Bilingual Students with Learning Disabilities: Expansive Learning Opportunities in Science

Dr. Patricia Martínez-Álvarez

When Dr. Patricia Martínez-Álvarez had told her friend’s Spanish- English bilingual son, Sebastian, who has a learning disability, “Hello” in Spanish, he responded, “How old are you?” She approached her friend to tell her that it might be considered socially inappropriate to ask the age of an adult. Her friend, however, explained that immediately after anyone greets Sebastian, they ask for his age. This interaction propelled Dr. Martinez-Alvarez to reflect on her own cultural assumptions and biases, which could have interfered with the child’s unique experience and interaction with the world.

On February 5, 2014, visiting assistant professor in Bilingual, Bicultural Education Department, Dr. Martínez-Álvarez, presented her most recent work on Expansive Learning Opportunities for Bilingual Children with Learning Disabilities. This work focuses on special language and technology-mediated approaches to learn science, a field that is traditionally highly underrepresented by Bilingual children with specific learning disabilities as identified under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

In her presentation, Dr. Martínez-Álvarez stressed the importance of understanding a child’s own contextual life experiences and valuing his or her own “funds of knowledge” in order to teach children, particularly minority bilingual children with learning disabilities, more effectively as well as allow them the opportunity to show their own complex and unexpected processes of learning. When instruction attends to the unique learning styles, and socio-linguistic background of the child, the child learns in unexpected ways that defy our own social assumptions of learning. Dr. Martínez-Álvarez suggests a more horizontal approach to instruction, in which expansive learning opportunities cross the disciplinary boundaries of the classroom, such as connecting the life and home cultural and linguistic knowledges of the child to the classroom.

In her present study, Dr. Martínez-Álvarez worked with a total of 57 bilingual learners in an elementary school and implemented expansive learning strategies, including place-based learning (PBL) in combination with a text-reading series, in the study of geoscience. The focuse of Dr. Martínez Álvarez’s presentation was on the group of six bilingual students who had been identified with a learning disabilities under IDEA criteria.

Utilizing constructs within Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT), Dr. Martínez-Álvarez analyzed the mediating tools used, such as encouraging the child to explain what he or she believes each sentence of paragraph means, as well as the child’s learning processes. She found that promoting language and literacy learning in science, while at the same time encouraging connections to home and life knowledges provided significant results for the children. They showed great understanding of otherwise considerably higher leveled texts for their seeming capabilities.

When José was given the Spanish name for the Grand Canyon, El Gran Cañón del Colorado, which includes the word Colorado within it, the researcher asked why the Grand Canyon was called the Grand Colorado Canyon in Spanish. José’s response was , “I think it has color.” After taking a closer look at this response, one would realize that Jose focused on the Spanish word meaning for “colorado” which means reddish color, rather than the name of a river and the state it was named after. The association with “colorado” as a color is strong in children from Central America who are living in the United States and grow up learning in both English and Spanish. This source of information can lead to new directions in teaching about the landform. If one did not understand the context of how this question was asked and the cultural background of the boy, he or she would not be able to comprehend the accurateness behind José’s response. Dr. Martínez-Álvarez feels that the results of this study would help promote the teaching of geoscience and literacy in schools that nurture the funds of knowledge of bilingual students with learning disabilities as well as provide different expansive learning opportunities in science for them.

Dr. Martínez-Álvarez concluded her presentation with her overall goals for working with bilingual children with disabilities in the STEM areas. She feels that though bilingual educators are encouraged to lay out their scientific and language objectives, they should “free themselves from a prescribed plan and lean this in a more flexible way guided by students’ interests and cultural and linguistic knowledges.” She also stresses the importance of remembering that “there is no competent teacher who knows everything there is to know,” and that there is strong value in reinforcing “teachers as learners, researchers, and vehicles of expansive learning.”

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