In this stressful political time when immigration debate is usually going full throttle across my feed on a daily basis, I am called to task often on my stance on English Learner Education. Being a white, English-only speaking female who is entering her third decade in the classroom, who am I to speak on the topic of EL education? Well frankly, in my humble opinion, each of us who step into a classroom needs to start asking ourselves these questions. What does it mean to be an English language learner in our school system today? What are the benefits and what are the challenges in teaching this group of learners? But first and foremost, who are these students? How am I supporting or hindering their academic growth in the confines of my classroom? We need to look in the mirror, and not out the window, blaming the outside forces we have little to no control over. Easy to say, difficult to do, but necessary now more than ever.
By definition. English language learners are students who come to our classroom speaking another language, many times multiple languages. It is important to note that students are identified as English learners first by their families when they apply to come to school. Once a student has this label, regardless of their academic skills in either English or their home language they become part of our English Learner program. It takes a lot to get out.
English language learners or ELs come with a variety of experiences. Some of our students come to us without ever having attended school before, and they need a whole set of school skills to become successful. Some students come with little to no English skills but have been well educated in their primary language, and that transition to academic English will most likely go smoothly. We teach students who have major gaps in their education, missing months or years due to violence in their home countries. Each of them needs our support, instruction and most importantly, our time. Time to learn about them as a learner and time to focus on their instructional and personal needs so they can become successful in this thing called school. These are the students most people think about when they talk about students still learning English, but there is another group sitting in our classrooms, who need us now more than ever.
There are identified ELs who have lived in this country their entire life and been part of our nation’s schools since kindergarten. Their parents and maybe even their grandparents were born in this country. These students sound like they are fluent in English, but continue in our EL support programs because they lack the English academic language to access complicated content. They need a different kind of support to reach their full potential. They are categorized as long-term English learners, and they are a growing population in our classrooms across the nation.
Long-term English language learners are the focus of my doctoral work. Why do we have so many of our ELs in high school still not able to read and write well in English academically? How as an educational system can we better support these students? For far too long, students who were designated as long-term English learners received the same type of remedial support as those students who were new to our country. By not taking the time to affirm their skills, build on strengths, and provide a challenging, rigorous curriculum for these students, they remain trapped in the cycle of remediation and ultimately failure. So all this sounds pretty depressing, right? But the good news is, we have the power to change things. Here are the top five things that need to be in place to ensure our long-term English learners succeed and even excel in our schools.
- Know your students. It is your responsibility as the lead learner in the room to understand your kids. Be aware of their home language, their previous schooling experiences, the length of time they have been in American schools, and what supports they have had prior to walking through your classroom door. Are there procedures and routines in place that help students work to their greatest potential? Do you look at language learners as someone who needs to “be fixed” or someone who has a lot to offer in this growing global economy? Every teacher is a language teacher, and we need to see ourselves as such.
- Teachers understand what academic language students need to be successful in the content area classroom. What vocabulary do students need to understand the content? How are you explicitly teaching it? What opportunities do students have to practice it with you? By planning with that in mind, all students will be more successful.
- Long-term English language learners need to read, write, listen and speak each and every day in every class. By expecting these students to use higher academic vocabulary and allowing lots of time to practice and repeat, they will get better. Structure lessons so academic conversations are supported and celebrated. Give students lots of time to use the vocabulary, and hold them to high standards. Push them to be better, hold them accountable, and support and encourage them along the way.
- Provide many different types of language support in your classroom routines. All students need visuals, manipulatives, group work and individual chances to demonstrate what they know. It is not enough to provide a rigorous curriculum if you do not provide the access and support students need to be successful, especially for those students who do not see themselves as scholars. A scaffold is meant to be a support, not a crutch.
- Teachers will get exactly what they expect from their students. If you believe in them, build their efficacy by challenging them to continuously improve, they will make progress. Our mindset goes a long way in changing their mindset, how we define their success or failure impacts how they define their own. Be strategic, be thoughtful and be tenacious.
It is not easy to teach in today’s classroom. There are many things both internally and externally that pull and push on our time and attention. Empowering students to be more than they see in themselves does not occur by happenstance. It is an unapologetic enthusiasm and setting high standards with structured support to provide every kid the chance to be successful.