1. How do you distinguish between language proficiency and content knowledge when assessing student performance in the content areas?

In TWI classrooms, as in all second language learning environments, it is very hard to distinguish between language proficiency and content knowledge, as language is always involved in conveying information. However, using the recommended practice of developing both content and language objectives for each lesson or unit can help tease apart these two issues. Once these objectives have been developed, teachers can generate descriptors for differing levels of attainment (e.g., through the development of a rubric) in order to keep track of the level at which students are performing in language and in content. This will help illuminate the extent to which students know the language of the content area and the extent to which they have understood the concepts presented in that content area.

One advantage of the TWI setting is that it allows teachers to assess students in their native language if there is concern that their level of mastery of a content topic as assessed is compromised by limited second language proficiency. This may be particularly important for new arrivals in the upper elementary grades (specifically English language learners for whom the TWI program is often the best placement), who are likely to be substantially behind their peers in second language proficiency.

It is very important that teachers not water down the curriculum because of concerns about limited language proficiency. It is one thing to adapt the language and something else to minimize the cognitive demands of a task. Regardless of the language proficiency of the students, it is important for teachers to require appropriate levels of thinking for completing academic tasks, such as retrieval, comprehension, analysis, knowledge utilization, and metacognition (Marzano, 2001). This is true even when the child is learning a second language or has a learning disability.

Some strategies recommended by Patricia Martínez, a teacher at Key Elementary School’s 50/50 immersion program in Arlington, VA follow:

  • Provide a word bank so that students can use those words to demonstrate their knowledge.
  • Provide vocabulary on bulletin boards that are visible to students.
  • Provide students with opportunities to draw as well as write responses.
  • Provide assessments in the native language.
  • Scaffold assessments by adding visuals and graphics, stressing important key words by using bold font and bulleted information, providing for a variety of ways to answer, limiting the amount of information on one page, and modifying the length of paragraphs and level of difficulty of vocabulary.
  • Use performance-based assessments and anecdotal records to assess students' learning.
  • Include self-evaluations in the teaching-learning process. The use of happy faces or other visual representations will help the student express how well they think they have learned the topic or what they feel they need to work on.
  • Have students show what they have learned through role-playing
  • Have students keep a journal of their thinking processes.
  • Take pictures of the students working and then have them explain what they were doing in each picture.
  • Have students show they understand something by teaching it to another (perhaps younger) student.