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Looking behind the ‘model minority mask’ to help educationally at-risk multilingual students

June 12, 2019

Image credit: Paul H. Joseph

The stereotype of the high-achieving Chinese student in Canada, called the ‘model minority’, can mask differences in learning within this community, and a lack of research in this area means educationally at-risk students are being overlooked.

That is according to Language Sciences member and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Transnational/Global Perspectives of Language and Literacy Education of Children and Youth professor Guofang Li, who is investigating what factors might affect the differences in achievement of Canadian-situated Mandarin and Cantonese speakers in high school.

What does your research investigate, and why do you do it?

Broadly, my research investigates factors that facilitate or hinder immigrant and minority children’s bilingual and bicultural development in school, home, and community spaces.

My own experiences as an immigrant and minority scholar in Western academia have shaped my work on immigrant and minority language and literacy education and my belief in the importance of acting locally and connecting globally with issues related to language, culture, identity, and power.

You and Language Sciences member professor Lee Gunderson were awarded a 2017 SSHRC Insight Grant for the project ‘Behind the model minority mask: Identifying early factors in Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking children’s divergent literacy and academic trajectories in Canadian schools’ – what does this project involve?

This study will identify factors that may affect Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking students’ differential achievements in English and core academic subjects in the early years. We will follow a longitudinal cohort of 200 Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking children from Grades 1 to 3, their parents, and their teachers from both mainstream and community language schools in Metro Vancouver.

Why is this project important? What do you mean by ‘model minority mask’?

Recent media hype about the high achievement of students from Shanghai in international math, science, and reading assessments has reinvigorated the “model minority” stereotype surrounding Chinese students, the largest immigrant group in both Canada and the U.S.

These stereotypes, however, mask the complexity of Chinese sub-communities, as illustrated in recent studies that found differential achievement patterns between Canadian-situated Mandarin and Cantonese speakers in high school, including that large numbers of Cantonese boys were found to be ineligible for college admission in comparison to their Chinese female peers.

These educationally at-risk students are being overlooked due to a lack of research that addresses what factors contributed to these differences and when these differences began to manifest in their schooling.

The proposed study will fill this knowledge gap by identifying these factors in the children’s first three years of schooling, a critical time for learning to read and a pivotal point linked to ongoing success in school and high school graduation.

What do you hope the project will achieve?

We hope our project will help inform both teachers and parents about ways to better support our young learners. These factors will provide critical knowledge that educators need to improve the learning of underperforming students (i.e. Cantonese boys) who are educationally at-risk in Canadian schools. The findings will help identify characteristics of supportive ESL environments and inform early intervention through effective ESL program design and teacher professional development. We also hope that the findings will help parents effectively support their children in school and at home in the early years.

Why is it important to ‘better educate immigrant children and help them succeed’? How can we better train teachers to do this?

Schools across Canada have witnessed a rapid increase in the number of immigrant students who are super diverse in terms of languages, cultures, immigration histories, and socioeconomic statuses. These students, often labeled as English language learners (ELLs), have been reported to experience persistent achievement gaps and higher dropout or disappearance rate in comparison to their non-ELLs peers. Therefore, it is really important to help remove the barriers for achievements for these children in their schooling.

Teachers are considered the most important school-based influence in improving these students’ achievement, but the increasing cultural and linguistic diversity in the classrooms poses tremendous challenges. To better train teachers to do this, we must first move beyond the belief that “just good teaching” that works for non-ELL students or students with special needs would also work for ELLs. Rather, teachers need special training for this population.

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