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Summertime Studies Give English-Learners Path to Sharper Skills

By Mary Ann Zehr — July 24, 2008 6 min read
Miguel Galeano, who is from Colombia, talks with ESL teacher Connie Rojas while working on his reading assignment at Park View High School in Sterling, Va.
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Sibling rivalry doesn’t seem to be part of the picture as 17-year-old Milton Quinteros and 18-year-old Transito Quinteros work to improve their English this summer.

The brother and sister, who moved here with their family from El Salvador about a year ago, consistently pair up during activities in their summer English-as-a-second-language class—a five-hour-a-day, six-week reading class at Park View High School in this suburban Virginia community about a 30-mile drive west of the nation’s capital.

Milton Quinteros, who will attend 9th grade this fall at Potomac Falls High School, credits the advice of a teacher last school year for why he and his sister, who starts 11th grade this fall, are taking the summer classes.

“The teacher said: ‘You need to learn more English. You need summer school. You need to speak English,’ ” he said.

Other high school English-language learners in the 58,000-student Loudoun County, Va., district gave similar matter-of-fact answers about why they’d enrolled in the summer classes.

“I need to learn English,” said Joo Yup Lee, a 16-year-old from South Korea, whose family moved to the United States seven months ago. He said he’s also taking English classes at a local education center for an hour each afternoon, three days a week, this summer.

Though neither Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, or TESOL, in Alexandria, Va., nor the National Council for Teachers of English, in Urbana, Ill., keeps statistics on summer programs, numerous school district Web sites around the country tout summer programs tailored for ELLS.

Among the areas with such programs are the Clarksville-Montgomery County schools in Tennessee, the Virginia Beach schools in Virginia, the Blue Valley Schools in Kansas, North Kansas City schools in Missouri, the State College Area district in Pennsylvania, the Roselle schools in New Jersey, and the Anahuac Independent district in Texas.

“We know that there is loss academically over the summer. We know that it is particularly an issue in reading and language development,” said Patte Barth, the director of the center for public education at the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association.

“It seems to affect low-income children the most,” she said. “When you compound that with the needs of English-language learners, it makes sense to use that time in the summer.”

Enrichment Opportunity

Programs typically include field trips—Loudoun County ELLS visited the George Washington National Forest and the National Air and Space Museum’s center in northern Virginia—and some districts set up programs as a “summer camp” experience for English-learners.

“I look at it as enrichment rather than remediation,” said Elizabeth Franks, the supervisor of bilingual and ESL instruction for the 3,000-student Roselle public schools in New Jersey and a past president of a statewide organization for bilingual and ESL teachers. “With all this testing going on, you are so regimented during the year. It gives you a chance to be creative.”

She said the goal of her school district’s summer ESL classes, which enrolled about 100 English-learners this summer, is to “keep them using the language.”

Ms. Franks said her district this year expanded summer ESL programs to five weeks, from four weeks. The district pays for the program with money for ELLS authorized under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The ESL summer program here in Loudoun County also is expanding. This summer, officials of the Virginia district added math classes to the reading classes that were available in previous years. In recent years, the district has gradually increased the number of weeks the program is offered to six, from three.

“We believe the more time you can spend learning the English language, the better off you are, and you have less loss during the summer,” said Alessio Evangelista, the ESL supervisor for the Loudoun County schools.

The district recommends that any English-learners at the first two of four levels of English proficiency set by the state take ESL classes in the summer, Mr. Evangelista said. This summer, 416 of the district’s 4,375 ELLS enrolled, including 65 high school students. The district charges $450 per student for summer school, but students from low-income families pay a reduced rate, as little as $100.

Jodi L. Henry, who coordinated the district’s high school summer program for ELLS this year, added that the goal of the math class was to prepare such students to take algebra in the fall.

Daily Language Practice

In a July session of a reading class at Park View High School, Rashmi A. Wright, who teaches Spanish at Stonebridge High School during the school year, spent a large share of one morning leading students in vocabulary exercises, using a workbook designed for elementary students.

After lunch that day, she planned to take her students to the school library to practice looking up words in a standard English dictionary. Several of her students were using Spanish-English dictionaries often.

Coming up with synonyms for words wasn’t difficult for the students. The Quinteros team, for instance, came up with pairs such as “big/huge,” and “fast/quickly” without much trouble. Producing pairs of opposites was much harder for everyone.

“Ugly is like a bad person, right?” a boy from El Salvador asked Ms. Wright.

“Not necessarily,” she answered, and told him that in Spanish, the word is feo.

When the class moved on to reading a story about Albert Einstein from the suggested textbook, students took turns reading aloud, and they seemed to do so without feeling self-conscious. They worked in pairs or in small groups to write answers to comprehension questions.

Down the hall, teacher Connie Rojas’ ESL reading class also incorporated the reading of a story from the recommended texts. She previewed the story, a profile of the Brazilian soccer player Pelé, with a discussion about his sport. The boys of the class were eager to participate.

“What’s the difference between soccer and American football?” Ms. Rojas asked.

“With soccer, they use the foot. For football American, they use the arm and foot,” explained one student.

Ms. Rojas, a Spanish teacher at Freedom High School during the regular school year, taught English-learners for years in Arizona. She supplements the recommended textbooks in her summer classes by taking the students to the library to use Lexia, a computer program that teaches vocabulary. The students spend a half-hour each day in free reading. They also keep journals.

Katie Van Sluys, an assistant professor of literacy at DePaul University in Chicago and a member of the executive committee of the National Council of Teachers of English, said that if districts provide classes tailored for ELLS during the summer, they should be thoughtful about them and ensure that they have a connection to what goes on during the school year.

“If it’s more of the same [that occurs] during the school year, and that’s a high-quality program, that’s great,” she said. “But if it’s more of the same of looking at bits and pieces of language—looking at the grammar without a meaningful context—it’s not so good,” she said.

What educators seem to agree on is that English-learners benefit from practicing English over the summer.

“If you don’t use the language, you forget it,” Ms. Rojas said.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 30, 2008 edition of Education Week

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