Integral to the curriculum as well as the identity of The New Century School is language learning. We are by now well aware of the many kinds of social and cognitive benefit that multilingualism confers (but check out our Resources page if you’d like a refresher!). However, as Head of TNCS Lower School Alicia Danyali understands, staying abreast of the best practices in teaching language is critical.
That’s why she attended a cumulative 5-day training called “The Can Do Philosophy and the Guiding Principles of Language Development” that took place at the Johns Hopkins School of Education in Columbia, MD from November 4th–6th and December 4th and 5th in order to learn more about how practitioners observe, document, and analyze observations to promote dual (or, in the case of TNCS, triple) language development. The training was provided by WIDA, whose mission is, “Helping multilingual learners—and their educators—reach their potential.” The WIDA acronym stands for World-class Instructional Design and Assessment, but everyone knows this group as “WIDA.” They are headquartered at the University of Wisconsin’s Wisconsin Center for Education Research in Madison, but they have satellites all over the United States.
Ms. Danyali says she found out about the opportunity from the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) weekly newsletter. “I’m so nerdy that I actually read it,” she joked. It’s a good thing she did. The WIDA Consortium is a member-based organization “dedicated to the research, design and implementation of a high-quality, standards-based system for K–12 language learners”—and they offer tons of amazing resources for educators. Says Ms. Danyali, “I noticed that this organization is very interested in dual language learning in the early childhood environment. I thought, ‘I have to look into more about that!’ They’re partnering with MSDE on how to better support family–school partnerships with dual language environments.”
She explains that, even though she isn’t coming from the public school sector, she nevertheless wanted to know what supports are out there and what new advancements in language education have been made. They were separated into three groups to role-play as a Parent, Educator, or Administrator. “This is the first time—and it is exciting to me—that it has been looked at at the early childhood level, which has always been something I feel very strongly about, capturing that age of language acquisition. So, I applied to be part of a cohort and submitted a blurb about TNCS and how we start at age 2 with a full immersion setting,” she explained.
“A big portion of the conversations with the cohort I was in—and it was people from all walks of education, from professors to para-professionals, was about receptive and expressive language. That’s really what we do here at TNCS—develop the ability to understand words and speech, which is the receptive part.” For example, Song Laoshi will say, “Line up” in Mandarin a thousand times to her 2-year-olds the first 2 weeks of school and she’ll model that instruction. One student will figure out what she’s doing and what she wants the class to do, and then slowly everyone else starts to get it. It’s the most beautiful thing.” But how are the teachers able to measure how well that’s happening in the preschool environment? Participants were given worksheets to guide them on how to effectively gather that feedback.
In expressive language, the student communicates their wants and needs, speaking, not just gathering from their environment. So, back to the example of Song Laoshi’s 2-year-olds, eventually, they will start to talk about what is happening, building on receiving instruction and being able to act on them.
“Another thing we discussed in our cohort,” says Ms. Danyali, was how to “appeal to young students’ learning styles, which is a lot more difficult in a prescriptive public environment, and how to go off the cuff and meet the students’ needs.” In Maryland, Spanish is the fastest growing language in Maryland and Urdu is the second, which is almost as prevalent. “So we’re not looking necessarily at how we can support Spanish speakers in an ESL environment, which has always been the standard, but more of just how do we support language development?”
What Does This Look Like at TNCS?
Even though the WIDA consortium is primarily about how to support students who speak English as a second language, flipping that the other way around and applying their evidence-based practices to any multilanguage-learning environment makes perfect sense. Accordingly, Ms. Danyali has implemented a program in the primary classes for assistant teachers to provide monthly status reports on each student’s progress with language:
It has been quite a game-changer and very helpful, but I also understand as a former educator that introducing new things sometimes feels like having more added to an already-full workplate. But this is actually so supportive and in line with how we think about how our students obtain language. I tell them, too, ‘I want you to grow in your career. This is the one thing that threads our whole school together. We have language from age 2 through grade 8. The common message that sets us apart is our language program, and you’re driving that, so I want your feedback.’
Another important aspect of language at TNCS is the concept of proficiency versus fluency. At the younger ages, it’s really very important that students are hearing language being spoken, no matter what the language. Definitive milestones are not important here. This process is more organic.
Fifty years ago, when immigrants came to the United States, they were instructed not to speak in their native languages so as (as the thinking went) to assimilate into U.S. culture more quickly. “This created major deficits in their lives,” explains Ms. Danyali. “The mindset is now changing, fortunately, and we want our teachers and assistants to speak their native languages.” The WIDA Consortium wants to move away from “English” and talk more about language development to be more inclusive. In fact, the state of Maryland supports over 100 languages in terms of having translators available for free to translate documents, meetings, conversations, etc.
In the near future, Ms. Danyali will incorporate the Can Do Descriptors and Promising Practices she was trained on into the TNCS curriculum. To be proficient in a language, a speaker must be able to Express Self, Recount, and Inquire.
“The preschool component is really our heart and soul for engaging in language for the long-term student. We attract families who know that language is important. So, all of this will factor in to how I roll out what I’ve learned at TNCS,” said Ms. Danyali.
I walked away feeling very fortunate for the environment we’re in. We don’t have stand-alone teachers in a class of 37 kids who need a lot of support. But I found a lot of compassion among the cohort. Some families do not reach out to avail themselves of services because of the current political climate, but the MSDE was there to confirm that they do not turn over that information to anyone. Everyone was on the same page in this cohort to find ways to help and that education can bridge perception gaps.
Here are some WIDA publications you might find interesting: