Professor Richard Turner
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Professor Richard Turner Raises the ELD/ESOL Bar for Concordia Portland’s Master of Education

By Marcus Hennessy, CEA July 12, 2012

Professor Richard TurnerAs an expert in the field of language development for impoverished students, Concordia University-Portland Professor Richard Turner is fully aware of the obstacles Latinos and Hispanics must overcome to succeed in American schools.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (2008-2010), 61 percent of Latino children under the age of 18 live in families well below the federal poverty level. At the same time, the Hispanic and Latino student population is the fastest growing of the four largest ethnic groups in the U.S. By 2021, one in four children enrolled in K-12 schools will be Latino.

Professor Turner spent nearly two years working among remote and impoverished schools in Guatemala, an experience that affected him deeply.

“A line sticks in my head from a book I read when I was in high school,” Turner said. “The author, Antoine de-Saint Exupéry, is on a train during World War II. There’s a great deal of poverty and despair in Europe. While looking at these dirty faces of people who are hungry, desperate, and homeless he says he sees in the faces of the children Mozart murdered.”

“In other words, the potential is in all of these kids,” Turner explained, “but due to circumstances beyond their control, they’re denied access to the opportunities that we take for granted. Some of the kids in our schools, they don’t appreciate it and throw it away. These kids that I’ve worked with in Guatemala would kill to have this opportunity.”

Knowing that the 63 percent high school graduation rate among Latino students is still far below the national average, Professor Turner has dedicated himself to overcoming the challenges young students face as they struggle to excel from dire circumstances.

“There’s a book called Meaningful Differences that talks about the poverty of language that poor kids experience,” Turner elaborated.  “The statistics are staggering; between the ages of zero and five, a middle-class or upper-middle-class child will hear millions of more words than a child raised in poverty. So middle-class kids are much more prepared for school, and for the cognitive thinking requirements of school, than a child raised in poverty.”

Other research reinforces this claim. A 2009 study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience asserted that the differences in brain functions between 9- and 10-year-old students from low-income and wealthy families were significant, and that these neural impairments affected the development of language and cognitive skills.

Over the past two years at Concordia Portland, Professor Turner has worked on a Language Development Strand to address specific learning deficiencies.

“The English Language Development Strand is a way to give teachers the theory and strategies that will help even English-dominant kids who are suffering from the language deficits caused by poverty,” he noted, “and give them strategies to work with kids who may have the same difficulty accessing academic language as ESL students.”

“I’ve also been working on combining the theory and the practice of language development into a curriculum map so that teachers have a monthly blueprint to plan their lessons,” Turner said. “In other words, the music teacher can do it, the PE teacher can do it, the social studies teacher can do it; everyone needs to be conscious of higher level thinking skills and academic language for whatever lesson they’re teaching.”

Professor Turner believes that with these enhanced resources for teachers enrolled in the Master of Education program, Concordia Portland is now a solid leader in the ESL/ESOL field. “We’re going to be a leader in this field as we add these kinds of programs that address the growing need in this country, both the growing diversity as we have more immigrants and more second-language speakers, and the achievement gap that’s caused by poverty.”

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