Who are the English language learners in our schools? What are the best instructional arrangements we can create for these students? Both questions are essential at a time when 20 percent of U.S. children speak a language other than English at home. But both defy easy answers.
How to Teach ELLs
In pondering how to teach ELLs, one controversial question looms: Is it better to teach academic disciplines in students' home languages as well as English or to deliver "English only" instruction so that students' English improves?
Articles in this issue present arguments for ("The Case for Structured English Immersion" by Kevin Clark, p. 42) and against ("Let's Make Dual Language the Norm" by Veronica Lopez Estrada, Leo Gomez, and Jose Ruiz-Escalante, p. 54) teaching ELLs primarily in English. Jill Kerper Mora ("From the Ballot Box to the Classroom," p. 14) also examines claims about the effectiveness of bilingual programs that proponents of each approach have made:
Proponents of English-only initiatives believe that new immigrants must abandon their native languages and cultural practices to fully assimilate into American society. They fear that Spanish-speaking immigrants in particular were "clinging" to their language. … Opponents of anti-bilingual education see bilingualism as a social, economic, cultural, and academic advantage for first- and second-generation immigrants.
What is your school's policy concerning students' first languages?
- Call to mind several experiences you've had with specific ELL students. How did these students' knowledge of another language affect their academic learning? Did it confuse or frustrate them?
- Were there times when a student's first language enhanced his or her school experience? How?
- What do you see as the ideal role of a native or "heritage" language in instruction for language minority students?
- Mora argues that with ELL instruction, one size does not fit all. What specific characteristics of different populations you've taught might make a particular model preferable for those particular students?
Thinking from a Language Learner's Perspective
Regardless of the instructional arrangement in their schools, teachers can tap students' prior learning in their native tongues as a resource, argues Yu Ren Dong ("Linking to Prior Learning," p. 26). Try the assignment Dong gives preservice teachers, and report back to the group:
- Examine materials used in your classes—such as textbooks or worksheets—and strive to perceive them through the eyes of a non-English-speaker. What vocabulary or features might present obstacles? What words or cultural concepts common in an ELL's home culture, particularly cognates, might give that learner an entrée to understanding these materials? (such as the fact that algebra is an Arabic word?)
- If a subgroup of your class speaks the same second language, ask a bilingual student—or parent—to translate key vocabulary for a science, art, or other content area unit into that language. Inject this vocabulary into your oral introduction to the unit, calling on ELLs to rescue your pronunciation. Did you notice ELLs more engaged in this home-language-peppered lesson? Did you realize how much they already knew?
Kate Menken and Tatyana Kleyn ("Short Shrift for Long-Term Learners," online) write about a population of English language learners that's often invisible: long-term English language learners, meaning English learners who have attended U.S. schools for seven years or longer.
- Read Menken and Kleyn's list of characteristics of these students. To learn more about the language history of students you suspect may have hidden struggles with English—or hidden strengths—invite them to write or talk with you about learning experiences they've had in their home language, using the questions Yu Ren Dong provides on p. 30 of her article.