An ELL conversation

I had a few telling conversations this week that reminded me that many mainstream educators lack deep understanding of ELL issues.

English Language Learners (ELLs) come with a variety of academic backgrounds. At my last elementary school, I had students who were completely literate in their home languages, able to read and write at or above grade level, and I had students who were barely conversant in their parent’s language, with no reading or writing skills at all. Clearly, these students needed very different support from me.

The latter student is actually easier for the average teacher to understand. We know what struggle looks like and we have lots of strategies to use. But the former student, that highly educated one who knows everything a fourth grader should know, except English, he’s harder to pin down.

The students in my College ESL class this semester were telling me about their experiences in English classes, learning over and over again how to say the same simple words and phrases. These are educated young people, with the academic strength to get them into a competitive university. They mastered those simple phrases the first time around. What they needed, and didn’t get, was explicit instruction in ACADEMIC ENGLISH.

A colleague who is currently teaching linguistics to a group of aspiring public school teachers was frustrated by one who continued to worry about having to teach ELL students when she didn’t know their first language. ELL teachers can’t possibly know all of the languages of the students who come before us. In the past 4 years, I have worked with students who spoke Spanish, Portuguese, Khmer, Thai, Vietnamese, Myanmar, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Laotian, Gujarati, and French.

The thing is, our students don’t need for us to know their first languages (though learning a greeting is a friendly gesture). They need us to understand something about how their language is structured and how that differs from English. They need us to know how to help them, not only with grammar and mechanics, but with understanding how American schools expect them structure an essay, to support an argument, and to integrate outside sources.

When we continue to offer a standardized ELL program, we deny students the support they need. With students of all ages, we need to start where they are in their speaking, reading and writing proficiencies. Then, we have to offer specific support to help them progress to the next level. For my students now, that means giving them lots of opportunity to write and lots of feedback on that writing. It means grouping students who struggle with the same issues and working together to improve. It means pushing students forward, constantly. I only see them for 50 minutes, three times a week. Every minute is valuable. Can you imagine the frustration if I spent a whole class time on common irregular nouns if the majority has a solid command of their use already?

Those academically advantaged fourth graders need the same thing. Sometimes, we’re lucky enough to offer explanations and help in their first language, but mostly we don’t have enough staff to cover all the languages in one school. So, we need to offer intensive language study for some part of the day – geared towards their language proficiency, not just their grade level. And we need to do it without skipping out on grade level Math, Science, and Social Studies. I’ve been a classroom teacher; I know it’s not easy. I also know that most of us don’t get sufficient training and practice in the pedagogy of ELL instruction.

I do have some training and practice and have benefitted from the wisdom and modeling of some really great mentors. But this week, I’m inspired to delve into more research and writing that will help me better serve my students this semester, but also help as I prepare to return to public schools next year. There is so much I don’t know; there are things I do know that I could apply to my practice more effectively.

I’ll use this space to share some of my learning, and lots of my questions. Perhaps we can get a conversation going.



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