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An optimal learning environment for Rosemary.

An Optimal Learning Environment for Rosemary

ABSTRACT: This article discusses the special education placement and instruction of

language-minority children identified as mildly disabled, personified by "Rosemary," in the

context of a curriculum guide recently developed in California, The Optimal Learning

Environment (OLE) Curriculum Guide: A Resource for Teachers of Spanish-Speaking Children

in Learning Handicapped Programs. The guide was written in response to the growing number

of such children and to the lack of direction given to special educators in meeting the

educational needs of this population. The instructional principles in the guide are based on

research with language-minority students and on those with learning disabilities. The guide

incorporates existing, promising materials and techniques for use with language-minority

populations. * Rosemary was 11 years old and in a special day class for children designated as communicatively handicapped at the time of a 2-year ethnographic study of her self-contained classroom. It was a bilingual special education classroom in that it used "the home language and home culture along with English in an individually designed program of special instruction for the students" (Baca & Cervantes, 1984).

I spent almost 2 years in Rosemary's classroom, located in the Central Valley of California, observing how students and teachers used language for learning (Ruiz, 1988a). Rosemary and her classmates, however, provided much more than data for a study of classroom verbal interaction patterns. They also helped serve as a catalyst for a new model of a bilingual special education classroom: one that looks for the "upper range" of bilingual children's academic, linguistic, and social skills (Ruiz, 1988a); examines the contextual features that co-occur with the enhanced view of their skills; and seeks to recreate these features in an optimal learning environment (OLE) (Figueroa, Ruiz, & Baca, 1988).

The first part of this article uses the case of Rosemary to illustrate the concept of the OLE model for instruction. The second part presents an abbreviated synopsis of The Optimal Learning Environment (OLE) Curriculum Guide (hereinafter referred to as The OLE Curriculum Guide) (Ruiz, 1988b), a guide commissioned by the Special Education Demonstration Project I: Hispanic Pupils (Figueroa, 1987). The guide was written for teachers in learning-handicapped (LH) programs to alert them to the available knowledge base on effective ways of teaching the language arts to their language-minority students, and to suggest specific classroom activities compatible with this research.


Rosemary was born in Guadalajara, Mexico. She came to California at age 2. At the time of the study, she lived with her mother, father, and five younger brothers in a trailer many miles from any neighbors. They all spoke Spanish.

Assessment and Placement

Rosemary entered school for the first time at age 7 1/2. She was in a multigrade classroom (Grades 1-3) in which English was the primary language of instruction. Her teacher began to notice that Rosemary had learning difficulties and referred her for special help in the special education resource room, but Rosemary continued to make poor progress. A school psychologist evaluated Rosemary in English at age 9. Her test scores were: verbal IQ 72, performance IQ 77 (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-Revised, WISC-R), visual motor age 7-11 (Bender). The psychologist reported that Rosemary had a developmental delay of about 1-3 years.

The speech therapist included Spanish tests in her assessment. On the Language Assessment Scales, Rosemary scored in the near-proficient range both in English and in Spanish (scores = 4). She scored very low on all the other language tests. The therapist summarized by writing that Rosemary had severe language deficits characterized by a 4-year language delay. She also noted that Rosemary's school vocabulary was more developed in English, an important observation because it led Rosemary's bilingual special education teacher to continue teaching her to read and write in English.

Rosemary was then placed in the bilingual special day class for students with communication disabilities. Though her language arts instruction was all in English, she was also exposed to some instruction in Spanish. The teacher alternated between using Spanish one day and English the next for class openings and other procedural routines throughout the day, following a popular model for dual language instruction in bilingual classrooms called the "alternate day method."

By age 11, Rosemary was not faring well academically. Her achievement scores were in the 2.1-4.0 grade-equivalent range. A typical writing assignment shows her difficulties with written work:

Book Report on "Next Year I'll be Special"

Next year she was going to be in second

grade. Whated a new teache named Miss

Lock. All the children liked Marilyn. Her

teacher had blownd hair and she was nice to

Marilyn. They all sherd there candy. When

she got home she gave a kiss.

Performance in Special Class

The "symptoms" presented by Rosemary were worrisome. But she was fortunate to be in a classroom where the teacher allowed for a range of communicative events (recurring cycles of communication with similar patterns of interaction and intentions) (Hymes, 1964; Saville-Troike, 1982). One of these events was to allow the children who had finished their seatwork to dictate or write stories.

The following story was typical of Rosemary's first efforts:

All Kinds of Flowers

I have seen a tulip.

And also a rose.

And a carnation.

And I saw a pansy too.

I have some verbena at home.

Flowers make your home look nicer.

These stories, in English, were essentially lists, as in kinds of flowers or her family's typical activities. As Rosemary came to know me as a Spanish speaker, however, she produced some very different pieces. She wrote, illustrated, and presented a story in Spanish to me. Her story and an English translation are shown side by side in Figure 1. Notice especially the interesting vocabulary, the formulaic, booklike openings and endings, and the humor she brings out in this piece.

Rosemary also wrote poems, though she was not the original author. She received a book from a family member while in Mexico, read these verses, memorized them, and asked me to help her write them down. The opening and closing are hers.

By allowing students to dictate or write stories on the topics of their choice, Rosemary's teacher widened the angle from which to view her students. The angle was widened still further in another classroom event, sociodramatic play, that is, group, pretend play around a theme such as "house" or "bookstore" (Sachs, Goldman, & Chaille, 1985; Stern, 1984). In sociodramatic play, Rosemary and her classmates showed their upper level oral language skills; successful sociodramatic play requires the use of specific language to identify the fantasy settings, props, and roles and to inform the players about all these elements, as well as to convey the context of interaction and the assumptions that guide it (Pellegrini, 1980; Pellegrini, DeStefano, & Thompson, 1983). The types of language skills that the speech therapists repeatedly reported as deficient in the students--such as specific vocabulary, explicit and precise language for directives, descriptions, and narratives--repeatedly surfaced in this peer-oriented context for talk (Ruiz, 1988a).

This story of Rosemary includes a number of interactional contexts. Her performance on standardized tests and her English compositions on teacher-selected topics showed a child with lower level abilities: a marked academic delay of 3 years and severe writing difficulties at the sentence and discourse level. Rosemary's oral language performance in other formal classroom events (such as class openings and lessons) likewise contributed to a picture of a child struggling with language-related academic tasks (Ruiz, 1988a). These and similar contexts of interaction are the ones most often used by special educators to "anchor" their evaluation reports (Mehan, Hertweck, & Meihls, 1986). However, observations, work samples, and transcriptions of Rosemary in other contexts--for example, writing on self-selected topics in Spanish and participating in sociodramatic play--show a girl who writes clear, interesting pieces with few grammatical errors, as well as a girl who often leads the sociodramatic play, switching easily between Spanish and English, and, in Spanish, using specific and detailed language for descriptions and instructions.


The situational variability in the language and academic performance of bilingual children identified as exceptional learners, as illustrated by Rosemary, has been noted in two other studies of Hispanic students placed in special education. Rueda and Mehan (1986) observed a Mexican-American boy with learning disabilities in a variety of situations in and out of school. As in other studies on English-speaking (Anglo) children with learning disabilities (Hood, McDermott, & Cole, 1981), Rueda and Mehan found that the student displayed both competence and incompetence with reading and writing tasks, depending on the way that the events were organized. When the situation was less constrained (e.g., when he was out of school-like situations), he could "pass" as normal by using social resources to avoid failing at reading and writing tasks--for example, asking the clerk to find the desired video game rather than searching through the alphabetically ordered stacks himself.

In another study, Willig and Swedo (1987) studied Hispanic students in four special education classrooms. They found an increased level of task engagement when the students were participating in activities that drew on and encouraged the expression of personal interest, experience, and language background (it must be noted that the researchers found only a few of these types of activities in the classroom). Aside from corresponding with the instructional features promoting the upper range of Rosemary's abilities, Willig and Swedo's findings parallel the new classroom organizations and strategies emphasized in Mexico's innovative program for children failing within the regular program (see Gonzalez et al., 1986). Gonzalez et al. have found that these Mexican students do well in literacy activities that are meaning based rather than phonics based, that are intended for real audiences and not simply teacher evaluation, and that allow for peer collaboration.

Trueba (1987), on the other hand, identified classroom features that led to deterioration of the students' academic performance: (a) the "relentless pace of instruction", (b) fragmentation of settings and activities, and (c) inattention to the children's cultural adjustments.


The few studies on the learning contexts available to bilingual children placed in special education have begun to identify which situational features of language and learning co-vary with verbal and academic performance. The results from studies previously cited were combined with the results of studies in two other areas: (a) research on effective ways to teach the language arts to bilingual children, and (b) research on effective ways to teach the language arts to children with learning disabilities. This compilation led to the development of nine instructional principles to serve as a provisional framework for effectively teaching language-minority students identified as having mild disabilities. These principles are discussed in detail in The OLE Curriculum Guide (Ruiz, 1988b) and are illustrated with classroom activities incorporating the principles. They also scaffold the instructional treatment in the ongoing study of four resource specialist programs in California (Figueroa, Ruiz, & Rueda, 1988). (See Table 1 for an outline of those nine principles, seven of which are presented here.)

Principle 1. Take into account students' sociocultural backgrounds and their effects on oral language, reading and writing, and second-language learning. There is no doubt that linguistic and cultural differences affect the reading and writing processes (Anderson & Gipe, 1983; Barnitz, 1986; Hudelson, 1983, 1984, 1987; Steffensen & Calken, 1982). This principle focuses on four areas that research and practice have identified as important to language minority children: (a) oral language uses, (b) knowledge about print, (c) background knowledge, and (d) sense of story.

Oral Language Uses. Children must use language in specific ways in the classroom if they are to be seen as competent (see Cazden, 1988, for an extensive review of classroom discourse research). They must also contend with the decontextualized nature of school language (Donaldson, 1978), that is, language disassociated from shared experience and dependent on precise linguistic formulations (Cummins, 1981; Olson & Nickerson, 1978; Wells, 1981).

Some children arrive at school familiar with using language in a decontextualized manner. For example, they may come from homes where books and talk about books were introduced at an early age; their parents may have modeled, scaffolded, and elicited their narratives about real and fictional events; they may have learned how to respond to pseudo-questions or pseudo-requests for information (parents already have the information but are simply eliciting verbal performance from their children) (Heath, 1982; Ochs & Schieffelin, 1982; Snow, 1983).

Research with a variety of minority groups, however, has shown that this is not the only model for child-parent interaction: different cultural groups socialize their children into using language in different ways (Boggs, 1985; Heath, 1983; Philips, 1983; Schieffelin, 1979). Some children are not familiar with the middle-class patterns of home language interaction sketched above. Researchers have suggested that this unfamiliarity is one reason that some culturally different children have difficulty in school language tasks (Au & Jordon, 1981; Heath, 1983; Cazden, 1988; but see Ogbu & Matute-Bianchi, 1986, for criticism of this reasoning).

Researchers have hypothesized that community language-learning contexts also are important for learning to use language in the decontextualized manner called for in the classroom (Heath & McLaughlin, 1987). Children with communication networks that extend into secondary social groups and institutions--such as churches, scout troops, recreation departments, social and financial services--have opportunities to communicate with nonfamily members. In doing so, these children use specific and detailed language to obtain information and services. Though we need more specific research into this area, one important study lends support to the notion that children's personal communication networks affect their language skills. In observing several "barrio" children for an extended period of time in school, home, and community contexts, Shannon (1987) found that Spanish-speaking children's English-language proficiency was positively related to their opportunities to use English in their communication networks outside the home and school.

Heath (1986) suggested that consideration of whether families have sustained contact with secondary groups can explain in part why some language-minority children children do not participate orally in classrooms as they are expected. Children from families with few outside links in their communication networks may not have extended experience with the specific, precise, topic-centered language uses engendered through such contacts. As a group, language-minority families may follow this pattern of a more closed communication network more frequently than families in the cultural mainstream. Social factors are often responsible: the families may be migrant, they may not have legal status, they may be recent immigrants settling in barrios, or they may live in isolated, rural areas (Heath, 1986; Shannon, 1987; Valdes, 1986).

When children from families with relatively closed communication networks have school-language difficulties, educators should not categorize the children as having language disabilities. Rather, educators should recognize that a sociocultural factor has influenced the children's verbal performance and, more important, has pinpointed an area that must be addressed by classroom oral language instruction. Adding to the confusion, however, is research on the language performance of children with learning disabilities. The studies show that these children are less likely than children without disabilities to adapt narratives and explanations to their listener's needs or to seek help or repair communication breakdowns (Donahue, 1981; Feagans & Short, 1984). Moreover, children with learning disabilities are more likely to restrict their forms and uses of language to avoid conversation difficulty (Pearl, Donahue, & Bryan, 1981; Riel, 1983).

Based on this research with language-minority children and those with learning disabilities, The OLE Curriculum Guide suggests classroom oral language activities that have children interacting with peers around a problem they must jointly solve, such as figuring out how to build a crystal rock garden using De Avila's (1988) Finding Out/Descubrimiento math and science program. These activities incorporate what we know about the language characteristics and needs of language-minority children, as well as students with learning disabilities: (a) They use peer-oriented structures for learning that are culturally congruent with certain minority children's interaction patterns (Delgado-Gaitan, 1987; Kagan, 1986; Wong Fillmore, 1986); (b) they focus on problem-solving activities that are associated with better English-proficiency gains among second-language learners (Cathcart, 1986; Doughty & Pica, 1986; Duff, 1986; Rulon & McCreary, 1986); and (c) they require children to use specific and precise language as they clarify meaning and messages for successful completion of the activities (Chaundron, 1988; Littlewood, 1981).

Knowledge About Print. Another area of sociocultural influence is the knowledge about print that children bring to school literacy tasks. Before they start school and begin to learn letter-sound correspondences, children are learning to read and write. Very early on they may be learning why Dad writes a list before he does the grocery shopping (the functions of print), where Mama looks to start to read the storybook (book conventions), and how to read "McDonald's" or "K Mart" from commercial signs (environmental print). Research has shown that knowledge in these and similar areas regarding print is a precursor to conventional reading tasks such as identification of words out of context (Curtis, 1986; Lomax & McGee, 1987).

Schools cannot take for granted that all children have had the print-saturated and print-mediated experiences that precede proficiency in school reading and writing tasks. Although all modern cultural groups interact in some way with print, their values for the forms and functions of print may differ from the school's values (Heath, 1983); or some groups simply may have fewer occasions of parent-child interactions around print (Anderson, A., & Stokes, 1984; Feitelson & Goldstein, 1986; Wells, 1985). Accordingly, The OLE Curriculum Guide recommends that special education classrooms become print-rich environments for all students. Several activities are recommended. One specific activity is to use oversized books (called Big Books) in a shared-book experience (Hamayan & Pfleger, 1987; Holdaway, 1979) and directly involve children in the interchange around books that schools often assume students have experienced.

A child such as Rosemary, at age 11 and after 4 years of schooling, has developed many areas of knowledge about print. However, it is likely that she needs to develop more sophisticated knowledge about reading and writing, such as literary genres and criticism, and awareness of text structures. To develop this knowledge, The OLE Curriculum Guide recommends that children like Rosemary participate in literature study (Bird, 1988; Edelsky, 1988) and in the Writing Workshop (Atwell, 1987; Graves, 1983). Both activities are described later in this article, and both require children to interact with a wide variety of narrative and expository texts.

Background Knowledge. A third aspect of literacy instruction directly influenced by sociocultural differences is background knowledge. The background knowledge readers have about texts has a powerful effect on their comprehension (Anderson, R. C., & Pearson, 1984; Pearson, 1982). Background knowledge, like ways of using language and early experience with print, is built up in a sociocultural context. A robust literature, primarily from the ESL field, is available demonstrating the sociocultural influence of background knowledge on reading (Barnitz, 1986). For example, studies with second-language learners show that when they read texts congruent with their background knowledge (e.g., when Indian students read about a wedding in India rather than a wedding in the United States), they read it faster, they recall both the gist and details better, and they summarize or retell the story better (Barnitz, 1986; Steffensen, Joag-dev, & Anderson, 1979). Another study shows that second-language learners with limited English-language proficiency can do as well as more proficient students on reading comprehension tasks when they do prereading activities that activate and extend the background knowledge pertinent to the text (Hudson, 1982).

A child like Rosemary has developed her areas of background knowledge in her own cultural context. Because she has led a life relatively isolated from many experiences assumed by school texts, the child needs classroom activities to develop and link her knowledge areas to text. The OLE Curriculum Guide recommends activities like the experience-text-relationship (ETR) method, developed as part of the Kamehameha Early Education Project for use with Hawaiian children (Au, 1979). Teachers using this method identify the central idea of a text and ask students like Rosemary about their experiences with the situation (the "experience" phase). They then record these accounts on the chalkboard, or simply discuss them, and ask for students' predictions about what will happen in the book. Students and teachers read the story during the "text" phase. For the final phase, "relationship," they discuss possible connections between their own experiences and the action of the text. Whether reading an entertaining book to their students or introducing a social studies chapter, teachers following The OLE Curriculum Guide know that activities that develop, expand, and link students' background knowledge with texts are requisite steps for maximizing student comprehension.

Sense of Story. The final sociocultural influence on reading and writing discussed here deals with the development of a sense of story or narrative schema, that is, an internal sense of the usual components of a story: setting, main character(s), problem, attempts to resolve the problem, character reactions to the attempts, and resolution (Stein & Nezworski, 1978). The relationship between narrative schema and better reading comprehension is evident in the reading instruction literature for both students with normal abilities (Fitzgerald & Spiegel, 1983) and students with learning disabilities (Montague, Maddux, & Dereshiwsky, 1988; Wong & Jones, 1982). Studies in this area also make the case for direct instruction in story grammar for students with reading comprehension problems (Short & Ryan, 1984).

Researchers have extensively studied storytime routines among middle-class families in which narrative schemata, as well as other story-related knowledge, are built up (Heath, 1982; Ninio & Bruner, 1978; Snow, 1983; Sulzby, 1985; Thomas, 1985). There is a general feeling that when young children have infrequent storytimes with their parents, they have difficulty with story comprehension tasks in school, though direct investigation of this hypothesis is still outstanding (Mason & Allen, 1986).

For Rosemary, then, an optimal learning environment would have her reading (and listening to) a variety of well-formed stories. In addition, The OLE Curriculum Guide tentatively suggests some direct instruction on story grammar and story mapping, given the reported success of this type of training among students with learning disabilities.

Principle 2. Take into account the students' possible learning handicaps and their effects on oral language, reading, writing, and second-language learning. The field of learning disabilities has been heavily influenced by cognitive science models and research, as have other fields such as reading instruction and linguistics (Kolligan & Sternberg, 1987; Swanson, 1987). Though the resulting cognitive/learning-strategy model has been criticized for being as reductionistic as the earlier medical and psychological process models of learning disabilities (Poplin, 1988), there have been impressive reports of its theoretical and instructional application to students with learning disabilities. For example, the view of such a student as an inactive learner (Torgensen, 1977) is supported by a number of investigations (Bos & Fili, 1984; Donahue, 1985; Wong & Jones, 1982). So is the view that strategy training is helpful to students with learning disabilities (Brown & Palincsar, 1982; Ryan, Short, & Weed, 1986; Wong, 1985). Consequently, The OLE Curriculum Guide includes explicit instruction in reading and writing strategies.

In an OLE classroom, Rosemary's teacher would not stop with involving the children in prereading activities to access and develop their background knowledge. The teacher would explain the importance of knowing as much as possible about a text before reading it; demonstrate a strategy such as the survey text method (Aukerman, 1972), which students can use to prepare themselves before they read a text; and provide opportunities for the students to practice the strategy. Reciprocal teaching (Brown, 1985; Palincsar & Brown, 1984) is another type of strategy recommended, this time directed at comprehension monitoring, a typical reading difficulty among readers with learning disabilities.

Principle 3. Follow developmental processes in literacy acquisition. Studies show children progressing through developmental phases on a continuum of literacy skills. Although there is some disagreement on the specific course through these phases, as well as the best research methodology for examining this development, there is widespread concurrence on general patterns of literacy development among children exposed to print before the onset of schooling. This concurrence exists even among researchers studying disparate populations, such as native English speakers (Clay, 1979; Ehri, 1986); Spanish speakers (Ferreiro & Teberosky, 1982; Hernandez-Chavez & Curtis, 1984); and ESL learners (Hudelson, 1984).

The OLE Curriculum Guide calls for language arts instruction that acknowledges the importance of developmental phases of literacy acquisition in a number of ways. First, teachers should give students like Rosemary the time they need to develop their knowledge about reading and writing in highly interactive literacy events. Second, student errors in their reading and writing attempts should not automatically be viewed as "bad habits" (Flores, Rueda, & Porter, 1986). Instead, teachers should examine the errors for evidence of what children can do, as evidence of their progress through developmental phases. Finally, teachers should realize that not providing the rich language and literacy environment described here is an impoverished curriculum that will promote impoverished learners.

Principle 4. Locate curriculum in a meaningful context where the communicative purpose is clear and authentic. There is strong concurrence among the fields of teaching ESL, reading, and writing for moving away from the behaviorist-oriented pattern drills toward having students communicate real messages to real audiences (Atwell, 1987; Calkins, 1986; Graves, 1983; Krashen, 1981; Littlewood, 1981; Smith, 1985). In such activities, authentic, meaningful oral and written discourse receives the top priority; and form considerations are dealt with subsequently. The ESL teaching activities mentioned earlier (those calling for collaboration in solving a problem) meet this criterion.

One important way to encourage "meaning making" among children is to engage children in reading and writing whole texts instead of text fragments removed from context (Altwerger, Edelsky, & Flores, 1987). Traditional special education classrooms have often broken down curriculum in an attempt to facilitate learning (Cummins & McNeely, 1987). Students of all ages can better construct meaning from conversations and written texts when they can use the many levels of cues facilitated by whole speech activities or written texts (Edelsky, 1988; Goodman, 1969; Gumperz, 1982). There is no evidence that children with learning disabilities are somehow better able to profit from a reductionist approach, typical of many of the specialist approaches in special education, to reading and writing (Hicks, 1986).

The OLE Curriculum Guide recommends that in reading lessons, students like Rosemary interact with whole books, poems, and other forms of written language as a way to facilitate meaning making. For writing, teachers should use the Writing Workshop approach described by Atwell (1987). Here, students have control over intentions, topic, and audience as they write and publish their own books. Rosemary and her classmates would meet frequently for peer conferences on their pieces, simultaneously stimulating their need to be clear and interesting writers, as well as providing yet another authentic, oral language opportunity.

Principle 5. Connect curriculum with the students' personal experiences. Once again, there is a consensus among classroom researchers studying language-minority children, in both regular and special education, that these students show greater progress or increased investment when reading and writing tasks give them the opportunity to interject their personal experiences (Au & Jordan, 1981; Flores et al., 1986; Willig & Swedo, 1987). The OLE Curriculum Guide gives specific suggestions on how to connect students' personal topics to the language arts curriculum, such as the Writing Workshop and the ETR method described earlier.

Principle 6. Incorporate children's literature into reading, writing, and ESL lessons. The argument for using literature to teach reading, writing, and oral language skills has been presented earlier in this article. Using actual examples of literature can extend students' knowledge about print (including the more sophisticated aspects of this knowledge, such as text structure or style), increase areas of their background knowledge, and facilitate the construction of meaning through whole texts. Surprisingly, the field of ESL--formerly so dominated by a behavioristic orientation toward second-language learning, as well as a concern for the surface forms of language such as syntax--has joined the call for using literature with both child and adult second-language learners.

In a comprehensive article on the use of literature in the ESL classroom, Gajdusek (1988) focused on an advantage specifically important to second-language learners. She makes the point that literature, even more than expository writing, is decontextualized; that is, its clues to meaning are more implicit than explicit. In short, there is a meaning gap. This gap is similar to the "information gap" activities recommended in communicative language teaching, and to the referential communication (or "barrier") tasks used by speech therapists. The gap creates a need among students for detailed communication and use of interpretive skills. Second-language learners working through literary works must negotiate the meaning, not only among themselves and the text, but also with others. These negotiating moves (e.g., checks for understanding, requests for clarification) have been linked to better English-language gains (see Chaundron, 1988, for a review of recent second-language studies).

As one way of bringing literature into the special education classroom, The OLE Curriculum Guide recommends that children like Rosemary receive reading instruction through literature study (Alvarez & Mangiola, 1988; Bird, 1988; Edelsky, 1988). Essentially, literature study involves the children's selecting a commercially published book to read, from a set previewed by the teacher. Children reading the same literature books meet in response groups to discuss their reading. They return to their books, researching group-inspired topics. Children keep a "reading dialogue journal," in which they write their thoughts, feelings, progress, and problems about the day's reading. Teacher-student interactive journals such as these have been shown to promote literacy skill development in bilingual students in regular and special education (Flores & Garcia, 1984; Flores et al., 1986; Peyton, 1987; Peyton & Mackinson-Smyth, 1988).

Principle 7. Involve parents as active partners in the instruction of their children. In an analysis of parent-participation programs in schools, Leler (1983) found two general program categories: (a) programs in which there was "mutual" influence between the schools and homes--that is, the schools in some way acknowledged home-based ways of teaching; and (b) programs in which parents simply were perceived as reinforcers. In the former, 100% of the programs showed positive effects; in the latter, 70% showed positive effects. Many of the original studies reviewed by Leler involved economically disadvantaged and minority families.

Unfortunately, the current picture of the language-minority parents' role within special education is a dismal one. The following is an example taken from one of the handful of major texts on bilingual special education. Carrasquillo (1986) stated the following about a minority parent's role in helping her child who had been designated as communicatively handicapped:

In normal circumstances, Mrs. Melendez will

not be able to help her children, especially

Carlos, since she does not have the academic

background to know what to teach and where

to start.

Those who are concerned only with how to change the home learning environment to resemble or reinforce that of the school ignore the importance of the "home curriculum." Moreover, such a position weakens or even eliminates the parents' role as their children's primary teachers. It also denies them their right to be "informed consumers" with respect to their children's education (Figueroa, 1987; Martinez, undated).

The OLE Curriculum Guide details various ways to promote equitable parent-school partnerships. One is Project TOT (Training of Trainers) in which language-minority parents who are knowledgeable about the inner workings of schools join with families who do not yet use the available special education services. The families participate in small-group seminars to acquire information and skills related to getting those services, as well as forming ongoing support groups. Another model to encourage school-home partnerships has a literacy emphasis. Developed by Dr. Alma Flor Ada (1988) the "Pajaro Valley

Model" involves language-minority parents meeting to listen to children's literature read aloud in their native language. After listening to the books, the parents choose one and then gather in groups with parents who have chosen the same book to discuss their reactions to the story. Parents then take the books home to share with their children, along with blank notebooks in which the children respond to the story in writing or with illustrations. Parents return in subsequent meetings to share their experiences and select other books to bring home.


Language-minority students in special education, like Rosemary, are not the only students who need an optimal learning environment; all students do. As the current, data-based literature on bilingual children in special education points out, however, the wrongs done to them are exceptionally severe: misidentification, misplacement, misuse of tests, and poor academic performance within special education (Figueroa, 1986; Ortiz, 1986; Rueda, Cardoza, Mercer, & Carpenter, 1984). That literature shows that there must be a dramatic move away from traditional ways of teaching oral language and literacy skills and a move toward an enriched, holistic curriculum as outlined here--one much more typical of a gifted program than a remedial program. Without such a change, children like Rosemary will simply become part of these pervasive problems.

Regarding the question of how to give Rosemary and other language-minority children an optimal learning environment, this article suggests that special educators take advantage of the available knowledge base showing the effects of linguistic and cultural differences on language and literacy learning. This knowledge base has served as a scaffold for the instructional principles discussed here and in The OLE Curriculum Guide. It can also serve as a guideline for future empirical investigations on the specific instructional features that can create an optimal learning environment in regular and special education for bilingual and culturally different students. [Figure 1 to 2 Omitted] [Tabular Data Omitted]

NADEEN T. RUIZ is Consultant, Special Education Demonstration Project, University of California, Davis.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Council for Exceptional Children
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Author:Ruiz, Nadeen T.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Oct 1, 1989
Previous Article:Defining mild disabilities with language-minority students.
Next Article:Psychological testing of linguistic-minority students: knowledge gaps and regulations.

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