KU News: KC project to help KU build African linguistic expertise

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Project to help KU build African linguistic expertise
LAWRENCE – A grant from the National Science Foundation will permit a University of Kansas researcher to work with Congolese refugees in the Kansas City area on a project he hopes will clarify certain Bantu language features while bolstering KU’s status as a hub for both African and linguistic studies. John Gluckman, assistant professor of linguistics, will receive $320,000 for the grant.

Study shows program improves teaching skills, students’ word problem-solving
LAWRENCE — Students learning to solve math word problems can struggle to combine mathematical and language skills. For English language learners, that challenge can be even greater as they attempt to learn math concepts in a second language. A new study from the University of Kansas has found that a professional development intervention with evidence-based practices helped an educator improve her teaching skills and boosted students’ abilities to solve word problems and maintain their improvement.

Full stories below.

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Contact: Rick Hellman, KU News Service, 785-864-8852, [email protected], @RickHellman
Project to help KU build African linguistic expertise
LAWRENCE – A grant from the National Science Foundation will permit a University of Kansas professor to work with Congolese refugees in the Kansas City area on a project he hopes will clarify certain Bantu language features while bolstering KU’s status as a hub for both African and linguistic studies.
John Gluckman, assistant professor of linguistics, will receive $320,000 for the grant.
Bantu is a family of more than 600 languages spoken throughout central, southern and east Africa.

According to an abstract describing his proposal, Gluckman wrote that it “expands the general understanding of sentences-within-sentences by focusing on variation within the Bantu languages, primarily within the subfamily of Bantu languages spoken around the Great Lakes in East Africa.” Gluckman wrote that the project will examine particularly the role of “complementizers,” or words that serve to connect clauses in sentences within sentences. He used the example of the word “that” in the following sentence: Wekesa thinks that Masika left.
With the grant funds, Gluckman said, he intends to hire one or more African linguists to come over during the three-year project to provide their native-speaking expertise while learning the latest in linguistic techniques and theories at KU.
“Most of the grant money is going to bringing in African students to train here at KU,” Gluckman said. “One of the things we’re worried about in the linguistics community is that there’s not enough diversity of representation. Most of the people who do linguistic work are like me — white men and non-native speakers. So we’re trying to make this a more accessible, open environment, getting native-speaker linguists into the conversations, getting them to have voices, giving them the training that they can then take home and start documenting the languages around them.”
Gluckman said he speaks passable Kiswahili, which is one of the Bantu languages, and one he called the “lingua franca” of the eastern African region being studied. And he has already made enough contacts in the Congolese refugee community in Greater Kansas City to believe the project can work here.
“Linguists recognize that it’s very important to document these communities and their languages, which are not as endangered as some other languages, but they’re definitely in danger of dying out within a few generations,” Gluckman said.
And while preserving the languages is not the grant’s primary focus, Gluckman said the project will help with that goal, too, by developing “narrative resources” that succeeding generations in the Bantu diaspora can use.
“We’re going to make stories that we’re going to put online — monolingual stories, because a lot of these languages are not known in the diaspora communities; they’re not really being spoken so much in America. People are defaulting to English, Swahili, Kinyarwanda … So we’re going to try to record a lot of these languages and get them online so that kids can start reading things in their native language.”
Gluckman said he is pleased that his project will add to the study of African topics on the Lawrence campus.
“We already have access here to the Kansas African Studies Center, which is a huge hub for African resources. We have the Department of African & African-American Studies here, which is amazing. So I want this community also to feel like they have a connection here, as well. We’re trying to build this up.”

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Contact: Mike Krings, KU News Service, 785-864-8860, [email protected], @MikeKrings
Study shows program improves teaching skills, students’ word problem-solving
LAWRENCE — Students learning to solve math word problems can struggle to combine mathematical and language skills. For English language learners, the fastest-growing minority in U.S. schools, that challenge can be even greater as they attempt to learn math concepts in a second language. A new study from the University of Kansas has found that a professional development intervention with evidence-based practices helped an educator improve her teaching skills and boosted students’ abilities to solve word problems and maintain their improvement.
Michael Orosco, associate professor of educational psychology at KU, co-wrote a study in which he provided a professional development intervention to help a third grade special education teacher model concepts for students in solving word problems as well as help them understand difficult vocabulary. The teacher then used those skills in teaching nine Hispanic English-learning students with math learning disabilities. Each of the students progressed from the level at which they started into solving more difficult problems and maintained the improvement after the intervention.
The study is an example of how professional development can be viewed as implementation science, a practice in which research is transferred effectively into practice. In the case of professional development for a teacher, it can be a more effective way to apply what is learned in research to what teachers practice in the classroom.
“Professional development is one of the biggest next steps we’re going to have to think about in education,” Orosco said. “Especially with teachers who have high levels of diversity and English learners in their classes. In this case we were able to apply it to word problems, which are a precursor to algebra.”
The study, which Orosco co-wrote with Deborah Reed, professor of special education at the University of Iowa, was published in the Journal of Learning Disabilities, the top-rated educational psychology journal by Google Scholar. For the study, Orosco worked with a teacher who wanted further training on how to teach math concepts to English learners with math learning difficulties. The intervention, based on evidence-based practices, took a baseline measure of the students’ abilities, trained the teacher in instructional scaffolding — or how to better model word problem-solving skills, contextualize questions and teach math vocabulary to the population — and then retested their abilities after implementation.
The success of both the teacher and students are evidence that individualized professional development interventions are a valuable alternative to randomized, controlled trials, in which interventions are tested with dozens or even hundreds of students and multiple teachers.
“In public education, you can’t control for all variables, because there are always unique characteristics with different students, different communities and many other factors,” Orosco said. “Single case research is ideal in this case. If one teacher needs help, let’s give it to them. If one school needs help, let’s give it to them. And if one teacher needs additional help, we can give it to them.”
The intervention trained the teacher not only to help contextualize ideas in a second language for the students, but helped the teacher and students communicate, and the students showed they were able to reflect on their experiences. It also helped develop a “feedback loop” between educator and students, in which the former offered instruction and encouragement, the latter could ask questions, and if a student did not understand, they could pause the lesson and focus more on the concept in question. Following the intervention, the students took a standardized test to gauge their word problem-solving ability, and all nine had maintained their improvements and abilities to solve more difficult problems, indicating what Orosco calls a “transfer effect” of the research to the teacher and in turn to the students.
Orosco, who has published research in both randomized clinical trials and single-case experimental design for word problem-solving for English learners and tools to help educators reach the same population, said the current study with a single-case design is ideal for translating evidence-based research directly to classrooms and helping teachers, who often do not have the time to find published research and attempt to translate it into their own work.
“Our teacher in this study was able to get these kids to solve word problems at higher levels, which is not only addressing math skills, but language skills as well,” Orosco said. “We do this to show that this is solid, practical implementation science. This is doable, and schools can build it into their practices. We have a lot more work to do in professional development to help teachers.”
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