  These were level 3 or 4 (out of 5) readers and writers.  And I was teaching them simplified language.  I was supporting the mainstream grade-level curriculum, but I was sheltering my students from the academic language.  I wanted them to get the content because they needed help in math.

Does this sound familiar?  Why is that a problem?  Now re-read the math problem above and the linguistic analysis.  Should you turn the passive voice into active?  Go ahead and try it.  You can’t.  Why?  Because in science and math the agency is hidden because we often don’t know the agent, i.e., who performed the action.  Should you break up the complex sentence with a conditional clause and just write it as two simple sentences?  Go ahead and try.  Language of math requires complex clauses to communicate mathematical ideas.  We can’t superimpose the genre of fiction of stories to communicate like a mathematician.  Our ESL students are fed a steady dose of simple stories and miss out on the nuances of language used in math word problems, in science lab reports, and in social studies chronology of events.  So, in my classroom, what materials were my students exposed to?  I actually remember them.  They were Houghton-Mifflin reading series and there was that set of books for the ESL kids, remember?  Two months into the school year, my students were bored reading them.  They were too easy for them, too sheltered, and devoid of challenge.

“The materials that are so greatly simplified that they provide virtually no exposure to forms and structures of academic language they should be learning.” Lily Wong Fillmore

Let’s think about the language of tests.  Yes, we can bash testing and standardized this and standardized that and the nauseating levels of accountability.  We can have another blog to talk about that or just read Diane Ravitch.  In the meantime, as a teacher who is reading this blog, you can tell me that I don’t have the energy to start picketing in front of the White House against standardized testing, I have kids who deserve to do well on those tests, and I need to do what’s within my control.  Here is what is within our control.  We can no longer shelter our children from the language of power, the language of testing, and the language of graduation.  We have to teach the language of complex thinking and abstract knowledge.  Lily Wong Fillmore explicates this more in The English They Need for The Test.  She wrote this back in 2004 and we are still struggling to convince our leadership and teacher education programs about the training our teachers need to learn about the language of schooling.

And to conclude my post, I’ll share from our all time favorite Jeff Zwiers (click to enlarge):

Zwiers language must be emphasized


Ruslana Westerlund, Reclaiming The Language Blog Author

Ruslana Westerlund, Ed.D.   Ruslana has almost 20 years of ESL teaching experience at the K-12, undergraduate and graduate level.  She is a proud immigrant from Ukraine who is fluent in 3 languages and has a rudimentary level of German.  She is blogging to reconnect with teaching.  

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