Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Respecting Assets That ELLs Bring To A School Community’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 15, 2014 13 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series on this topic.)

Wendi Pillars and Tagrid Sihly asked:

What are the greatest challenges to improving ELL student achievement, and how can we overcome them? What are the best strategies schools can use to close the achievement gap for students with disabilities and English Language Learners?

These are becoming increasingly important questions as the numbers of ELLs in U.S. schools continue to grow.

Four educators -- Karen Nemeth, Judie Haynes, David Deubelbeiss and Julie Goldman -- provide guest responses today.

I also interviewed Karen and Judie for the weekly nine-minute podcast that accompanies each Classroom Q & A post. You can listen to it here.

Three previous Q & A posts have focused on English Language Learners, and you might want to take a look at:

Helping Long-Term ELL’s & Evaluating ELL Teachers Fairly

Many Ways To Help Students Develop Academic Vocabulary

Ways the “Next Generation” of Standardized Tests Should Treat ELL’s

I’ve also just compiled The “All-Time” Best Resources, Articles & Blog Posts For Teachers Of English Language Learners.

Now, to our guests:

Response From Karen Nemeth

Karen Nemeth, Ed.M. is an author, consultant and speaker on early childhood education for ELLs. She hosts a resource website and blog at Language Castle. She is on the board of NJTESOL/NJBE and is a consulting editor and author for NAEYC:

Perhaps the greatest challenge to improving ELL student achievement is teasing apart the various challenges in addition to language that may affect that achievement, then pulling together a cohesive system of services to meet each individual student’s needs. We know that ELLs are more likely to live in poverty and to experience the multiple stressors it may cause. The stress of social isolation and adjusting to a new school culture also come into play. The academic and early literacy foundations the student received before coming to the U.S. have a significant impact on how well students will do here, and yet we are woefully unprepared to assess their home language proficiency and concept knowledge.

With all of these complex challenges at work, it may be quite some time before teachers are able to detect that some of their ELLs may have special needs as well.

Schools in many areas of the country are adopting a more sophisticated approach to educating ELLs that addresses the whole child and all of these contributing factors. Here are some examples of successful strategies that can result in better outcomes and reduced achievement gaps:

* Meet each family when the child enrolls. Paper and pencil ‘home language’ surveys are often provided in English only, or contain questions that elicit inaccurate responses. Schools that arrange for phone or in-person conversations with families are better equipped to anticipate the variety of assets and needs each new child will bring when they enter school. Federally funded Head Start preschool programs send teachers to conduct a home visit with each family before they start school and use the information to ensure a successful start for each child. This article compiled additional ideas for welcoming new ELLs from participants in the weekly Twitter chat, #ELLCHAT.

* Start each child’s educational experience as early as possible. Many districts that offer preschool will actively recruit families who speak languages other than English and prepare their staff and curriculum to give the youngest ELLs an early advantage to be ready for kindergarten. This 2013 report on the research by Linda Espinosa summarizes key recommendations for success in early childhood education for ELLs.

* Build and support cross-disciplinary collaboration to strengthen supports for ELLs with multiple needs. Schools that are dedicated to reducing the achievement gap make joint planning and resource sharing a priority across disciplines. Ideally, they make it possible for educators and specialists from general education, social work, bilingual education, English as a second language, special education, diagnostics, and therapeutic interventions to all work together on behalf of ELLs to reduce problems and improve outcomes. This position statement on responsiveness to cultural and linguistic diversity from the Council for Exceptional Children Division for Early Childhood highlights the importance of supporting home language and culture while also helping students learn English no matter what their disability may be. This evidence-based approach focuses on supporting family strength and engagement along with building on the child’s prior knowledge by including both home language and English in all Individual Education Plans.

* Train all teachers and staff to work effectively with increasingly diverse populations. Encourage neighboring colleges and universities to work harder to make sure that all educators are prepared to work with students who speak different languages, no matter what the teacher’s specialty may be. Plan group and individual professional development so that every person a new student encounters in school will understand the needs of ELLs and respect the assets they bring to the school community.

We know economic times are hard and the increasingly complex diversity of our students can place quite a strain on school budgets in the short term. Schools leaders with a good understanding of the long term benefits are investing more now to ensure better outcomes and cost savings for the future.

Response From Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes is a freelance professional development provider and teacher with 28 years’ experience in teaching English as a second language. She has published six books, and this response is adapted from her book (co-written by Debbie Zacarian), The Essential Guide for Educating Beginning English Learners:

English language learners (ELLs) who struggle to use English fail at five times the rate of the general population and a significant number drop out of school. School administrators and teachers need to realize that closing the achievement gap goes way beyond providing remediation so that students can pass a test. Teachers need to give of encouragement and praise for what ELLs can do instead of dwelling on all that they can’t yet do by providing frequent opportunities for their success. It is especially important for school administrators and teachers to have realistic expectations. Acquiring a new language and applying that information to academic learning takes time. Don’t call upon ELLs to perform above their level of their English language development.

School administrators and teachers can provide the following:

1. Early identification of students who are struggling with English. ELLs need programs that are tailored to fit their unique needs. Find ways to help ELLs become active participants in their classroom and in the school community both socially and academically. English learners need to be welcomed into the school community, respected as learners and considered assets to the classroom and school.

2. Engage parents or guardians in the school community. The relationship between school and parents should be a partnership where school administrators and teachers listen to what parents think and engage them in solutions. One of the most pressing mandates of school districts is to develop respect for the cultures in the school. This respect needs to be shared by administrators, school secretaries, custodians, cafeteria workers and teaching staff. Students and their parents pick up on insensitive or negative attitudes very quickly. The more comfortable new learners of English feel in their classrooms and in their schools, the quicker they will be able to learn. The more anxiety students experience, the less language they will comprehend.

3. Provide professional development to all school personal so that the school environment and academic programs are inclusive of ELLs at all levels of English language proficiency. Teachers need to learn the strategies that will help the English learners in their classroom succeed. School should be thought of as a whole experience with everyone responsible for meeting the needs of English language learners. Professional development is a key means for building a school community that is targeted to the personal, social, cultural, and world learning needs of all students.

Response From David Deubelbeiss

David Deubelbeiss is a professor of education, TESOL teacher trainer and Director of Education for EnglishCentral. He currently resides in North Bay, Ontario. He is a leader in promoting the use of technology in language teaching. He espouses the simple teaching philosophy of “when one teaches, two learn":

This question is of dire importance given the growing student population of both ELLs and those with diagnosed learning disabilities. By 2030, it is estimated that 40% of the entire school population of the United States will be English language learners (ELLs) (Thomas and Collier, 2002).

We can’t and don’t have to let so many of these students fall behind and not fulfill their true potential. Discrepancies in test results between ELLs and non-ELLs have become alarming (Goldenberg, 2008). I believe schools and teachers in concert with education policy makers, parents and the wider community need to undertake the following, in order to close the achievement gap for ELLs and those with learning disabilities.

1. Support quality teacher training regarding the process of English language learning and learning disabilities. Too many teachers assume that since a student speaks English well, they don’t need support and modified instruction. However, it takes a student a full 7 years of school time to catch up to regular classmates in terms of the academic language of the classroom. There is an epidemic of over referal to special education (and no resources there usually). Teachers need training in how ELLs and the learning disabled process information, develop and learn.

2. Support differentiated instruction. Technology now allows us to modify the learning environment like no other time. It doesn’t take much time or effort to offer independent learning options and curriculum that is tailored to the needs of each student. Schools should adopt the use of technology to help learners who are falling behind. But not just technology but many other instructional modifications (especially assessment). Let the future motto of our schools be: to each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.

3. Support the use and development of student L1 (first language). There is growing agreement that literacy in the L1 is an important factor towards student success in English. Schools should have programs in place so students can read, study and develop in their early years both in English and most importantly in their own language. Don’t just leave this to the wider community and government agencies, assuming it happens.

4. Support “pull-out” policies. I’m convinced through my own time as a classroom teacher that the benefits of teaching students part of the day outside the regular classroom is instrumental towards their long term success. Classrooms bewilder ELLs much of the time. Teachers have too much on their plate to give them the attention they need. Too many schools try to save money by using and justifying “push in” strategies but the money saved won’t compensate for the money we’ll need to spend over the student’s lifetime should they not succeed at school.

5. Support equality. Poverty is a large factor in why ELLs and students with learning disabilities don’t achieve at school. As a society, we should assure that every child regardless of their socio - economic status, receives the same quality education. Public education is so important because it makes this possible (though many times not realized).

Response From Julie Goldman

Julie Goldman facilitates professional learning and writes curriculum for the WRITE Institute, a nationally-recognized program in K-12 writing instruction. Connect with WRITE on Twitter:

When my colleagues and I facilitate professional learning for K-12 educators, the challenge teachers of ELLs voice most frequently is lack of time. Teachers repeatedly express the need for more time to plan, time to read and learn, time to observe their colleagues and effective programs at other schools, time to meet with instructional coaches, time to learn new technology, time to conduct action research, and time to engage in equitable assessment practices. In my recent dissertation study, Teachers’ Sense of Efficacy in Teaching Second Language Writing to Middle and High School Long-term English Learners, a small group of 21 middle and high school teachers of Long-term English learners (LTELs) overwhelmingly reported “time” as the primary barrier to fully implementing the writing curriculum.

Simply put, teachers of ELLs need quality and sustained time to acquire the specific skills and knowledge necessary to develop and nurture a shared understanding of what research-based instruction for ELLs looks like. In her article, Teacher Development to Support English Language Learners in the Context of Common Core State Standards, María Santos underscores the need to provide all teachers of ELLs with the capacity-building structures that develop teachers’ knowledge around particular strategies and scaffolds that support language acquisition. Through collaborative job-alike and cross-curricular teams, Santo stresses the need to comprehensively connect academic language to content learning.

Among researchers in the field of language acquisition, there is widespread agreement that well-prepared teachers are the single most important factor in high student achievement. All teachers of ELLs need specialized linguistic knowledge and broad approaches to language learning. Addressing the chronic achievement gap requires dedicating focused time for teachers to process the research and observe strong models. In doing so, teachers will have the opportunity to internalize the specific skills, strategies, and scaffolds that improve ELLs’ academic achievement.

Thanks to Karen, Judie, David and Julie for their contributions!

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