Conversations with Tim: Educating and supporting multilingual learners 

From left: Tim Boals, Katie Stenz, Merideth Trahan and Kenji Hakuta.
From left: Tim Boals, Katie Stenz, Merideth Trahan and Kenji Hakuta.
April 12, 2022

This edition of Conversations with Tim features a discussion between Tim Boals, WIDA founder and director, and Kenji Hakuta. Kenji is a professor emeritus in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. Throughout his career, Kenji focused his teaching and research in the areas of education of English language learners, second language acquisition, education policy and practice, and research methods.

Tim and Kenji joined Merideth Trahan, WIDA chief of staff, to talk about Kenji’s reflections on multilingual learner education – touching on what he’s observed and where we are today.

Listening option: Listen to the audio here or continue reading this abridged version of their conversation, which has been lightly edited.

Tim: You spent much of your career researching language acquisition connected with bilingual education. What brought you to this work in the first place?

Kenji: This was in the 1970s – just to put a time marker on the decade we're talking about. I was an undergraduate not knowing what I wanted to study, and I was taking a linguistics course and got interested in syntax and phonology. The process of argumentation was the most exciting part of linguistics at that time, but the evidence base was English. Being a native speaker of Japanese, I thought about how there is an equivalent of the argument in Japanese. I came to the realization that English is a very word order, rigid language, whereas a lot of other languages, like Japanese, have particle endings that allow word order to be flexible. That got me interested in the perspective that other languages can add to the field.

What got me into bilingualism was working with Courtney Cazden when I was at Harvard University. Having exposure to Courtney was big! Three of her students were doing case studies of kids learning a second language and I started engaging with them and did a small case study with a Japanese child learning English. That got me interested in the contrast between first and second language acquisition.

Tim: From the 70s, tell us about one or two significant changes that you've observed with respect to multilingual learners and their education.

Kenji: I think the shift from Title VII to Title III – from what was essentially a grants program where grants went to schools or school districts to a formula-type program – was an important one. The other [change] is the shift to the standards and accountability approach that became prevalent in the late 80s into the 90s. The implications that had for English language proficiency assessment was quite major because, in addition to identifying students who are English learners – which was the role of the early tests, it became about alignment to standards and the assessment of student achievement.

Tim: By the time No Child Left Behind came in, you had the English proficiency standards being required and also that alignment or – as Gary Cook, WIDA senior director of assessment, likes to say – the correspondence to the academic standards. That really kicked in at a whole new level.

Kenji: Some of the very first assessments were essentially assessments of vocabulary. We've come a long way from those kinds of assessments to trying to assess alignment to standards that support students meeting the academic and language proficiency standards.

Tim: And from those days of being focused on the syntax and the grammar and the form of the language, we've come into an era where we're focused on language function and the socio-cultural context in which language is used.

Kenji: And I think we are meeting a natural limit of what assessments do, which is assess independent, individual kids. As the field moves to thinking about dyads and collectives of kids, and culture and socio-cultural approaches, assessment runs into the limit of you can't expect assessment of individual kids to be able to assess their socio-cultural competence. I think that's going to introduce some exciting new challenges to how you do assessment because it's not an assessment of individual capacity, but of how participation in groups is supported in the learning environment.

Merideth: Tim, is that something that our WIDA ELD Standards Framework, 2020 Edition addresses and will be of interest when we align our assessments to the new framework?

Tim: What we’re trying to do with our standards is as much instructional influence as it is assessment influence. If anything, Gary Cook would say the 2020 Edition probably makes it harder for us to create test items. Our genuine focus in the 2020 Edition is looking at instruction in the classroom and how we can help teachers create engaging spaces for students to learn. That's very socio-cultural in its nature. And encouraging teachers to focus less on the form of language and more on the function of language.

Kenji, how do we ensure moving forward more fidelity within language support programs in their implementation – that bridge from policy to practice?

Kenji: Capacity development. The mechanisms that we set up for monitoring and imposing accountability only get so far and won't get any farther than the capacity of people. The real challenge is the variation that you get in local capacity, local commitment, local will, and the role that local and state school boards play. To build capacity, you need to decide that the world is full of mostly people who want to do good things. The problem of policy to practice is how do we build on better trust. That’s going to lead to better collaboration structures and stronger capacity.

Tim: When you say building capacity, it's right back to that notion of professional learning for teachers and getting to the school level.

Kenji: Right, and the school network – the people who are well networked and big influencers within a system, be it at a school, district, or collection of districts. You don’t have to build capacity in everybody through mandated training, you need to think about enabling strong leaders who could move a system through leveraging their networks.

Tim: That's a very good point. I think we have often forgotten the role of the school leader and the district leader in promoting the kind of change that we'd like to see.

Merideth: Tim, what resources does WIDA have to build capacity for multilingual education?

Tim: We have the WIDA Español program! We have the Can Do Descriptors in Spanish, which are called Los descriptores Podemos. And there are Spanish Language Development Standards, those are not mandated by any federal law but they're out there to guide teachers. And the new Marco ALE, which is a Spanish Language Arts Framework. I know that there have been a lot of bilingual teachers that have told us how excited they are about these resources, so we are updating and expanding them. In particular, with respect to the role of native language to bilingual programs. That's something we're really excited about!

I think that is a great lead into my final question. Kenji, how do you see the importance of the role of native language and native cultures in classrooms – in terms of helping students, helping develop student identity and creating those kinds of dynamic classes and experiences for multilingual learners?

Kenji: Language is one of the most important manifestations of identity and culture. The real challenge is that the U.S. doesn't have a language policy. So, there's very little context in which you can think about language rights or the linguistic value of languages other than English. How I think about it is if we have 1,000 flowers blooming and it's the celebration of and recognition of language assets at the local level, that doesn't get negated by state or federal laws and policies and constraints on resources. For example, you don't want federal laws that say you can only do this in English. However, to advocate and push for change within a civil rights/equity framework starts getting tricky because of the fact that we don't have any statement about language policy or language rights. Ultimately, my answer is that [language] is extremely important, but you have to be cautious in going about doing it and making sure everybody's on board.

Tim: What I hear you saying is that we wouldn't necessarily advocate for stronger federal policies – if you're using the sort of thousand flowers approach. Having there be an openness to the law that allows local schools to do the right thing might actually be a better approach than trying to mandate.

Kenji: Right now, I think that's the best we can do. In the best of all worlds, people will recognize that the kids we serve are the future glue of the world. These are kids who have one foot in one language and the other foot in the other. That is what's going to help us survive this fragmentation that's going on. We have to recognize them as incredible resources to enable them to keep the world together.

Tim: That’s a nice note to end on, Kenji. They are incredible resources. That fits in with the whole can do spirit we try to promote at WIDA. And to say, value the multilingual learners in your classroom and try to create environments for them that honor who they are, their languages, their cultures, and to move them forward.

About Conversations with Tim 

Conversations with Tim, WIDA Founder and Director is a WIDA news article series that features a conversation between WIDA Founder and Director Tim Boals and a colleague or two in the field of multilingual learner education. Together, they discuss the important innovation, research and collaboration taking place today.

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