Language Proficiency, Reading, and the Chinese-Speaking English Language Learner: Facilitating the L1-L2 Connection

By Palmer, Barbara C.; Zhang, Nailing et al. | Multicultural Education, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Language Proficiency, Reading, and the Chinese-Speaking English Language Learner: Facilitating the L1-L2 Connection


Palmer, Barbara C., Zhang, Nailing, Taylor, Susan H., Leclere, Judith T., Multicultural Education


A seven-year-old boy sits across from his Chinese-speaking ELL tutor; the boy's father also sits close by. Struggling to make sense of the strange English words on the page in front of him, Xin Wei (pseudonym, pronounced Jin Way) intuitively understands what his tutor and his father both want; i.e., they want him to read the short passage automatically and fluently. Sadly, Xin Wei is afraid he will let both of them down.

Xin Wei's story is not new to classrooms across the United States. In fact, as our nation's cultural diversity continues to increase rapidly, English language learners (ELLs) laboring to build reading fluency and comprehension are a more frequent occurrence. The National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition announced that during the 2005-2006 academic year, U.S. public schools served more than five million school-aged Limited English Proficient (LEP) students. This number represents a 57% increase in the ELL population in U.S. classrooms since 1995 (NCELAQ, 2008).

Similarly, the United States Census Bureau reported that as of July 1, 2008, the minority population in the U.S. reached 104.6 million, 34% of the total population. Included in this number are Asians, whose population in the United States was 15.5 million, making this group the second-fastest growing minority in the nation (U.S. Census, 2009). This same census report revealed that approximately 2.5 million people in the U.S. ages five and older reported speaking Chinese in their homes.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Chinese, second only to Spanish, is the most widely spoken non-English language in the U.S (2009). Moreover, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that the Asian population in the United States will almost triple by the year 2050, increasing to 40.6 million, or 9.2% of the U.S. population, concurrently increasing the possible number of Asian ELLs entering the U.S. public school system (U.S. Census, 2008).

What follows is a case study investigating the effectiveness of interventions designed to improve second language and reading proficiency of a seven-year-old Chinese-speaking ELL, Xin Wei, who completed second grade at a diverse metropolitan elementary school in the U.S. While a single case study cannot answer all the questions that arise as a young English language learner attempts to build proficiency in a second language and reading in English, this study can aid in delineating the nature of the questions to be asked, thus enabling researchers to move on to better questions.

Xin Wei: A Case Study

Xin Wei's introduction to the United States began in June 2006, when he traveled to the U.S. with his parents from Shijiazhuang, the capital city of Hebei Province, located southwest of Beijing in the People's Republic of China. Although his mother, a teacher at a middle school in China, returned home at the end of a short vacation in the U.S. with her family, Xin Wei and his father remained in the U.S. for the coming academic year. Xin Wei's father was a visiting scholar in the College of Education at a major university in the U.S., and Xin Wei attended a local elementary school designated for international students near the university.

Attending elementary school in the U.S. was the primary reason Xin Wei's parents wanted their son to remain in the U.S. during his father's tenure at the university. They hoped that this opportunity would help their son develop proficiency in English. The seven-year-old had already completed first grade at a primary school in China, giving him some early literacy exposure to his native language in an academic setting; his exposure to English, however, had been limited. In China, Xin Wei had only learned a few simple words in English, such as apple, mother, and father. Upon his arrival in the U.S., Xin Wei spoke very little English.

Based on Xin Wei's age, academic background, and second language acquisition level, after conferring with his father and the school's ESOL teacher, he was placed in a second grade classroom in the diverse metropolitan elementary school designated as an ELL center for the city. …

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