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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

How Do Schools Unlock the Potential of English-Language Learners?

By Peter DeWitt — May 12, 2013 5 min read
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On the first day of school, Juyeon sat in my second grade classroom crying. Her arms were locked around the back of her chair. I tried to comfort her but it didn’t work. She looked at me but didn’t understand a word I was saying. As the rest of my class met on the rug for the first time so we could go over the calendar, rules, and read a book, she sat sobbing because she was scared. How couldn’t she be? Two weeks before the beginning of school she moved to the U.S. from Seoul, Korea.

As a second grade teacher, I had very little experience with non-English speaking students, and our English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher was only in the building twice a week, and she wasn’t there on the first day of school. Juyeon and I spent a lot of time together in between those moments when she received services.

I was not prepared for this in my pre-service training. I didn’t know what tricks to use to get her to the carpet. Even if she did get there, what would I do next? That is the challenge, and the joy, of being a teacher. Juyeon taught me that teaching is not easy.

I knew very little about her. Like most teachers at the beginning of the year, I did not know more than the fact that she was new to the country. Her father remained in Seoul and her mother was doing graduate work at a local university. I also knew that Juyeon had potential inside, just like all of my students, that I needed to unlock.

What is the Right Approach?
There seems to be a lot of debate about how to teach English Language Learners (ELL) students. Some believe in bilingual education, while others believe students need to be immersed in the language they’re learning. I am not an expert but I recently read an article by Stephan Muldanado from Teach.com that made me reflect on my own experiences with ELL students, which made me think of Juyeon.

Muldanado wrote, “According to the National Association for Bilingual Education(NABE), bilingual education “refers to approaches in the classroom that use the native languages of English language learners (ELLs) for instruction.” The goals of this form of instruction include assisting students in increasing their English proficiency, keeping their native culture and languages intact, helping them to adjust to a foreign environment and promoting academic success.

Does bilingual education help or hinder ELL students? Just like with any type of instruction, there are a variety of approaches that schools can take to meet the needs of ELL students.

Muldanado wrote, “According to the University of Michigan, there are six main approaches to bilingual or multilingual education. They are:
Bilingual education - Students are given instruction in two or more languages. The amount of instruction given in each language varies from school to school.
Submersion - Non-native English speakers are given instruction completely in English, regardless of how long the student has been learning English.
Two-way bilingual education - Native and non-native English speakers are placed in the same classes. Instruction is given in English as well as the other native language, with the goal of all students becoming proficient in both.
English as a Second Language (ESL) - Students spend part of the day in regular classes and part of the day in ESL classes. In the ESL classes, they receive focused instruction in mastering English.
Immersion - This is often targeted towards native English speakers who want to master a foreign language. Teachers deliver instruction in a foreign language for the entire day.
Three language systems - Also called trilingual education, students are initially taught in one language and a second language is integrated early on. After students begin to master the first two languages, a third is introduced with the hopes of students becoming fluent in all three by graduation.”

All of these approaches seem like viable options, so it’s difficult to decide which one is better than the other. Where Juyeon was concerned, we use the submersion model with a mix of ESL and that worked for her. It may not work for all ELL students.

Juyeon and a Thousand Paper Cranes
While Juyeon sat in the chair crying, I grabbed the funniest picture book I could find and began to read it. It’s been ten years from that moment, so I do not remember what book I read. What I do know is that I realized that laughter knows no language barriers. By the end of the book, Juyeon was on the carpet laughing with the rest of the students.

I had a fairly tough class that year, and they had a wide range of abilities. There were students who didn’t know how to read and others who were on a seventh grade reading level. Many of my students qualified for free and reduced lunch, and some came from home environments that we could never imagine.

Juyeon helped bond us together. The students who struggled saw her begin to excel. They treated her with kindness because we talked about how hard it must be to move to a new country, not speaking the language. Truth be told, my brother-in-law moved here from Beirut in the mid-80’s with the same issue. Knowing his story helped me understand Juyeon’s.

On the 10th day of school, which is a big day in elementary school, all of my students brought in projects. It was the first time all students completed their “homework.” Juyeon came in with a plastic bag, and she handed it to me. I looked in with amazement. The other students were excited to see what she made. I pulled out one hundred paper cranes that were tied together. Juyeon made it herself, and to this day it still hangs in my office at school.

As the year went on, Juyeon excelled in reading, math and every other subject she touched. She was also incredibly creative. Although I realize that this is not always the case for students who are ELL it had a profound impact on the way I taught. I strived to find ways to get through to her, and then was positively stretched in my teaching to find ways to challenge her. By the end of the year she was testing out of ESL class and she was one of the best students I ever had the pleasure of teaching.

How do you unlock the potential of ELL students?

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.