Developing the Potential of All Students

September 2009

An interview with Professor of Education at Stanford University Guadalupe Valdés on the challenges of teaching English language learners.

Guadalupe Valdés is a senior partner in the Carnegie Network, advising the Foundation in its new work, especially on issues around students who are English language learners. She has written that “as American educators we have a choice, we can isolate English-language learners in our educational institutions or we can choose to develop the full intellectual potential of all our citizens and future citizens.”

As Carnegie begins its work on increasing the success of developmental mathematics students in community colleges, understanding the characteristics of the students is an important component. The Foundation recruited Valdes, who is one of the most eminent experts on Spanish-English bilingualism in the United States, to shed light on the teaching and learning challenges with this segment of the student population. She is currently the Bonnie Katz Tenenbaum Professor of Education at Stanford University.

Valdés was interviewed by Carnegie Communications Director Gay Clyburn.

A different way to think about teaching English language learners

Clyburn: You are collecting information for us on “non-English-background” students in community colleges. Why?
Valdés: It is a population of students that we can’t overlook. I want to make the point that there is no typical ELL student. I’m using the term “non-English-background students.” These are:

This category of students includes students of many ethnic backgrounds with various linguistic backgrounds and proficiencies, making it difficult to design courses or programs for any one student. These are students who speak only English (although members of their family may speak a non-English language), students who speak English and their home language, and students who are in the process of learning English.

Clyburn: This sounds complicated.
Valdés: Linguistic proficiencies are very complicated. Some students who are monolingual in English may speak heavily accented English. This often results in their being characterized as English-language learners. Some students who speak both English and their home language may still exhibit some limitations in listening, speaking, reading and writing English. Other students are clearly English language learners who are in the process of acquiring the language.

Clyburn: Do these students represent a large percentage of the community college student population?
Valdés: They do. The American Association of Community Colleges reports that minority students constitute 30 percent of community college enrollments nationally, with Latino students representing the fastest-growing racial/ethnic population. Think about these statistics alongside the fact that community colleges serve almost half the nation’s undergraduates. These are gateway institutions. And the completion statistics are tragic. In a 1988-2000 sample of students who entered higher education through a community college with the expectation of completing a B.A., only 15 percent of Hispanics (compared to 26 percent of whites and 9 percent of blacks) had completed the degree by the year 2000.

Clyburn: What is the scope of the mathematics and language project you’re doing for Carnegie?
Valdés: I’m examining the ways in which language proficiency is related to mathematics achievement. I’m initially looking at the literature and I am collecting data from three California community colleges. I hope that this information will provide a snapshot of non-English-background students and the broader challenges they face in community colleges.

Clyburn: Are you finding that there is a lot of information available.
Valdés: Not really. Most of the work on math and language has not focused on community college students and has not disentangled language proficiency from ethnicity, socioeconomic status, use of non-standard dialects and other social and cultural variables.

Clyburn: So, what’s missing? What do we need to think about as we look at teaching developmental math in community colleges to non-English learners?
Valdés: We need to be aware of the role of language limitations in the study of mathematics. We need to look at instructional delivery systems, both face-to-face and online. We need to look at text materials, classroom activities and assessment systems. Little information has been collected on students’ language characteristics and on the relationship between these characteristics and their success and/or failure in particular academic departments and courses.

Clyburn: How are you getting at this information in your study?
Valdés: We’re talking to administrators, faculty and students. We’re asking administrators to talk to us about their perception of Latino students, policies that might impact the students and factors that might affect student success. We’re asking instructors to tell us about the classes they teach, about Latino students and their performance in their classes, factors that account for that performance, the language proficiencies of Latino students, and particular topics that they consider “language laden.” And we’re talking to students about their experiences in studying math and in a typical math class, their performance in math classes, their use of support services, their experience with assessments and the placement process, the language background, and the impact of their language proficiencies on the learning of mathematics.

Clyburn: What are you finding?
Valdés: We’ll know more when the study is completed, but initially we’re finding that administrators and faculty have little awareness about how ESL policies and developmental math policies might interact. Two colleges have multi-level ESL course sequences required before students can enroll in the regular English multi-level developmental sequences. That’s asking students to do a lot of work before they can even take a college credit-level course. We’re also finding that administrators, faculty and students have different explanations for students’ low achievement in developmental math—none of them related to instruction. And not surprisingly, students express doubt and concerns about their English. Word problems in mathematics are especially challenging for ESL students.

Clyburn: Based on what you know now, what needs to happen to reverse the statistics, to ensure success in mathematics classes for non-English background students in community colleges? What do we need to do differently?
Valdés: There are no easy answers to this problem. And there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. The first thing we have to do is to have more accurate information about students’ backgrounds, both educational and linguistic. We need to press for the use of better assessment and placement procedures. We also need to press for more communication between academic departments (e.g. mathematics departments) and faculty and staff who are knowledgeable about language development. We need to be particularly sensitive to the ways in which computer mediated materials might interact with the reading and writing abilities of English language learners