Special Report

Training Gets Boost

By Vaishali Honawar — December 31, 2008 7 min read

Kate Cubbage is teaching English to a group of beginner English-language learners who sit, faces upturned, in a half-ring around her feet at Boston’s historic Mather School.

“Get your backpacks ready, because it’s time for school,” she sings, slowly at first, then faster, and the children sing along with her. Next, she points to a notebook, and they catch on: “Get your notebooks ready, because it’s time for school.”

Just two weeks earlier, these children, a mixed group of 1st and 5th graders in the 587-student school, spoke little or no English. But now, when Cubbage pulls out a stack of cards and asks them to identify the objects drawn on them, many respond brightly, quickly, correctly.

Cubbage is a graduate of a state-run program that trains teachers to use a variety of techniques to teach children who are English-learners. The program, says Gayle Malloy, a mentor who supports graduates of the program, prepares educators to “teach in action.”

“There are lots of hand actions. Lots of gesturing, modulating of voice,” she explains.

In this special class, focused for one hour entirely on teaching children the basics of the language, Cubbage will also use other tools, including music and perhaps even an overhead projector.

Teacher Initiative

The Massachusetts English Language Teachers initiative is now in its third year, and so far, about 80 teachers trained under it are in classrooms in the state’s two largest urban districts, Boston, which has 57,000 students, and Worcester, which has 22,000.

The program provides an example of how state agencies and school districts nationally, faced with a burgeoning number of students who speak little or no English, and a shortage of English-as-a-second-language teachers, have started designing their own initiatives to meet the growing need.

The Massachusetts program, says creator Kathryn Riley, was born after results of the first statewide English-language-proficiency test in 2005 showed that in some districts, fewer than 50 percent of students had made progress in learning the language.

“We did a survey and realized that a lot of these students were not getting ESL instruction,” says Riley, the administrator of the office of language acquisition and academic achievement at the Massachusetts education department.

The solution she came up with was a one-year course designed for those teachers already working in urban districts who had experienced firsthand the need to better arm themselves with more skills in handling English-learners.

Few Incentives

States tell the federal government they will need at least 56,000 new English-as-a-second-language teachers in the next five years. But few offer scholarships, tuition reimbursements, or other incentives for teachers seeking to become specialists in the field.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2009

The No Child Left Behind Act has no provisions calling for teachers of English-learners to be certified in ESL. It does give some grants to districts that offer professional development in ESL to teachers, as well as to teacher programs that work with school districts or state agencies to provide training to preservice teachers serving limited-English-proficient students.

Educators who teach students in classes in which the main purpose is to make them functional in English do not even have to meet the “highly qualified” requirements under the federal law.

As a result, no uniformity exists in how states and districts have dealt with the issue of hiring skilled teachers for the growing numbers of English-learner students entering their classrooms.

Only three states—Arizona, Florida, and New York—have laws requiring that all teachers receive training in working with English-learners. Some teacher programs are also beginning to make candidates go through classes to prepare them to handle non-English-speaking students.

The efforts are at best spotty, varying not only from state to state but even district by district.

Meanwhile, the problem has grown. A California survey conducted in September found more than 11,000 out-of-field instructors of English-language learners from 2003 to 2007, accounting for more than half of all out-of-field assignments reported during that period in the state.

“What we see right now are very many emergency credentials in the field, and many of these emergency-credential teachers are in places which have large numbers of ESL students,” says Kathy Flynn, the president of the California chapter of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, or TESOL.

In the districts that have come up with their own plans, approaches vary. Some focus on training all teachers or preparing candidates to teach English-learners in mainstream classrooms. Others prepare some teachers to become specialists in teaching English-learners and use them in special classrooms or “labs” designed to bring English-learners up to a par with their counterparts. Some programs offer four to five days of intense training and yearlong mentoring. Others include more extensive training periods with some clinical experience related to the training.

Growing Emphasis

In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in North Carolina, Chief Academic Officer Ruth Perez remembers that when she came on board two years ago with a new administration, no concerted effort was afoot to train educators how to teach students with limited English proficiency. That was the situation despite the fact that nearly 75 percent of new students enrolled in the district each year are from Hispanic homes and speak almost no English.

The 134,000-student district now offers courses toward ESL certification that teachers can take on Saturdays. Already, Perez says, 2,000 teachers have gone through the program. The district also offers an ESL Praxis prep course that trains teachers for ESL certification. The Praxis test is designed to measure a candidate’s basic pedagogical knowledge in the context of teaching ESL students.

“We absolutely need all teachers to have some idea of how to teach ESL,” Perez says. “We now have 125 languages represented at our schools, and we have to change teaching practices.”

In the 10,500-student Clifton district in New Jersey, nearly a fourth of the school system’s 1,000 teachers have gone through a two- to three-day program that provides training in teaching English-learners, followed by a year of mentoring support and ongoing professional development, says Janina J. Kusielewicz, the district supervisor of bilingual education and basic-skills instruction.

“You need a long-term commitment to have this become part of the culture of the schools,” she says.

Flynn, of TESOL, says there is also a need for better teacher preparation. But education schools’ record, she says, is mixed so far.

Some teacher colleges have increased the amount of ELL training they offer teacher-candidates. And some have implemented special programs to train existing teachers.

At Loyola Marymount University’s Center for Equity and Excellence in English Learner Education and Research, in Los Angeles, for instance, all teacher-candidates must take at least six out of 30 credits of training to teach ESL students.

“Regular programs are infused with strategies and practices for teaching English-language learners,” says Magaly Lavadenz, the director of bilingual education.

The center also offers professional development to some school districts in California, she says. Further, it provides master’s and doctoral fellowships in bilingual education that are specially designed for ESL teachers seeking to become administrators.

Innovative Approaches

Districts such as Worcester have found innovative ways to channel the resources made available to them by the state through programs like the Massachusetts English Language Teachers.

The district, not unlike many others in the state, has a large population of refugee students from around the world, including from Burma, Burundi, Colombia, Tanzania, and Vietnam.

Sergio Paez, the director of ELL programs for Worcester, says labs are now focused on English-learners at many of the district’s schools. In those labs, students who are not proficient in English receive instruction from graduates of the initiative. When the students attain proficiency, they are mainstreamed into their neighborhood schools.

“Catching up is not just going to happen in six or seven years,” Paez says. “There has to be a concerted effort to help these students learn.”

Although the Massachusetts English Language Teachers program is still rather small, Riley says its creators hope it will eventually be offered to other districts in the state. Already, she says, program administrators receive many more applications from teachers seeking to go through it than they can admit.

Teachers in the initiative, which started in 2006, are required to observe and also teach an ESL class. They meet each week with a mentor to discuss their progress. Throughout the year, they attend classes offered by the Brattleboro, Vt.-based School for International Training. At the end of the program, participants take the state licensure test for ESL teachers.

Cubbage, the Massachusetts teacher, says her classes included grammar and the history of linguistics. She even received an hour’s lesson in Japanese meant to show ESL teachers how English-learners feel while learning English, and to demonstrate why the teacher needs to use many tools and strategies, including facial expressions, voice modulation, movement, role-playing, and visuals such as pictures and objects to get across to students.

Back in her classroom, with her 1st and 5th graders, Cubbage opens her hands to emulate a book in an attempt to get her students to understand the word “read.”

“Make a sentence with ‘read,’ ” she says.

“We read in school,” offers one student.

Simple enough, but for Cubbage and her students, it’s a small victory.

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