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December 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 4

Reader's Guide / Recognizing the Gifts of English Learners

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Instructional Strategies
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Several years ago, I wrote a news article on math instruction and English language learners. The story ran down the many challenges that students who are not fluent in English face in conventional math classes. But more interestingly to me as a reporter, several educators I spoke with maintained that, given the right supports, ELLs not only could thrive in math but could also help teachers improve their overall practice.
One quote from that story, from mathematics education professor Judit Moschkovich, has always stuck with me. "What English learners do in a math class is make language visible—that's a gift, not a disadvantage," she said. "English learners are a window into language."
What Moschkovich meant by this was that having ELLs in their classrooms can prompt educators to be more explicit and intentional in their instruction, particularly with respect to academic language. In the process, she suggested, they might also become more attentive to the diverse (and sometimes hidden) needs and strengths of all their students.
I thought of this notion as we were working on this issue of Educational Leadership on "Building Bridges for ELLs." In some ways, it seems even more pertinent—and perhaps more mainstream among educators—today. ELLs make up an increasingly large constituency in U.S. schools, and global political crises and immigration-policy debates have brought greater attention to their circumstances, as well as to their hopes and dreams. As more educators recognize, this is not a group that schools can afford to discount or not see any longer.
Indeed, like Moschkovich, several of the authors in this issue highlight the importance of recognizing the assets these students bring to the classroom, an approach that may run counter to legacy assumptions and academic programming. As author and educator Jessica Lander writes, schools have had a tendency to define immigrant students by "what they lack (English) and los[e] sight of the myriad of strengths they possess." Predictably, this "deficit-based" approach has often become a self-fulfilling prophecy for students and schools alike.
One of the strengths that ELLs bring to schools is linguistic diversity. In different ways, several of our authors argue that, while it's essential for schools to help ELLs master standard English, they must also do more to leverage the value of bilingualism (or multilingualism) and the funds of knowledge students have acquired in their native languages. As scholar Laura Hamman-Ortiz observes: "All educators know the importance of accessing students' prior knowledge, yet we often fail to acknowledge linguistic knowledge as a component of what students know and bring."
By valuing ELL's strengths, educators can also do more to address their specific needs. Several of the articles in this issue highlight innovative strategies to augment instruction for ELLs, from establishing targeted academic-support programs (Ferlazzo), to integrating high-leverage formative assessment practices (Duckor and Holmberg), to using diagrams in math classes (Nikula, DePiper, and Driscoll). No less critically in the current political climate, we also provide urgent and thoughtful advice on accommodating newcomer students (Calderón; Olsen) and forging supportive relationships with vulnerable families (Cohan, Honigsfeld, and Cove; Urtubey).
Far from being peripheral, such practices can benefit schools broadly. As Larry Ferlazzo writes of his high school's philosophy, welcoming ELLs and working to improve their learning conditions "challenges us to become better teachers for all students."

A Note on Terminology

As many of our readers know, there is some debate in education about how students who aren't yet fluent in English should be referred to. While we recognize the affirming connotations of terms like emergent bilingual students or emergent multilingual learners, we have tended in this issue to use English language learners (ELLs) and English learners (ELs), mainly because that is the terminology most commonly recognized across school systems and in recent K–12 education literature. At the same time, we have tried to avoid deficit-laced labels like limited-English proficient students. As always, we encourage readers to reflect on how the professional language used in schools (and education publications) can inform perceptions and policy.

Reflect & Discuss

"Research in Action: Ramping Up Support for Long-Term ELLs" by Larry Ferlazzo

➛ Does your school provide targeted academic supports for long-term ELLs? Are they effective?

➛ What parts of Ferlazzo's research project most impressed you? How could you replicate these at your school?

➛ Based on Ferlazzo's findings, what do you think are long-term ELLs' greatest needs? How could your school or district better address them?

"Seeing Their Strengths" by Jessica Lander

➛ Have you or your colleagues ever lowered expectations for immigrant students? Reflect on what you've seen and heard.

➛ In what ways could you better recognize the strengths of your immigrant students?

➛ How could you encourage students to maintain and develop their native language skills in your school or classroom?

➛ What role do you think teachers should have in helping immigrant students and their families?

➛ Garibay mentions several things that educators could do to make their immigrant students feel welcome in the classroom. Can you think of other ways to do this?

➛ What organizations in your community could you partner with to help inform immigrant families about their rights and responsibilities?

"The Impact of Language Ideologies in Schools" by Caitlin G. Fine, Kimberly Strong, and Deborah Palmer

➛ What experiences have you had in your school with language ideologies characterized as language standardization or alingualism? How did they unfold? Why do you think they happened? What were the student-level consequences?

➛ Do educators in your school tend to see themselves more as teachers for only "regular education students" or as teachers of all students?

➛ What type of PD formats would work best in your context to support individual and systemic-level reflection of language ideologies and the consequences of deficit-oriented ideologies? What stakeholders, powerbrokers, and allies could you include in this effort?

➛ How could your school or district's approach to welcoming and accommodating newcomers be improved?

➛ Do educators in your school have a strong enough understanding of the non-academic challenges newcomer students may face?

➛ In your experience, what are the biggest issues newcomers face in adjusting? How could your school be more intentional about addressing these issues?

End Notes

1 Rebora, A. (2014, November 10). Common-Core math standards put new focus on English learners. Education Week.

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