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«Available online at Linguistics and Education 21 (2010) 257–281 Positioning proficiency: How students and teachers ...»

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This study took place in a dual-immersion6 school; a language acquisition context where minority-language students and majority-language students7 interacted in two languages in order to develop bilingual proficiency. The school, Escuela Unida,8 was located in an agricultural region in central California. As a public charter school, Escuela Unida brought together students who might otherwise have had little contact with each other, due to housing segregation within the school district along linguistic, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. The student body was 90% Latino including recent immigrants and US born children, 10% White and mixed heritage students, 75% English language learners, and 87% receiving reduced or free lunch. The school used a 90/10 dual language program: students began kindergarten with 90% of their instruction in Spanish and by fifth grade reached a 50/50 balance in Spanish and English.

For this study, I chose to focus on one group of 30 fifth-grade students who represented a wide range of language experiences from emergent to proficient bilinguals. In this class, there were three newcomers from Mexico, who arrived to the US in the fourth and fifth grade, twenty bilingual children or heritage language speakers who used mostly Spanish with parents and varying degrees of English at home, and seven children who came from homes where they spoke primarily English. The class had four teachers: two Spanish-model teachers in the morning, one English-model teacher in the afternoon for the large group, and an additional English-model teacher for a pull-out group for newcomers. All 6 Other terms used for similar programs across the US are two-way immersion (TWI), dual language, or bilingual immersion. For more information about TWI programs see (Christian, Howard, & Loeb, 2000; Freeman, 1996; Hayes, 2005; Howard, Sugarman, & Christian, 2003).

7 In the US, language-minority students are also known as English language learners (ELLs). Majority-language students refer to those who speak English at home. The definitions of “language-minority student” and “native speaker” are a point of contention and ambiguity in educational research and practice. I use these terms here to make societal language and power relations explicit. In my research, I seek definitions relevant to local context.

8 All identifying information and names have been replaced with pseudonyms to ensure confidentiality of all participants.

264 M. Martin-Beltrán / Linguistics and Education 21 (2010) 257–281 teachers were veteran teachers. They demonstrated great commitment to the bilingual program and enthusiasm in their teaching. They were cooperative partners open to reflecting on their teaching and learning.

5. Findings Although I began this research to examine opportunities for language exchange and learning among students in dualimmersion programs, as I compared field notes, analysis memos, and transcripts of student interactions, I found many contrasting cases, or missed opportunities. Upon closer examination of the learning context and classroom discourse, I found that student and teacher talk about each other’s proficiency – which positioned learners as (non)legitimate speakers – was particularly relevant to language learning affordances. An important part of the terms and conditions created at school for language learning was found to be explained by perceived proficiency – the discursive construction and evaluation of interlocutors’ communicative competence.

This finding corroborates conclusions of a recent study in a dual immersion program (Lee, Hill-Bonnet & Gillispie, 2008), which found that certain students and teachers were marked as either Spanish or English speakers (not bilingual speakers). The authors stated that “thickened identities have restricted opportunities for interactions in both languages” (Lee et al., 2008, p. 91). The present study takes this concept of assumed language proficiency one step further by analyzing the construction of proficiency at personal, interpersonal, and institutional levels. Using Functional Pattern Analysis (Rogoff et al., 2002), I identified patterns and specific acts of positioning and discursive practices that constructed student proficiency. Fig. 1 includes categories of positioning and discursive practices. The categories became salient through a comparison of different focal students’ event maps and from the analysis of field notes about classroom culture. For the purposes of analysis, I categorized these practices using Rogoff et al.’ (2002) different levels of personal, interpersonal and institutional, with the understanding that the levels are interconnected and part of moment-to-moment interactions. Students’ perceived proficiencies were reified in the classroom through their own participation practices in school activities, yet participation was simultaneously constrained by peer language accommodation practices, social positioning of students as members (or non-members) of communities of practice, and by institutional categories that labeled students by language competence.

In this section I will begin by describing acts of positioning that occurred in the school and classroom context followed by a closer discursive analysis of key moments of dialogic construction and declarations of proficiency.

Explicit declarations of language competence were found to be prevalent and powerful in the school that was under tremendous sociopolitical pressure from the state to show faster progress toward English proficiency. Despite Escuela Unida’s efforts to promote the value two languages as academic resources (Martin-Beltran, 2010), the school was embedded in societal discourse about education that was driven by accountability measures focused on English. Consequently, English learners’ proficiency was under more scrutiny. For example, students classified as ELL were tested three times a year more than non-ELLs.9 The rite of passage at Escuela Unida whereby one became an “RFEP” (Redesignated Fluent English Proficient) was celebrated with an official letter to one’s parents, a congratulatory note from teacher and principal, public recognition in front of the class, and exemption from the next English testing day. The principal and teachers devised a school-wide plan of differentiated reading time that separated students into small groups and based, in large part, on English proficiency scores. Small groups were taught by different pull-out teachers, including the reading specialist and ESOL/newcomer specialist. These institutional acts of positioning (see bottom left box of Fig. 1) situated students as more or less proficient. They also reflected ways teachers talked to each other and to their students. Even moments that were not official, ritual namings linked to testing or student placement, held power to transform a situation into one of participation or non-participation in language learning. For example, simply stating “she understands”, “he does not understand”, or “I don’t speak” was in itself an important speech act, at once declaring and performing an act of exclusion or inclusion in present and future speech situations.





9 Language majority students continued to hold a privileged position because it was assumed that they were proficient in English and, therefore, exempt from standardized testing of their English language skills. Although Spanish literacy skills were also tested, these test scores were not given equal weight in state evaluations of the school, and Spanish students were not exempt from these tests. Further research is needed to examine these inequalities.

M. Martin-Beltrán / Linguistics and Education 21 (2010) 257–281 265 This study found that declarations of perceived proficiency echoed throughout the school hallways as their reverberations had real consequences for student language learning. At the interpersonal level, turn-taking practices and class participation, coded from event maps, reified categories of legitimate speakers, as findings showed that those most likely to gain access to the classroom discussion floor were students who were already publicly declared and authorized by teachers as proficient speakers. On the other hand, this study found evidence of interactive activities that valued abilities beyond language, such as the activity center in the Spanish room or jump rope on the playground. These activities afforded opportunities for emergent language learners to construct their own terms for language learning and social relationships.

Similarly, acts of positioning at the interpersonal level were salient when students were given the opportunity to self-select their peers for collaboration or social groups. Students were positioned as members and non-members of social groups as they followed particular language norms, pulled each other in or out of games on the playground, chose seats at lunch, or invited select friends into gossip circles in the back of the classroom. My observations and event maps tracking participation frameworks were confirmed by interviews and surveys, which showed that social networks at school were often divided along linguistic lines, conflated with race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. While many students’ family networks overlapped with school social networks (i.e. cousins in the same class), other English-dominant students tended to participate in distant social networks that were kept separate from school. To exacerbate this problem, during lunch – one of the most socially interactive periods during the school day – students were separated along socioeconomic lines.10 I also found evidence that some social relationships, which began in the classroom and was engineered by teacher grouping, transformed interaction on the playground. Students who got to know each other during an interactive classroom activity were more likely to initiate play in the school yard. This social interaction on the playground offered continued opportunities to participate in language through play while developing social relationships.

Language accommodation practices at the interpersonal level were an implicit way of positioning students as participants or non-participants in discourse communities. Common accommodation practices included translation and/or modification of speech patterns for students who were perceived as less proficient. These accommodation practices were common in a setting where speakers could easily choose between two languages. There were occasions when I observed students’ language practices shifting distinctly as they addressed different students during the same task. For example, during a class survey activity in Spanish class, I observed a Spanish dominant bilingual using Spanish to ask almost every student in the room his survey question, yet he strategically switched to English with a few students who were perceived as weaker Spanish speakers. These accommodations were also institutionalized when the teacher established a “buddy system” in English class with the intention of facilitating access to English content for the newcomers in class. “English buddies” often took on the role of simultaneous interpreter for the newcomers during large group instruction, translating all English interactions to Spanish. Analyzing field notes and event maps, I found certain students were consistently spoken to in the non-target language, resulting in further exclusion from the target-language discourse community. As illustrated in the description of the students and their excerpts of discourse that follows, social positioning and accommodation practices perpetuated the discursive construction of proficiency.

5.1. Selection of excerpts

For the purposes of this paper, I selected four excerpts from transcripts in which three students, Brenda, Estela, and Iliana, play a part positioning themselves and others as more or less proficient in their target languages. The excerpts illustrate the ways that these language learners enacted their own perceived (and consequently performative) proficiency in the company of and in collusion with others.

As I was triangulating data from student surveys, interviews with students and teachers and observations, I found that these three students, in particular, were repeatedly mentioned as learners who were “least proficient” in their L2. I 10 This differentiated seating at lunch was due, in part, to a separate line for the students who bought their lunches (and received free/reduced lunch). Students from higher income families, who usually packed their lunches, sat at a different time and space.

266 M. Martin-Beltrán / Linguistics and Education 21 (2010) 257–281 began to look more closely at the data across event maps, notes of language use, participation frameworks, positioning and discursive practices in order to understand how these students’ perceived proficiencies had become salient in classroom contexts and how their proficiencies were constructed in daily interactions.

I selected these girls’ experiences to highlight together because they demonstrate the ways that their seemingly individual discursive practices are interwoven to create larger social patterns at the school and beyond. Observing the girls’ different discursive positioning across the examples also illustrates the shifting nature of proficiency, the replication of discursive practices, and the intertextuality of utterances (Bakhtin, 1981). The excerpts selected here illustrate key discursive practices that emerged as recurrent themes during coding: practices of accommodation and uptake of others’ public declarations of proficiency. These examples were not solitary; rather, they were connected to a network of social practices and representative of hundreds of examples that I observed repeatedly throughout the school year. After a description and interpretation of each vignette, I draw upon my ethnographic field notes to examine the way that these moments were connected to other school experiences and interactions to afford or constrain language learning.

5.2. Focal students



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