In a case study by Ruan (2003), three kindergarten age bilingual Chinese girls were studied to determine what the literacy experiences of these children were, and how the literacy instruction for these Chinese children in specific related to the teacher’s cultural beliefs. All the parents in these cases had jobs that required higher education.
Two of the girls were born in America and one was an immigrant. The study took place in a Midwestern town in a class where most of the students were white, and was taught by a white teacher.
The researcher (Ruan, 2003) acted as an observer and as an aide who spoke to the three girls in Chinese. She wanted to observe how the teacher interacted with different children, and especially notice how she treated the three Chinese girls. She found that the Chinese girls did not participate in whole group interactions unless they had to, for example, as in a situation where each person was expected to contribute something. The researcher attributed this to the fact that in the Chinese culture, children are discouraged from sharing information with adults.
In this classroom, the teacher only helped students who asked for it. Students who remained quiet and did not make their needs known were not given help, even if they needed it. In one instance, the Chinese immigrant did not know what to do, and did not solicit help. She ended up copying from another child. According to the author, many Chinese children experience shame when they do not understand, and this might contribute to the student having remained silent when the she did not understand the directions. Since the Chinese students were not assertive about getting their needs met, they did not receive the help they needed. The teacher stated that she tried to be color and culture blind, and see no differences in abilities and learning modalities between her Chinese students and her white students (Ruan, 2003).
There were some aspects of this study that were problematic for a reader. First, the results (Ruan, 2003) were from the researcher’s observation and interviews only, and could be susceptible to bias, especially in the observations. As a Chinese woman herself, the researcher could have experienced these types of assumptions as a student and already had the idea of what her study would find. Her strong connection to the experience of Chinese children in school may have biased her toward something that is a sensitive subject. For example, each field note that is included in the study observes that the Chinese children did not participate in the class discussion. But there is no indication of how many of the other students did or did not participate, so it could be that there were other students who did not participate either. It seems like the author is attempting to be more convincing in her argument by making it seem that it was just these students who were not engaged, and omitting the participation data on students of other ethnicities.
The confirmability of the study is present in the form of tape recorded interviews that were coded. These could be checked by interested parties. The observation notes could be reviewed by an outside party, but since there were no other observers, there is no way to check the reliability of these observations.
McBride-Chang and Ho (2005) studied the development of phonological awareness and reading ability in Chinese students, in Hong Kong, who were learning both Chinese and English simultaneously.
The subjects were tested during their first year of a three year kindergarten program, and in their third year (McBride-Chang & Ho, 2005). Their ages were about three and about five at the two testing times. Ninety children comprised the sample. There were 34 females and 56 males. All were in the same school. Most were middle and upper middle class. The native language of all the subjects was Cantonese.
The study (McBride-Chang & Ho, 2005) was interested in phonological awareness because in English, the language consists of blending letters for each sound, while in Chinese the smallest unit of sound is the syllable. There are different characters for all the syllables, while English uses the same letters to make many sounds. Since a review of the literature showed that student’s phonological awareness most often comes from their native language and transfers to their second language, the researchers were interested in how this would work in languages with different phonological structures.
In the classrooms, students were not taught to decode English words, but rather they read the whole word, sometimes called word attack (McBride-Chang & Ho, 2005). They would look at the word and say it, and try to remember it that way. This is more similar to the use of a character than breaking a word down into individual phonemes. In the two years that elapsed between testing time one and testing time two, students were expected to learn “approximately 150 to 200 Chinese characters and… [be able to] read some short phrases and sentences in Chinese. In addition, K3 [students in their third year of kindergarten] children can recognize about 50 to 80 isolated English words but few phrases or sentences” (McBride-Chang & Ho, 2005, p. 124).
In order for assessments to match over languages, students were asked to do a syllable deletion task instead of a phoneme deletion task, because in Chinese they would have to delete an entire syllable (McBride-Chang & Ho, 2005). For this, compound words with one syllable words were used, such as hotdog. At the first testing time, students were tested individually, but at time two they were tested in groups of 30, and then interviewed individually. The tests of English ability were only given at time two, because the students had had no English instruction before the first testing time. Students were assessed on several measures, including Chinese vocabulary, ability to identify the English alphabet, English words, and Chinese characters, ability to delete syllables, ability to hold a series of numbers in their verbal memory, quickly recalling names of pictured items, and the accuracy of students invented spelling in English.
The study (McBride-Chang & Ho, 2005) found that the students ability in reading Chinese and reading English at time two was not related in any way to the English phonological assessments from time one. Chinese phonological skills were stronger predictors of ability. Even English word identification was better predicted by the Chinese character identification at the first testing time. Basically, the skills in the first language were stronger predictors of success in both languages than skills in the second language predicting success in that same language.
The findings of this study (McBride-Chang & Ho, 2005) are dependable, as they concur with other studies that have shown students use the phonological skills from their first language to process and learn a second language, and that the ability to read in the second language is based on phonological awareness in language one. The study could be confirmed, because the information and results are provided. The study could be transferable to understanding other schools in China that teach both Cantonese and English, but I am not sure how well they can be transferred to a mixed ethnicity classroom, or even an ESL class taught in English in America. The study includes aspects that could inform teaching reading in a multicultural classroom, but the setting of the study and purpose for learning English were different, so it can’t be applied specifically to the question of this paper.
Steffensen, Goetz, and Cheng, (1999) explored the impact of cultural background and imagery when subjects read in their native language and in a second language, in this case English. The sample in this case consisted of much older individuals than is the focus of this paper, but there are some aspects than can be generalized to second language learners of all ages.
The study (Steffensen, et al., 1999) cites a review of the literature showing the importance of cultural background on reading comprehension and enjoyment. They state that when reading, people “comprehend more and give more appropriate elaborations to texts based on their own culture; they comprehend less and intrude inappropriate information form their on culture, with distortions of the content, when reading a text based on an unfamiliar culture” (Steffensen, et al., 1999, p. 302). They also suggest that emotional reactions to texts can keep students interested in reading in their second language. Because often students need much practice in reading in a language to become proficient, it is important that students are motivated to read, which interest and emotional response promote.
The basis for the study (Steffensen, et al., 1999) is the idea that when reading, there is a dual coding process that makes not only a linguistic representation of the words, but also makes mental images of what is being read. These can be visual (most often) but also can be auditory, olfactory, tactile, and even relating to the way something tastes. An example given is “when the sight of a dog elicits the name of the animal, or when the word dog elicits an image of a favorite pet” (Steffensen, et al., 1999, p. 304). The question here is: how do these nonverbal images occur in first language and second language readers?
The sample (Steffensen, et al., 1999) included 24 people who spoke Chinese as a first language, most (21) spoke Mandarin. All were graduate students who attended universities in the Midwest. They had been in the United States from one to five years, and had been speaking English for at least ten. Most subjects were 25 or older. 12 subjects were men, and 12 were women. This sample is highly educated, was more familiar with English than many beginning bilingual readers, but their reading behaviors are educative nonetheless.
The participants (Steffensen, et al., 1999) were randomly assigned either the Chinese or the English group. They were asked to read a letter which described a train trip in China. This is the main mode of transportation there and many people had strong feelings about the topic. All but one of the subjects had had extensive personal experience with the system, and the one who did not felt it was exaggerated while all the others verified it with strong emotions. The letter was written in Chinese, translated into English, then retranslated back into Chinese and compared to the original version to make sure it had been translated into English properly. Instructions were given, and responses taken, in the language the students read in.
Results included the finding that students in both languages reported about the same number of images, number of emotional responses, and type of emotional responses (Steffensen, et al., 1999). They found that for both groups, the majority of responses were related to one specific piece of the text, 75% for English speakers and 77% for the Chinese. It took students reading in English almost twice as long, on average, to complete the passage. Chinese readers’ mean was 4.73 minutes, while English readers had a mean of 8.9 minutes. This indicated that students who do not read well, no matter if they are ESL or not, may be just as successful at comprehending when reading if given enough time. It shows that high levels of “fluency” are not necessary for students to understand and be engaged in texts.
When the subjects (Steffensen, et al., 1999) were asked to describe their emotional responses, most of them were related to the text (just under 60%), or closely related with background knowledge of the situation (approximately 40% for both groups). There were only a few variations that did not make sense given the text.
Because the English group took more time to read, they were able to focus on the meaning and create the visual images that might not be possible if they were rushed through the text.
The researchers conclude “texts that elicit emotional responses from their readers and a high level of imagery in several modalities are likely to result in increased engagement” (Steffensen, et al., p. 319). I wonder here why no group was given a text that perhaps they did not have a background for, to see what the mental images and emotional responses would be to that. There is nothing to compare it to here, and the conclusion that texts that elicit emotional response increase engagement cannot be internally valid if readers cannot compare the engagement in reading different types of texts, only one was used here.
In summary, Ruan (2003) showed that in some situations, Chinese American students are not assertive about getting their needs met, and so don’t receive the help they need. McBride-Chang and Ho (2005) found that skills in the native language of students are stronger predictors of success in a second language. Also, they found that the character system is more comparable to using the syllable as the smallest unit of sound, so students may not be able to segment words into individual phonemes. Steffensen, et al. (1999) found that subjects reading in a second language got as much of an emotional response, and comprehended as much, as those reading in their native tongue even though they may have taken longer to complete a reading.