Dissertation Award 2016

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Katherine A. Bernstein, Assistant Professor in the Division of Teacher Preparation in Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University is the recipient of the 2016 (and first) AAAL Dissertation Award. The AAAL Dissertation Award Committee faced a difficult choice when selecting the awardee, and would like to recognize the scholarship represented in the dissertation submissions of the two finalists as well. Jimin Kahng (Northeastern Illinois University) completed her study titled “Exploring the production and perception of second language fluency: Utterance, cognitive, and perceived fluency” at Michigan State University with committee members, Debra Hardison (chair), Susan Gass, Patti Spinner, and Paula Winke. Sara Kangas (University of Pennsylvania) examined “Special education trumps ESL: Policy as practice for ELs with disabilities” at Temple University with committee members, Yasuko Kanno (chair), Maia Cucchiara, Matthew Tincani, Kristina Najera, and Nelson Flores.

Katherine A. Bernstein’s dissertation titled “Learning English as an L2 in PreK: A practice perspective on identity and acquisition” was conducted at the University of California at Berkeley in the Language, Literacy, and Culture Department in the Graduate School of Education. Claire Kramsch served as chair and Sara Freedman and William Hanks were also on her dissertation committee.

Katherine’s voice as a scholar in relation to theoretical and methodological approaches in her dissertation stood out to the committee, who stated that they could not recall reading a dissertation in which such complex concepts and breadth of reference were combined with a personal voice and clarity of exposition. Her participant observer ethnography followed a class of pre-kindergarten English as a second language learners for one academic year, with four focal students. She examined language learning and identity development in the classrooms through the research questions: (1) What are the differences in how students their first year of preK learn English as an L2? and (2) How do these differences relate to students’ emerging social identities?

Multiple approaches were applied by Katherine to rigorously explore the ethnographic data. To address the first research question, she developed corpora of each student’s language use using transcripts of the audio recordings to explore language learning coded vocabulary and syntactic complexity (or MLUs) with speech acts. She compared these contrastive evaluations of student language learning to positionality, and her social networking analysis related students emerging social identities as being competent (or not) and authoritative (or not) within four domains: academic, linguistic, social/play, classroom rules/procedures. Her findings spoke to the divergent identities of focal students in relation different measures of learning and perceived competencies by teachers. She concludes by using the analyses to explain that assumptions about learning opportunities translating unambiguously into learning outcomes needs to be questioned further because—while identity indeed mattered for these students’ learning—it remains essential to ask, “How?”

The presentation of the AAAL Dissertation Award was made at the 2016 annual conference.