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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Teachers With ‘Deficit Perspectives’ Do Not Help English-Language Learners

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 27, 2020 12 min read
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(This the second post in a six-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are some of the most common mistakes teachers make when working with ELLs, and what should they do, instead?

Part One featured responses from Marina Rodriguez, Altagracia (Grace) H. Delgado, Dr. Denita Harris, and Sarah Said. All Part One’s contributors also were guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Silvina Jover, Cindy Garcia, Luisa Palacio, and Laura Landau share their commentaries.

“Embracing the funds of knowledge”

Silvina Jover is a bilingual social studies teacher in Las Vegas. Originally from Uruguay, she has been an educator and advocate for immigrant students and their families in the U.S. for the past seven years. Her background in fields outside education brings a unique perspective into her pedagogy, which is focused on the development of critical-thinking skills and rooted in an understanding of the cultural wealth of each of her students:

Here are my choices for three key mistakes made when teaching ELLs:

1. Technology has its advantages and disadvantages, especially for our emergent bilingual students. Many districts require our emergent bilinguals to utilize the language software of choice by our schools, districts, and/or states. Are these helpful? It depends on the way this tech is used, as well as each learner. On occasion, given our large-size classes in some districts (the biggest here in Vegas!) or the reality that many teachers are not sufficiently trained in English-language acquisition strategies, emergent bilingual students are left longer than the recommended times interacting with these programs.

We cannot forget that the social aspect of the language is equally important to the formalities of grammar, syntaxis, etc. Ideally, teachers will always create and provide space for the emergent bilingual students to put into practice the knowledge that was acquired through the language software program. Therefore, this software should not be a tool that entails pressing a button and forgetting about it for 30 minutes each class or so. Students need a follow-up, a space to implement what was learned.

2. On occasion, in an attempt to help students with their language-acquisition process, teachers can fall into a type of pedagogy that is based on a deficit perspective by encouraging emergent bilinguals to only use English in the classroom. This practice, rooted in an assimilationist perspective, diminishes the student’s cultural background by telling him or her to cancel their own identity while in class.

Creating space for our emergent bilinguals should not only be reserved to bringing technology to life but more importantly to allow students to share their experiences and cultural backgrounds even if this activity is done through a peer interpreter, utilizing language technology (e.g., Google Translate) or any other means of communication. Authors such as Sonia Nieto and Gloria Ladson-Billings have written about how a culturally responsible pedagogy looks, and the idea of embracing the funds of knowledge (the term was originally developed by researchers Luis Moll, Cathy Amanti, Deborah Neff, and Norma Gonzalez) that our emergent bilinguals bring to the classroom is at the heart of their suggestions.

3. There is a stigma attached to students who are immigrants to this country, particularly those who belong to the Latinx community, in regards to the importance and value of education at their homes. As an immigrant myself, I attest that, as a community, we’ve always seen education as a way “out,” as almost an exclusive path to grow up the social ladder. This is one of the main reasons immigrants come to the U.S.—to be able to provide a better education to their children for them, in turn, to be able to have a better life. Professor Gilda Ochoa’s research, explained in her book “Learning from Latino Teachers,” supports the claim that, precisely, many teachers assume that education is not important for immigrant families simply because the parents are not as involved as they are expected to be in their children’s education.

A strong family-outreach program, even at the classroom level, is the way to erase this falsely constructed reality. If there’s a language barrier between the teacher and the parents, ask for help from those educators who can communicate with those families. Otherwise, teachers need to know that technology is their friend. Communication apps such as Remind and Talking Points have built-in translators, and Google Translate has an “Interpreter Mode” which allows real-time communication to happen in different languages. If my son (English) and his cousin (Portuguese) could figure this out five years ago, when they were only 10 years old ... so should we!

Strategic scaffolding

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 15 years and is currently a districtwide specialist for PK-6 bilingual/ESL mathematics. She is active onTwitter @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog:

In my experience, well-intentioned teachers who see that their students are struggling adjust and accommodate resources and materials to make them easier for students. Teachers might provide students with reading materials that are at a substantially lower reading level than is appropriate for their grade level. Teachers might choose to read aloud text that students are struggling to read.

Something that teachers can do instead is coach students to read the text. Teachers can preview vocabulary that students will find in the text. This preview can focus on getting to know the meaning of the word, pronunciation of the word, and features of the word (e.g., affixes). Teachers can also chunk a piece of text for students and have students read small portions of a piece of text in order to make it less overwhelming for students. Instead of text aloud to students, teachers can implement choral reading or echo reading. During choral reading, the teacher and the student read at the same time. During echo reading, the teacher models reading for the student and then the student reads what the teacher just read.

Sometimes in an effort to help students, teachers use numerous strategies in their teacher toolkit at the same time. Overscaffolding a lesson “just in case” students need them and to avoid all student struggle diminishes the opportunity for students to take ownership of their learning. Instead teachers should be prepared with “just in time” strategies that can be shared with students IF they need them. Based on formal and informal data, teachers can decide which scaffolds are necessary at the start of a lesson and then hold off on other scaffolds until students need them in order to keep working. Something that all educators should keep in mind is that scaffolds are temporary, and at some point, students should be able to complete tasks without those scaffolds.

When teachers of ELs know a student’s first language (L1), it is common for them to rely on translation as their “go to” strategy. All tasks and lessons are translated, and students just work in their L1. This allows students the opportunity to learn and practice the content, but they are not developing their English. Instead of using translation as the primary strategy, I recommend that teachers use a student’s L1 strategically. Preview and review vocabulary with students in their L1 and in English. This will help students make the connection between both languages. If available, provide students with lesson materials in L1 and English as a way for them to reference L1 materials when they are not understanding the resources in English. As lessons are facilitated, pause and check for understanding. This check for understanding can be in their L1 or English and will allow the teacher to see if students are on track.

“Low expectations”

Luisa Palacio is an ESL and Spanish teacher from Colombia with 19 years of teaching experience. Luisa holds a bachelor’s degree in modern languages, English and French, and an M.A. in TESOL from Greensboro College. Currently, she teaches K-12 at the Northampton County schools and Spanish with South Carolina Virtual Education:

If we talk about content teachers, I would say one of the most common mistakes they make is to have low expectations when it comes to ELLs. Sometimes content teachers do not get creative to think about modifications and strategies that could be put in place to scaffold instruction for ELLs. There are modifications as simple as playing videos with subtitles, finding out content using resources in the students’ native language, asking students to create a video instead of asking them to present in front of the class, etc. Some other times, content teachers assume parents do not speak English, so they fail to contact parents to inform them how students are performing in their class and to suggest activities they could do at home to support learning. Students have the tools to succeed, but they do not know how to use those tools. Therefore, teachers should invest time to explain how the different platforms and tools work, making sure ELLs feel comfortable using them.

Content teachers and ESL teachers should work together, share resources, strategies, lesson plans, and projects. They should discuss what the best strategies and practices could be for ELLs based on their proficiency levels. ELLs benefit from content teachers and ESL teachers working together, and they feel more confident when they see that communication and connection between what is done in their content class and their ESL class.

Background knowledge

Laura Landau has taught in the Manville school district, New Jersey, for over 20 years and is currently teaching 3rd grade at Roosevelt School. She has a degree in elementary education, a master’s in special education, and an LDTC degree, which helps support the differentiated learning in the classroom to meet the needs of all her students:

There are a few mistakes that teachers make when working with English-language learners (ELLs), which, when avoided, can improve the students’ learning experience and the classroom climate. The biggest mistake has to do with assuming or expecting background knowledge and life experience that many students do not have. For example, many teachers in the younger grades will do an ocean unit because most students have been to the ocean. However, if some students have never been to the ocean, then jumping into the unit would put them at a disadvantage to those that have been there.

It can also be difficult for ELL students to understand the language and make connections. Being surrounded by students who are able to understand and make connections easily can give ELL students the impression that they are “stupid” if they ask questions. Therefore, it is essential to level the playing field and give students as much background knowledge and vocabulary prior to starting a unit or topic across the curriculum. Some ways to build background knowledge include: using engaging videos (even virtual experiences), explicit instruction with topic-specific vocabulary, integrating images (remember to show the words and pictures and have students practice saying the words if they are going to read them), and use picture stories to have words in context. You can create an anchor chart with relevant words and pictures visible for students to reference during the duration of the unit. By using some of these techniques, you can help build a bridge of understanding that ELL students need to thrive in the unit that is being taught.

While teaching the lessons, check for understanding. This may be done with whole-class-status checks, in small groups, hand signals during the lesson, or one-on-one check-ins. Be sure to give wait time. I had a very intelligent young man who took a long time to answer questions. I asked him what was going on, and he explained that he would listen to what I say, then think of the answer in Polish, and then have to figure out the words he wanted to use in English. If I gave him the extra time, he would come up with wonderful answers.

It is also vital to have a classroom environment which allows for students to feel comfortable to ask questions and not be afraid to admit they do not know what is being asked. At no time does any teacher want a child to feel uncomfortable or “stupid” in class. Building relations with students and having students build relationships with other students create the positive classroom environment which allows all students to feel inclusive in the classroom and allows learning to flourish. One other side note, please be careful using idioms with ELL students, since the real meanings can be confusing, like cut it out and they say cut what out.

Thanks to Silvina, Cindy, Luisa, and Laura for their contributions!

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