Monoglot Mysteries

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Dan Henderson, Millington, MD, danielhenderson@cpm.org
Tony Jones, Mahomet, IL, anthonyjones@cpm.org
Brianna Ruiz, Sacramento, CA, briannaruiz@cpm.org 
Danielle Boggs, Champaign, IL, danielleboggs@cpm.org

Note: This article takes a long way around, but stick with it. The authors wanted to talk about emerging multilingual and monolingual students and they might be a little over the top in their use of sarcasm along the way. But so often we assume that we should focus our linguistic support efforts on emerging multilingual learners. These authors use wit, humor, sarcasm, and (just a bit of) snark to make the opposite point. The journey is meant to be fun; the destination is worth the trip.

We have a confession to make: We have only recently become fully aware of just how poor the schools that we have taught in have been. In inner-city Boston, one of us taught at a school where a full 60% of students spoke only English. In rural Mississippi, that number was as high as 95%. None of us have ever taught where the majority of students could understand even two languages. Dan has only ever known one English-only valedictorian. These schools have been, and continue to be, linguistically poor.

These schools were poor in a very real, but so-common-that-it-often-goes-unacknowledged kind of way. Because most of our native English-speaking students are monoglots, they do not have a particularly rich tapestry of languages to draw from, and can often struggle to name new concepts and communicate with their peers in a way that can be easily understood. This hinders their growth: a 2015 study by the RAND Corporation, American Councils for International Education, and Portland Public Schools, found that monoglot students trail their polyglot peers academically by half a year in fifth grade and a full year by the end of 8th grade – even on tests of English reading skills1. And this learning gap echoes into and throughout their adult lives: multiple studies show that monoglots have narrower career options and lower wages at almost all ages. The linguistic poverty in our English-first schools is real, measurable, overlooked, and tragic.

Monoglottism is a real problem in US schools, but we (the authors) struggled even to see the problem. We missed it because monoglot students are such a large portion of our student populations and because we ourselves speak the same native language as most of our monoglot students: The prevalence of monoglot students who speak the same native language as us in our schools blinded us to the relative poverty of their situation for far too long. We now see this as a problem that affects almost 75% of students nationwide.

The monoglot learning gap matters. On a community level, the larger the monoglot population, the lower graduation and college attendance rates. For comparison’s sake, our European counterparts (who routinely outscore us on international assessments of learning) have HALF as many monoglots in their schools. Continent-wide, only 44% of European schoolchildren are burdened by monoglottism. OF COURSE, their average international test scores are higher!

It is possible that the monoglot problem will take care of itself in the long run, but as math teachers, we know trends can be deceiving and in any case, we do not want to rely on a slow trend to make our question moot. The percentage of US students classified as monoglots has steadily (if only slightly) come down over the last 30 years. Some states are further along than others – New Jersey has gotten their percentage of monoglots down under 50%, for example, but many states in the midwest still suffer from rates as high as 80%. We need to do something about this deeply unfair and inequitable situation.

All of this pains us and leaves us with questions. We now see the problem but do not really know how to support linguistically deprived monoglots. Policymakers have repeatedly failed to address the issue, and sometimes actively make it worse, so yet again it is up to teachers to handle it. But how can we get monoglots caught up without overburdening and slowing down the linguistically advanced students in our classes? What should we do to support our English-only students?

We are asking here, in this newsletter, because all the advice we can find elsewhere about how to address the language-based learning gap seems misguided. It all seems to be about how to support multilingual learners. But our multilingual and emerging multilingual learners are some of our best students. They already speak more languages than many of our favorite, heavily-degreed professional coworkers and edu-celebrities. And they are great at communicating across language barriers – they gesture, represent their thinking in equations and visuals, and focus on saying things clearly with just a few common English words. Our multilingual learners are bending over backward trying to accommodate their monoglot peers. It seems to us that they mostly need space to think and validation when their monoglot peers struggle to understand them. So the question remains: What should we do to help the monoglots?

Somehow we do not think the solution to our monoglot conundrum is to just give the multilingual learners more. We do not want to further exacerbate the inequality between the language-haves and the language-have-nots. We are not advocating for the idea that multilingual learners should be held back and made to stick with only the languages they know when they join our classes, but should we focus on helping already multilingual learners acquire even more languages over helping systematically deprived monoglots communicate across these linguistic barriers? That does not seem fair at all. So what should we do to support monoglot students?

After almost a year of study, what we should do is still mostly a mystery to us. But while we are not sure what we should do in every case, we think we have figured out what to do in some cases. Here are a few Monoglot Student Supports we think might enrich our schools:

  1. Position all students as having valuable ideas to contribute to a multilingual class. Promote active participation in discussions and recognize the resources that English-Only students can use to express the mathematical ideas across language divides.
  2. If possible, communicate with monoglot families in their home language.
  3. Remember it should be mostly about math, not language acquisition. Reconsider the value of having monoglots read a problem three times in an unfamiliar language; try not to demand that monoglots write their responses in a second language.
    (Corollary: Try not to grade on language; try not to evaluate team work based solely on multicultural norms for what good teamwork looks like.)
  4. Give monoglots the same complex tasks you give multilingual learners. Even an apparent linguistic deficit does not correlate with a lack of mathematical thinking skills.
  5. Use culturally relevant contexts to support mathematical thinking. Teach language in context.
  6. Embrace rich language learning as part of math class. It is about more than the occasional vocabulary word. Focus on teacher clarity. Share language learning goals with the students every lesson, speak deliberately, and try to use words every student will understand.
  7. Use language routines and STTS liberally to make sure monoglots get plenty of chances to formulate their thinking in their preferred language. Lean on STTS with built-in wait-time so English-only students can think about the math AND how to communicate about it in a way that can be understood. A monoglot’s preference for English is a historical accident that should not bar them from thinking about mathematics.
  8. Integrate plenty of discourse support into instruction to help monoglots cross linguistic barriers: use visuals and gestures whenever possible, annotate precisely, use talk moves to have peers model, repeat, rephrase, refine, and record responses.
  9. Use sentence frames to help monoglots direct and structure their responses as they acquire communicative fluency. This may also help to lower the cognitive load they carry trying to keep up with linguistically more advantaged students.
  10. Show you believe: use visibly random teams daily (or more often) to convey the belief that monoglots can be successful no matter how far behind their partners they are linguistically. This will also ensure they get much-needed exposure to various ways of conveying their thinking.

It is time for another confession. We were going to ask you to add to our growing list of Monoglot Student Supports (and you absolutely still may), but as we wrote it all out, it occurred to us just how much of this list is “just good teaching.” You may have figured all this out years ago, but for us, it was not obvious. It was not until we flipped our frame of reference from supporting emerging multilingual learners to supporting English-only monoglots that we fully grasped the extent of the language gap, understood how we might address it fairly, and felt like we really had permission to deliver these supports. We hope we did not just out ourselves as the worst teachers on the block and that at least some of you can relate.

1Jennifer Li, Jennifer Steele, Robert Slater, Michael Bacon & Trey Miller (2016) Teaching Practices and Language Use in Two-Way Dual Language Immersion Programs in a Large Public School District, International Multilingual Research Journal, 10:1, 31-43, DOI: 10.1080/19313152.2016.1118669

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In this course, participants will learn how to include equitable practices in their  classroom and support traditionally underserved students in becoming leaders of their own learning. Participants will reflect on how their math identity and mindsets impact student learning. They will begin working on a plan for implementing Chapter 1 that creates an equitable classroom culture and curate strategies for supporting all students in becoming leaders of their own learning. Follow-up during the school year will support ongoing implementation of equitable classroom practices.

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