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Improving Education for English Learners: Q&A with Aída Walqui

Posted on 12.11.2020

Aida Walqui

Briefly

  • Building on a highly acclaimed, decades-long career, Aída Walqui recently helped launch a national center to improve education for English Learners in secondary schools.
  • Walqui coined the phrase “Amplify, don’t simplify” to capture an essential quality of the pedagogy she champions.
  • An underlying premise is that what works for English Learners — depth and richness — is important for all learners.

Aída Walqui has a thing or two to say about the education of students who are English Learners. Currently a Senior Research Scientist at WestEd, her interest in multilingualism began in childhood and has continued through a decades-long career of learning and teaching, with a particular focus on improving educational opportunities for second language learners.

For more than 20 years at WestEd, Walqui led the Quality Teaching for English Learners initiative (QTEL). Widely acclaimed, QTEL supports educators in building on the strengths of English Learners by challenging and supporting them in ways that accelerate learning.

In 2020, Walqui led WestEd’s successful bid to launch the National Research and Development Center to Improve Education for Secondary English Learners. The center is developing innovative solutions to help educators better serve students who have too often been overlooked: English Learners at the middle and high school levels. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the center has already created resources focused on providing quality distance learning opportunities for English Learners.

Also in 2020, Walqui organized a discussion series with renowned linguists and educators. In a dozen webinars that were widely attended (more than 8,500 registrants across the series), they explored the latest scholarly perspectives on the education of English Learners.

Given all of these new developments in an already groundbreaking career, R&D Alert’s editors decided it was time to sit down with Walqui and capture some highlights of her thinking and contributions to the field.

How did your interest in issues related to students who are English Learners begin?

Aída Walqui: It wasn’t exactly interest in English Learners in the United States that I started with, but interest in how people learn a second language, and how in that process they are perceived by others.

I was born in Peru, a country that has 200 languages. So, since I was a child, I was keenly aware of the differences between those of us who spoke Spanish as a first language and people who spoke Quechua, Aymara, or another indigenous language. There were differences in how most people thought about them, and in how they were treated, with Spanish and foreign languages being privileged and native languages stigmatized. I must have been 6 or 7 when this phenomenon became really clear to me.

As an adult I studied linguistics and sociolinguistics, and I have spent all my life working on these issues, working on putting in perspective perceptions of people who speak a different language and are trying to learn the language of the locality. My work focuses on how we can see minoritized students as having assets, tremendous potential, and being able to positively contribute to society.

What makes these language and perception issues important?

AW: Speakers of different languages are treated differentially, and that strongly curtails opportunities for them to improve in economic and social status and to contribute to society. I’ve had the opportunity to work in Mexico, the U.K., Germany, throughout Latin America, and in the United States — I’ve been very fortunate in that respect. And while the languages were always different, the social perceptions and the misperceptions unfortunately were very, very similar. The more we work on issues of language, the more we will create a disposition to understand that people are people and that differences are in the eyes of the beholder.

I also think that in a world where information is ever-present and ever-manipulated, it is essential to work in ambitious ways with all students — both native speakers of English and those learning English as a second language — so they develop a compassionate but critical mind. It is essential that we strengthen the education we offer all students because what works for English Learners — depth and richness — is equally good for native speakers of English.

What have been some challenges your work has tried to address?

AW: The first is that educators — because of the circumstances in which they work — tend to gravitate to what is simple, discrete, and can be measured. However, the discrete approach — which, in languages, translates into a componential approach to grammar, vocabulary, or correct sentences — is not good. Second language learners learn best when offered multiple opportunities to encounter important ideas from different perspectives. Educators need to care about the caliber of their thinking, beyond a focus on whether the language that expresses thoughts is correct.

A second big challenge, particularly in the United States, is that teaching is not necessarily thought of as a profession. In an ideal world, teachers should be working in praxis, where theory explains what they do practically, and what they do practically enhances and refines their theoretical understandings. But, the preparation of teachers tends to be limited in time and superficial in content. They are asked to follow a curriculum that’s been written by others, with ideas taught superficially and in simplistic ways. That is a big problem because such teaching does not cause depth of understanding nor generativity.

A third challenge is testing students in discrete and superficial ways. Focusing on language, not ideas — the wrapper, not the content — is harmful. Instead, if an idea is richly explored over time, and students keep recorded audio and writing portfolio entries, then they and their teachers would be able to appreciate how much they are gaining. Gains would not just be linguistic but also would focus on the caliber of their thinking and the applications of their knowledge.

Languages are learned through apprenticeship, in which teachers model what they intend for students to know and be able to do. During this apprenticeship, students are invited (and supported) as they engage in activities that provide multiple opportunities to talk, read, write, and explore concepts in interconnected, complex ways.

“Educators need to care about the caliber of [students’] thinking, beyond a focus on whether the language that expresses thoughts is correct.”

Aren’t there some students who just need more didactic, direct instruction?

AW: I think it’s true that different people learn different things in different ways, but it doesn’t follow that some need grammar and some need enticing texts. You can have enticing texts, you can have a little bit of grammar, you can have everything together. But what you need to have is topics that are meaningful and enticing to students. Present them with ideas that honor students’ intelligence and intellectual ability, and support students in their exploration.

Part of supporting English Learners is to amplify the opportunities you give them to grasp academic concepts, practices, and language. Teaching is an immensely complex act. That is why teachers have to be professionals who know their craft and substance, because promoting learning is such a complex task.

What needs to change for the education of English Learners to improve?

AW: Ideally, we change the structures under which teachers work. But just changing the structures is not enough. I’ve seen many districts that have changed structures but then don’t have the capacity to work effectively within the new structure. So, to me, the work begins with educator expertise. And expertise is the knowledge teachers have and their ability to translate that knowledge into action. If you work with teacher expertise, the expertise of a whole staff, then all the students are going to benefit.

When we — the QTEL team — present teachers with ambitious pedagogies, teachers are excited. It makes me particularly proud that we continuously get comments from teachers who say, “This professional development experience has reconnected me with the intellectual I once was.” School transformation is an intellectual job involving the theory to understand which learning opportunities we need to provide our students, and the know-how to make them happen.

How did your work evolve into what you’ve done at WestEd?

AW: I started at WestEd 21 years ago, and QTEL started 2 years after that. It built on the work I had been doing since 1970, in multiple places, such as my teaching at Alisal High School in Salinas, California. I was a teacher there for 6 years — an English as a Second Language, English language arts, social studies, and Spanish teacher. I had before taught indigenous populations in Peru, in Mexico three years, and in the U.K. for three years. Importantly, I had a wonderful partner [Leo van Lier] who was not only a sociocultural/ecological theorist, but who valued practice as inherent in theory and vice versa. He was a constant interlocutor and inspirer.

My time at Alisal was the most formative experience for me because I could put all of my ideas to the test long term. I didn’t speak in simple ways to students. I didn’t give them childish texts. Students initially protested, but I said, “Okay, if you want out of my class, first give me a month.” A month later, nobody wanted to leave my class. They now knew that I had both high expectations of them and that I supported them accordingly. So, it can be done, but it takes more than just one teacher. Ideally, a whole staff begins to create a culture, a climate, and then you get a whole district.

After Alisal, I did my PhD at Stanford, and I stayed teaching at Stanford, then moved to UC Santa Cruz briefly, and then to WestEd where I developed QTEL.

Can you say more about what has defined your work at WestEd?

AW: From the start, we were very ambitious. We always believed in depth. Early on, I coined the phrase Amplify, don’t simplify. I believe disciplinary ideas, analytic practices, and the language required to convey them require that language be developed in the disciplines — not that students should first learn English and then learn content, but that through rigorous content, English Learners learn the language. With these beliefs, working with colleagues in the QTEL initiative and Ofelia Garcia at Columbia University, we developed five principles that have guided our work.

The first is that English Learners deserve lessons that are rigorous. Rigor means you go for the key ideas, then you start weaving interconnections. We have nine specifics that you need to see when rigor is present.

The second principle is that English Learners require high-challenge opportunities to learn. For us, high challenge is one side of an indivisible two-sided coin where the other side is high levels of support. And once again, we operationalize it, and we talk about scaffolding, which is the just-right kind of support students need at a point in time.

Our third principle is that English Learners need the opportunity to engage in quality interactions. That means optimal lessons maximize every student’s opportunity to talk with others in ways that are sustained. We very strongly believe students learn through apprenticeship, and that happens through interaction.

The fourth is that English Learners also need a focus on language. But, notice that it’s fourth, not first, because ideas come first, the caliber of the ideas, the engagement, and then we pay attention to the language. We go from the more macro to the more micro aspects, which include the organization of specific types of text, grammar, vocabulary, and spelling.

Finally, we talk about offering students quality curriculum, which takes them to valuable ideas, important texts, and they work through those together.

Why do you think schools continue to have such difficulty serving students who are English Learners?

AW: I think we lack a vision of what quality education is. The more everybody understands what is quality, and that quality is no different for English Learners than for native speakers of the language, the more our educational system will improve for all. There’s so much we could do, and it would require investment, but there is nothing more important in society than education. Why don’t we get our priorities right? It requires the vision that everybody is capable. If provided the right opportunities, everybody can excel. Bell curves do not exist in a rigorous, equitable school.

That’s why the work begins with teachers, when teachers understand what quality learning opportunities are for their students and begin to experience and then design them. Given the opportunity and support, they would stop teaching in bits and pieces, and instead start going deeper to promote real learning. Teachers would become a force that would trigger real change.

In this sense, education is inherently political. At its best, it responds to an idea of what the polis, the city, the country, needs to look like. If you have a destination, then every step you take leads you to that destination. That vision triggers everything educators do.