Center for Expansion of Language and Thinking

CELT, founded in 1972, is a nonprofit educational corporation, international in scope, whose members believe in the principles of education for democracy with a focus on natural language learning and inquiry.  These principles are supported by beliefs in learners and learning, teachers and teaching, and language and curriculum.  The members of CELT are dedicated to the improvement of education through a greater understanding of the relationship between language, thought, and learning.

  CELT includes a rich diversity of people who share similar beliefs about language and learning but have widely varied background experiences.  CELT members are university educators, independent consultants, school administrators, and teachers.

Bilingual Learners

Principles that Help; False Assumptions that Harm

Bilingual learners, by and large, have received fragmented and disempowering instruction.  For the most part, their instruction has been based on a set of damaging assumptions about bilingual students and how they learn. Below are listed seven of the assumptions that have hindered school success and ultimately limited the potential of bilingual students. Each assumption is contrasted with a whole language principle. When teachers develop language curricula that are consistent with the whole language principles, they expand their bilingual students' potential for success.

False Assumptions That Harm Bilingual Learners

1. Learning proceeds from part to whole.
2. Programs should be teacher-centered because learning is the transfer of knowledge from the teacher to the student.
3. Schoolwork should focus on the future.
4. Learning occurs when students work alone.
5. In a second language, oral language acquisition precedes the development of literacy.
6. Limited English speakers have limited learning potential.
7. Learning should take place in English to facilitate the acquisition of English.

Whole Language Principles That Help Bilingual Learners

1. Learning proceeds from whole to part.
2. Programs should be learner-centered because learning is construction of knowledge  by the student.
3. Schoolwork should have meaning and purpose for the student now.
4. Learning occurs when students engage in social interaction.
5. In a second language, oral and written language develop simultaneously.
6. Learning potential is expanded through faith in the learner.
7. Learning should take place in the first language to build concepts and facilitate the acquisition of English.

False Assumption #1: Learning goes from part to whole.

Traditionally, second language teaching has been fragmented with lessons focusing on the teaching of isolated vocabulary words, grammar rules, or sounds of the target language. Although it may seem logical that learning a second language should proceed from these small parts to the whole, and while it then would seem doubly logical that second language teaching should proceed in that way, it is not accurate.

Actually: Learning goes from whole to part.

Our brains are constantly trying to make sense of the parts we are given. We continually try to figure out what the whole is. When second language learners are taught parts of a language outside the context of functional language use, they are often at a loss as they try to put the parts together. Learning is easier when students get the big picture, the whole, first. The whole gives students a framework, the border for the puzzle, and the parts can then be fitted inside. 

False Assumption #2: Programs should be teacher centered.

Since second language learners do not know English and the teacher does, there is often a temptation to have teacher-centered instruction rather than a learner-centered classroom.

Actually: Whether or not students know English, they must still construct their knowledge for themselves.

What all learners rely on as they build new knowledge and learn is the knowledge, interests, and outlooks they already have. That is why student centered programs make so much sense. They acknowledge that language minority students know a lot; they just do not speak English. Student-centered programs build upon the fact that bilingual learners have many stories to tell and will do so eagerly when given the opportunity to talk about their experiences. In many whole language classrooms, immigrant students write their personal histories and, in this way, are able to show their background knowledge, their creativity, and learn English at the same time. Learning is easier when it starts where the students is rather than where the teacher is.

False Assumption #3: Schoolwork should focus on the future.

All too often the curriculum is centered on the future. Students are told to learn because "someday, you are going to need to know what is being taught today."

But actually: If students see a use for something now, they are more likely to learn it.

Therefore, whole language teachers plan curricula so that students have a function and purpose for what they are doing now. These teachers have found that students learn more easily when what they are learning fits into something they are doing  or interested in right now (e.g., students are more open to coaching on how to hammer when they  are building something; they are more receptive to instruction on how to read maps  when they are trying to get somewhere; they concentrate on learning to give directions  when they want someone else to do something, etc.) Learning is easier when students see a purpose in what they are learning and when they can make choices among assignments that serve their present needs. 

False Assumption #4: Learning takes place as students work alone.

Because it is wrongly assumed that bilingual learners might teach each other poor habits in speaking English, classes are generally structured in ways that isolate students from each other. Students are isolated when they sit in straight rows and answer the questions the teacher asks. They are also isolated when they sit in front of computer screens and answer questions on the new electronic worksheets computers can generate endlessly. 

But actually: Researchers have shown that group work facilitates language learning.

Working with others gives bilingual learners more opportunities to use language. It  also improves the quality of the language used and motivates learners to use language  in meaningful ways. In whole language classrooms, bilingual students work together on projects to explore topics of interest to them. They investigate questions by reading together and talking together, and then they write up their findings and also present their findings orally to others. Learning happens more readily during social interaction.

False Assumption #5: Oral language develops before written language.

Traditionally, second language teaching has moved from listening to speaking to reading and then to writing. The assumption has been that oral language acquisition precedes the development of literacy, especially for second language learners.

But actually: Researchers looking at the development of literacy in bilingual children have shown that students benefit from being exposed to oral and written language--listening, speaking, reading, and writing--from the beginning.

Many second language learners read and write before they speak or understand oral language. Moreover, students' speech improves with the help of literacy and vice versa. Learning is easier when oral and written language develop together.

False Assumption #6: Limited English proficient students have limited learning potential.

There is a tendency to underestimate the potential of second language learners because they do not speak English or because their backgrounds are different from the mainstream.  Sometimes, teachers or administrators view individual immigrants and immigrant groups as all the same, as a kind of "problem" that must be solved. 

In contrast, whole language teachers have faith in their students.

They recognize that when they revalue their bilingual learners, those students can begin to revalue themselves.

False Assumption #7: Learning should take place in English.

It seems logical that if we want students to be fluent in English, we should teach them in English.

But actually: Research shows that using students' primary language is the fastest way to both English proficiency and academic competence.

Whole language teachers advocate the use of a second language learner's first language in school for several reasons (1) bilingual students build important background knowledge and concepts in their first language, and these concepts transfer into English; (2) bilingual students come to value their own language and culture; and (3) bilingual  students maintain important family ties and become valuable bilingual members of  the larger community.

Teachers make learning easier for their bilingual students by rejecting false assumptions and developing language programs consistent with the whole language principles outlined here.

False Assumption #8: Parents of bilingual learners can't read English, don't care,  and don't work with their children.

Parents are often blamed for their children's lack of success in school. It is believed that parents' culture and language are the reason for a perceived lack of concern in the academic progress of their students.

But actually: Parents are very interested in their children's education experiences and want their children to be successful.

Parents of bilingual learners are willing and eager to help their children learn English so that they can be successful in their endeavors. They view their culture and native language as resources that maintain their respect and dignity.


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©CELT, 1991. Revised, 1998. A project sponsored by the Center for the Expansion of  Language and Thinking (CELT), c/o CED, 325 E. Southern, Tempe, AZ 85282. CELT Crisis Hotline: 602 929 0929. This statement may be photocopied for distribution.

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