Concerns About English Language Learners

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This was a final essay for one of my classes when I was going for my Education masters. If I wrote it now, I’d have some additional paragraphs on the troubles with students who speak unconventional languages such as Mixtec, as well as the problems of SIFE (students with interrupted formal educations) kids who don’t know their first language well enough to use techniques for learning English as a second language.

English language learners (ELLs) in American schools face numerous literacy challenges. Standards have changed for a variety of reasons, so expectations are higher than ever. ELLs often lack access to their native language. Text selection is a problem, and their frame of reference may differ from that of classmates. Different ELLs will have different proficiency levels, which further complicates things for teachers and students.

I plan to teach Adolescent English Language Arts 7-12, also known as Middle School and High School in New York City. I was slightly concerned about being placed in a class that has an emphasis on younger students B-6 as this one does. However, the information has still been invaluable. It is very possible that, even as a Middle School or High School ELA Teacher, I will have to deal with students who do not have a significant command of the English language. While I would be less likely to deal with the slight majority of ELLs who are native born, it’s certainly possible that I’ll come into contact with the 45% who are foreign-born (Wessels, 2011.) That will come with unique difficulties. The gap in proficiency can be even greater between recent immigrants and their classmates in high school. Of course, there is also the reality that many adolescent students born in the United States are more capable of communicating in the language of their community than in English, especially as we are in a country that does not have an official language.

The first major problem for ELLs is high benchmarks. Their numbers are great, so they’re in more schools than ever before. The emphasis on testing, which is the standard by which schools are assessed, also applies to ELLs and incentivizes increasing their scores as quickly as possible. Another reason for the higher expectations is a belief in the effectiveness of immersion strategies, as well as an understanding of the need to insist that all students achieve their full potential. The current expectation is that ELLs will be placed in classrooms on day one (Rance-Roney, 2010.) Under the old system, ELL students had up to a year to acclimate to their new environment, and to learn the language, before placement into classes within the larger school community. Even this was criticized for developing unrealistic expectations, as it typically takes years for someone to become competent in a new language.

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Academic language is particularly difficult for ELL students (Echevarria, Richards-Tutor, Chinn & Ratleff, 2011.) Even students able to communicate effectively with their classmates using informal conversational English struggle with this. The level of English understanding required to summarize a text or to comprehend exposition is higher than the level required for small talk. Some students will be more proficient at one than the other (Ajayi, 2009) so an emphasis on academic language might obscure an individual’s skills at conversational English. The higher expectations may restrict efforts to gauge a student’s ability.

There are research-based techniques that work to build the academic language skills of ELL students, such as the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (Echevarria, Richards-Tutor, Chinn & Ratleff, 2011) but overworked teachers often fail to implement these appropriately. The best thing I can do as an instructor is to do the things teachers know that they’re supposed to do, even if they sometimes fall short. An example of something that is proven to be effective, but easier said than done, is to provide content objectives and language objectives that are clearly defined rather than implied. It will also be better to spend time with ELLs going over material in advance, so they have more time to prepare for anything they struggle with.

Another challenge is that ELL learners are diverse. They can be at different proficiency levels, to say nothing of the multiple possible native languages. The category of English Language Learner can include recent immigrants who barely speak English, recent immigrants who have taken English as a second language courses since they were toddlers, native-born speakers more skilled in their home language, less recent immigrants who are close to grade level, and others. These students will all need to be educated, and will have to be able to work with one another.

A third-grade teacher known as Seth found group projects to be a method that is effective when working with students who have diverse proficiency levels. (Iddings, Risko, & Rampullo, 2009). By grouping ELLs together on certain assignments, a teacher can use scaffolding techniques for those students who need it.

A drawback to group projects is that while it may increase participation, it may also make it difficult to assess an individual’s skill level.  A teacher in one of my classes spoke of a problem she encountered in a job interview for a middle school. She was asked to demonstrate a sample English Language Arts lesson to a small group of students. She was able to speak Spanish, which made some aspects of communication much easier. However, it took her some time to realize that one of the students was barely proficient in English. The other members of the group were covering for him, to help him save face.

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Numerous students find themselves in a different situation. A major problem for many ELL students is limited access to their native language (Iddings, Risko, & Rampullo, 2009). There will be an obvious difficulty in communication between an ELL who is barely proficient in English, and an ELA teacher who doesn’t speak their primary language, to say nothing of the student’s interactions with the larger school community.

The hiring of multilingual teachers helps, but this comes with significant drawbacks. There are few complaints about how there are too many people qualified to be teachers entering the profession. Placing a premium on another talent makes it even tougher to find the most effective educators. Policies will also differ based on the language. Spanish is unique in the United States due to the number of people who speak it, and there are quite a few communities where a particular language is prevalent. It may require a change in policy to actively seek out candidates from the pool of available teachers  who are effective at speaking a necessary second language. There will still always be languages too obscure for this to be a feasible option. It seems unlikely that a school will have enough Estonian ELLs to make my proficiency in that language into an asset.

In some cases, the solution isn’t to provide support in the native language, but to make the material more welcoming. As teachers, we can make an effort to pick topics where ELL students can feel comfortable participating with the rest of the class, and material that fulfills several diverse goals.

Text selection can thus be a problem for both teachers and students. If the texts are too difficult, students will be overwhelmed. If the texts are poorly chosen, students won’t learn. The best teachers find material that serves a multitude of purposes. Seth chose Curious George books for his third graders because he had enjoyed the material, and because he was familiar with educational theories suggesting that students can learn from multiple texts with consistent characters, narratives and conflicts (Iddings, Risko, & Rampullo, 2009).

Children’s books might not be effective in an intermediate school setting, although other formulaic work would be available (IE- short stories with the same characters, television scripts, lyrics by the same musician, etc.) There are additional alternatives that can be accessible to ELL students, but also educational for their classmates. As the definition of literacy has become more complex, there is the expectation that teachers familiarize their students with various forms of multimedia. The example was given of a middle school classroom (Ajayi, 2009) that interpreted the meanings of an advertisement for cell phones. All the students learned to be more critical about media they’re exposed to, while the visual nature of the subject matter made it easier for ELLs to participate, and to demonstrate their knowledge. This can’t be done, and honestly shouldn’t be done, with every lesson, but it seems like something worth doing on occasion. As teachers we don’t have to make every lesson as complicated as possible.

A final problem for ELLs is that they will have different frames of reference than other students. From my experiences as a student teacher, we’re encouraged to incorporate popular culture into lesson plans, as a way of developing lessons that are relevant to the students. They may learn about forms of narrative conflict better if it’s in the context of things they like. In settings where they’re the minority, ELLs may feel excluded. Bogum Yoon observed the experiences of two ELA teachers, and determined that one teacher’s emphasis on a mainstream American context might have kept the majority of the class interested, but it wasn’t relevant to recent immigrants. These students were not familiar with American football, and didn’t watch Survivor. In comparison, another teacher selected material that encouraged ELLs to participate, and to share their unique experiences.

In situations where ELLs are a small percentage of the class, teachers will need to determine how much time and effort should be devoted to them. Yoon observed that students were interested in the experiences of classmates born in other countries, but it’s not clear that it was the same level of interest as they had when discussing sports and television. Teachers have to make sure that efforts to be more inclusive towards two ELL students don’t result in three other students losing interest.

Seth’s class was able to incorporate their cultural knowledge by writing a new Curious George adventure in which he visits Mexico (Iddings, Risko, & Rampullo, 2009). That type of material allowed ELLs to participate along with the rest of the class. It demonstrated the advantage of stressing creativity.

Some of these challenges are intertwined, and one problem can exacerbate another. ELL students may find that the subject matter of a class isn’t particularly relevant, which further discourages them, along with the difficulties caused by limited access to their native language. Meanwhile, expectations are high and proficiency levels vary. Teachers must balance the needs of all their students.

I don’t know what kind of class I’ll teach, or what my experience will be with ELL students. It’s possible that I may find myself in a district where ELL students are a rarity (not very likely in New York City, but certainly possible elsewhere) or I may determine that the best available school is in an area where the majority of students speak English as a second language. I may end up working somewhere that is similar to the schools I attended, where there were enough ELL students to merit institutional support. So it’s essential to learn about strategies that are effective at allowing all students to participate, to demonstrate their learning and to share what they know.

Works Cited:

Ajayi, L. (2009). English as a second language learners’ exploration of multimodal texts in a junior high school.  Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(7), 585-595.

Bogum, Y. (2007). Offering or limiting opportunities: Teachers’ roles and approaches to English-language learners’ participation in literacy activities.  The Reading Teacher, 61(3), 216-225.

Echevarria, J., Richards-Tutor, C., Chinn, V.P, Ratless, P.A. (2011). Did they get it? The role of fidelity in teaching English learners. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54(6), 425-434.

Iddings, AC.D., Risko, V.J., Rampulla, M.P. (2009). When you don’t speak their language: Guiding English-language learners through conversations about text. The Reading Teacher, 63(1), 52-61.

Rance-Roney, J. (2010). Jump-starting language and schema for English-language learners: Teacher-composed digital jumpstarts for academic reading. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(5), 386-395.

Wessels, S. (2011). Promoting vocabulary learning for English learners. The Reading Teacher, 65(1), 46-50.

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About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. Currently, I’m writing a few comic books about my grandparents’ experiences in Soviet Estonia for Grayhaven comics. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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