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Why can Palo Alto grade schoolers read Mandarin better than students in AP Chinese classes?

June 4, 2015
By Joyce Gemperlein
Tyler and his mother Susan Kramer in a classroom at Ohlone Elementary School in Palo Alto, Calif. (Photo by Norbert von der Groeben)
Tyler and Susan Kramer in the Palo Alto, Calif., school where he studies Mandarin. (Photo by Norbert von der Groeben )
Amado Padilla
Amado Padilla
Two studies show immersion students achieve proficiency in Mandarin without falling behind in other subjects.

Stanford Graduate School of Education researchers found that 4th and 5th graders in a Palo Alto, Calif., Mandarin immersion program attained a level of linguistic competency comparable with that of nearby high schoolers completing the 4th and 5th level Advanced Placement Mandarin courses.

Some of those Ohlone Elementary School immersion students even outperformed the teenagers in reading. Perhaps most startling, there was little difference in achievement between the heritage learners at Ohlone and their classmates who had no previous exposure to Mandarin.

Those findings and more are detailed in the Spring 2015 issue of Foreign Language Annals from a research project led by Stanford GSE’s Amado Padilla. It is the first study to compare exiting elementary immersion students — in any language — with high school students studying the same language, he said.

“We were really surprised how strong the immersion language learners emerged when compared with the high school students — stronger than we had imagined,” Padilla, professor of psychological studies in education, said, adding that the findings show the benefits of starting children in dual-language programs in grade school.

The study comes in the wake of another research paper that Padilla and colleagues published in 2013 that showed how Mandarin immersion students at Ohlone were not falling behind in mathematics, science and other subjects: They performed as well as their non-immersion peers on standardized tests — given in English — on core content areas, including English language arts, even though they had much less instructional time in English.

Ohlone parent Wendy Ho of Palo Alto said that she is gratified by the findings of both studies, though they confirmed what she had expected.

Her son, Brendan, began in the immersion program in kindergarten and is now in its third grade. Neither Wendy nor her husband, Michael, speak Mandarin even though their ancestry might suggest that they do. She praised the Ohlone program, calling it a blessing that gives their son early instruction in a second language and allows him to converse in the language with his grandparents – often over Skype.

Second-grader Tyler Kramer has been in the immersion program at Ohlone since kindergarten. His parents, Susan and Tom, believe in the efficacy of immersion language programs and were overjoyed that Tyler got into Ohlone’s when they moved to Palo Alto from San Francisco.

The couple, who are well-versed in European languages, hesitated only momentarily, questioning “our ability to support and reinforce” their son’s Mandarin studies. Susan Kramer said that she is pleased with her son’s progress, though she sometimes worries he may fall behind due to extra-curricular Saturday classes in Mandarin that many other classmates attend. She added that she would like for her son to be able to study the language after leaving the elementary school program, a view also expressed by Wendy Ho. 

The new research data lends support for Mandarin courses at the middle-school level to position 5th grade immersion graduates to advance to a higher level of Mandarin proficiency once they reach high school, where advanced placement programs are increasingly common.  The Palo Alto Unified School District is planning to have a new Mandarin class next fall at Jordan Middle School.

Padilla, who is faculty advisor of the California World Language Project, has been scrutinizing the teaching of Mandarin in Palo Alto schools for eight years. In this latest study, both the elementary immersion pupils and the AP students were tested in listening, reading, writing and speaking Mandarin using the Mandarin Standards-Based Measurement of Proficiency 4Se test (STAMP).

The study’s participants from Ohlone, a public elementary school, consisted of 48 students, 20 of whom were heritage learners. At the high school level, 119 Mandarin students participated. Seventy-one were heritage learners. (A heritage learner is a student who is raised in a home where a non-English language – in this case, Mandarin —is spoken, or who speaks or understands a non-English language to some degree and is culturally connected to that language.)

 “Interestingly, even when taking into account scores from [the] greater percentage of non-heritage speakers, the immersion students [at Ohlone] still performed at higher levels than the high school students in STAMP reading proficiency,” Padilla writes in the research report.

Additionally, Padilla noted that while very few high school non-heritage learners advanced to AP Level 5 Mandarin, most in the non-heritage group remained in the immersion program for the duration from kindergarten through fifth grade and, by the end of that program, had linguistic skills comparable, or nearly comparable, to those of the elementary heritage learners.

Padilla’s study is timely: More and more school districts are weighing the pros and cons of offering Mandarin instruction from kindergarten through high school. One argument against the programs has been that they spend education dollars on too few students at the expense of a school’s larger population, who do not have the opportunity to learn a world language during their elementary school experience.

The number of Chinese language programs in United States schools has expanded since the late 1990s. By June 2014, approximately 149 schools, most elementary, offered Mandarin immersion programs, with the largest number on the West Coast.

Padilla said that the growing popularity is, in part, “driven by parents who are exploring questions of enrichment programs to help their children compete in a global economy.”  Another propellant that he cited is demographic shifting that has increased the numbers of students with Asian heritages in various school districts.

But sometimes proposals to start Mandarin immersion program face opposition, as parents and educators may question whether the costs merit the benefit of such programs. They may also have concerns about such programs not being suitable for the majority of students.

Padilla’s research findings provide valuable information for such discussions.

Parents are realizing that “if you want to produce a bilingual speaker, the younger the better when it comes to instruction” — and that such instruction increases overall cognitive ability, he said.

Padilla’s work contributes to a growing body of literature demonstrating these positive benefits. The findings suggest that instruction in a Mandarin immersion program can lead to high levels of linguistic proficiency even for a language like Chinese, which is categorized by linguists as one of the most challenging languages to learn for English monolingual speakers.

Padilla said that he hopes that the data from his team’s latest study can be used as a tool for planning, implementing and sustaining well-articulated sequential language programs that begin in the early grades and continue throughout students’ K-12 learning experience.

The study notes the relatively small sample size and its composition — upper-middle class suburban students – in a school district known to be excellent. It also acknowledges the limited parameters of the STAMP assessment and states that more research is called for.

 The research team for both studies included Padilla; Duarte M. Silva, executive director of Stanford’s School of Education California World Language Project; and Xiaoqiu Xu of Pearson Knowledge Technologies. Lorraine Fan of Stanford’s GSE participated in the 2013 study.  

The researchers received support from the Foreign Language Assistance Program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, and from the STARTALK project, which is funded by the National Security Agency, via the National Foreign Language Center.

Joyce Gemperlein, a freelance writer in the Bay Area, wrote this story for Stanford Graduate School of Education.