The number of immigrant and international students learning English as a second language who failed English 12 has tripled over the past five years in Richmond.
The percentage of English-language learners who failed English 12 in Richmond has risen to 10 per cent from three per cent between 2011 and 2016. This number shows a markedly different trend from other school districts in the Lower Mainland.
In Burnaby, the percentage went down to eight per cent from 25 per cent in the same time frame. Vancouver and Surrey school districts reported the percentage of English-language learner students who failed English 12 in 2016 at seven and four per cent, respectively.
That failure rate comes at a time when more Richmond parents of students who don’t speak English as a first language are concerned about their child’s English learning because more Chinese students are speaking their mother tongue at school. In the 2016 census, the overall Chinese population in Richmond tipped above 50 per cent for the first time. Chinese students form a majority group in Richmond schools in a way that doesn’t exist in almost every other part of the region.
“Richmond has a lot of Chinese people,” said Jenny Kong, who moved to Richmond with her son three years ago from Beijing. “When you’re surrounded by all these Chinese people, of course you use your mother tongue.”
Language environment is important
Teachers in Richmond schools are also noticing that Chinese students are avoiding speaking English when they’re outside the classroom, which is a problem.
“Language environment is important to learning any language. Most of the students probably speak Chinese at home with their parents. Now, because there are so many Chinese students at school, they stick together in groups and speak Chinese all the time,” said Tina Ding, who has been a language teacher for 18 years. She teaches Mandarin and the English Language Learning program at Richmond Secondary School.
“The only time they speak English is during in-class exercises.”
Jia Chen, the mother of a Grade 11 student who is in ELL, also expressed her concern that her son’s English is not improving at the rate she had hoped.
“I feel that what he’s learning in ELL is not enough to help him in other classes, like social studies, so I need to get him tutoring outside of school,” said Chen.
The concerns that Ding and Chen raised are consistent with the research findings of Guofang Li, a professor in the department of language and literacy education at the University of British Columbia.
However, Li noted that parents and teachers tend to pin Chinese language usage as the cause of slower English learning for ELL students because they believe it’s better to learn a second language by tuning out your first language. Li disagrees.
“Blaming Chinese as the cause of not learning English devalues the value of Chinese in supporting the language learning,” said Li.
“Linguistic transfer and academic literacy transfer theories support that if you’re very strong academically in Chinese, then you are able to transfer those skills in the second language.”
Classroom environment with ELL students
All students whose first language is not English must take English Language Learning courses as part of their curriculum. Depending on the student’s ELL level, instruction is given either in a separate class or as a part of English class.
Although the Richmond school district has been shrinking over the past five years, down to 20,845 students in 2016 from 22,138 in 2012, the proportion of ELL students has been consistent, around 27 per cent.
ELL students may require more help in regular classes due to their language abilities. This can post challenges for non-ELL students in the same classroom. Richmond District Parents Association president Dionne McFie said that some parents are concerned with ELL students taking up more of the teacher’s time in class, especially when they seem to be learning English at an even slower rate than usual with immigrant children.
“The teacher’s time becomes less spread out over all and more concentrated to adapt or clarify work from ELL students,” said McFie.
“Other students that struggle for other reasons or those that could perhaps enhance their work with some teacher advice, they are left to their own devices to work and learn.”
But Li thinks parents are worrying too much about the wrong things.
“The common perception is to blame students who speak too much Chinese but ,from an educational point of view, I think that teachers and the public needs to think about the current way of teaching English and ask, ‘Is it working?’”
Li even suggests that language teaching should move towards a more multi-lingual approach.
“People come to Canada with rich linguistic backgrounds. You can’t just shut it down and start all over again,” said Li. “So why not build on that background and think instead about alternative models of schooling?”
The Richmond school district did not respond to multiple efforts by The Thunderbird to get a comment.