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Uncertain Times for Diverse Learners
by Julie McCarthy
A couple of years ago at a New York State conference for teachers of speakers of other languages, we were told that all teachers are teachers of students who speak a language other than English. This was great news for ESL teachers everywhere: all teachers should be responsible for working with all the students who come into their classrooms. One conference participant raised his hand to ask, “Does that mean as NYS certified ESL teachers, we will be out of a job soon?” “Yes…but not for a while…maybe in 10 years…” was the answer from a high ranking Department of Education official. Yikes! How will some of our most vulnerable students learn English and content without specialized instruction that ESL teachers are trained to give?
Since 1974, with the passage of Lau vs. Nichols, non-English speaking students must be provided an appropriate education. This includes ESL instruction. Over the years this instruction has ranged from pull-out classes that have focused on listening, speaking, reading, and writing English, to the current approach in New York state: Teaching English through content, like math, science and English classes. There was even a new name for this subject area, English as a New Language (ENL), as English may be the third or fourth language students learn. Fortunately, the ill-conceived acronym LEP (Limited English Proficient) student has given way to ELL, or English Language Learner.
When my grandfather emigrated from Italy to Pennsylvania in the early part of the 20th century at the age of 14, he was lucky to get a year or so of public schooling. The story of his first day in 8th grade, and of his first English lesson, was repeated often to help all the grandchildren understand the struggles he faced: His teacher, at the end of the school day, repeatedly commanded, “Go home, Joe!” while pointing at the classroom door. That lesson was the springboard for my grandfather to successfully acquire the ability to understand and speak English, even gaining literacy in English.
This story has an anachronistic quality to it, as the level of education it takes to be successful is much higher than a century ago. My grandfather had various jobs including working on the railroad and raising and selling chickens and eggs, while supplementing his income as a bootlegger of sorts. If a customer requested a “dressed chicken” that was code for including a bottle of homemade wine in the order.
Today, that kind of living is more difficult to cobble together. Students must have a deep knowledge of the English language to pursue a college degree, enlist in the armed forces, or go to work upon high school graduation.
As Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and its ensuing controversies, have been rolled out, so goes ENL instruction. Now, students must receive their ENL instruction in co-taught classrooms with content and ENL teachers working together to make the instruction comprehensible to ELLs, along with native English speakers. Sounds reasonable, right? The reality of teaching The Great Gatsby to a beginning ELL student is quite another story. Various techniques are beneficial: show students the movie to help them understand the plot of the story, teach students crucial vocabulary, teach main events using a story map (setting, background, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution), help students gain background knowledge by teaching them about important events in the 1920s (using pictures, video clips, etc.), have students read the book in their native language, and more. These are all good techniques that can help ELLs. But as illustrated by my grandfather’s immigration story 100 years ago, ELL students still come to us needing to understand basic commands, like “go home”, as well as to read and write well about literature, science, history and all other content areas.
All teachers want their students to achieve at the highest possible level. The idea that ELLs should be immersed into the curriculum and learn alongside their native English speaking peers is laudable. However, there is fallout from these new CCSS mandates for students who are trying to learn English as fast as possible to be on par with their native English speaking classmates. As the emphasis on testing has stressed native English speaking students and narrowed their educational experiences, so has it had the same effect on the educational experiences for ELL students. Unfortunately, they have the added burden of all new learning being in a foreign language. They are offered accommodations of a native language test or an orally interpreted version of content tests (except English Language Arts tests), but many students report this accommodation is not helpful to them. Others say they have a stronger understanding of the concept in English and prefer to forgo this accommodation.
Students come to school with other challenges. Some ELL students have interrupted or limited formal education. They may be behind in their native language literacy and content area knowledge and struggle to catch up. In addition, students may suffer from the trauma of war, poverty and dislocated families. ENL teachers do their best to help students and their families with these difficulties by getting to know their ELL students and families well. Because teachers are held in high esteem in most students’ home cultures, they encounter parents who are supportive and anxious for the children to do well. In turn ENL teachers go above and beyond to help students acculturate and gain English language proficiency. Some examples of this are illustrated by my local colleagues who have provided free English tutoring for families and worked to get students signed up for activities like after-school sports, swimming lessons and library cards. When our local community experienced a devastating flood, some teachers welcomed families into their homes to eat, bathe and rest. Further, ENL teachers often pay registration fees, buy school supplies, sports equipment and food for their students.
The good news is ELLs learn English, in large part because of the early support and professional training of their ENL teachers. In my experience, most ELL students successfully exit the ENL program and go on to achieve at high levels in college and work, becoming full and contributing members of our society. Let’s continue to provide them with the best ENL programs that help them learn English quickly and achieve at a high academic level.
About the author:
Julie McCarthy teaches K-12 English as a New Language (ENL) in a small school district in Upstate NY. She has served on the Executive Board of NYS TESOL, an association of professionals concerned with the education of English language learners, and has a special interest in bringing together ENL teachers for professional development that meets the needs of teachers and students.
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