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Delicate Balance: Managing the Needs of ELL students

By — State: Maine Department of Education
Updated on Apr 27, 2012

“It is hard to be an ESL student sometimes. Between ESL students, I could make many friends, but when I have any classes like math or science I feel an invisible space between ESL students and regular students. I envy the regular students because I was good at science in my own country, and now the only reason for my C on science was pictures in the textbook.”

— Middle school student

The experience of the middle school student quoted above is not unique. A growing “perfect storm” challenges today’s schools: increasing diversity in the student population, greater accountability, and already stretched school budgets (Freeman, 2004). English language learners (ELLs) represent the fastest-growing student group in U.S. schools, with enrollment increasing more than 150% since 1990 (NCELA, 2006). Projections indicate that in two decades this demographic group will comprise more than one-third of students in U.S. schools (Thomas & Collier, 2002). For these reasons, balancing language learning with content learning so all students can become part of the school community is one of the major challenges facing U.S. schools today.

An important first step in supporting linguistically diverse students is understanding terminology. Referring to students as English language learners (or ELLs) is much more inclusive and accurate than calling them ESL students or Limited English Proficient. Many ELLs may be learning English as a third or fourth language, and any student who is becoming bilingual should not be considered limited.

Also, “English language learner” connotes a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind (Freeman, 2004). Students’ English proficiency should be viewed along a continuum, from new learners at one end to proficient users at the other end — all native speakers do not have the same degree of proficiency. Changing demographics and definitions require us to shift how we view the traditional role of ESL teachers and the responsibilities of the larger school community. We need to understand how language and content are related in today’s classrooms and rethink our approach to educating ELLs. This has important implications for how all teachers work together.

Learning English vs. Learning in English

ELLs face social, cultural, and personal challenges, but perhaps their biggest difficulty is learning academic content in English. Social English skills may develop within a year, but research has consistently shown that the cognitive academic language of the classroom and textbooks takes five to seven years to develop (Cummins, 1984, 1996; Thomas & Collier, 1997, 2002). We cannot expect students to wait the five to seven years needed to develop academic language proficiency and then start learning content.

Educators see this disparity in the significant achievement gap between ELLs and their English-speaking peers. Dropout rates for ELLs are triple those of native English speakers (Short & Fitzsimmons, 2007). On the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), 71% of 8th-grade ELLs scored “below basic” compared to 27% of non-ELLs (Perie, Grigg, & Donahue, 2005). Teachers and administrators are asking: What can we do about it? Fortunately, we can do a lot, and in response to growing cultural and linguistic diversity in the student population, many schools are changing.

ESL teachers are essential in helping ELLs to face the twin challenges of achieving in content areas and developing academic English proficiency. Teachers, administrators, and policy makers are beginning to realize, however, that ESL specialists cannot do this job alone and that everyone’s roles and responsibilities must shift. In response to this changing paradigm, successful program reform and professional development reflect the following:

  • Schools understand their student population clearly and recognize that “ELL” includes not only students currently receiving ESL and bilingual services but also many students in the mainstream who have exited or never received ESL support.
  • Teachers and administrators view students along a developmental continuum of academic English language proficiency and recognize that all students will benefit from the intentional integration of language and content instruction.
  • All teachers understand how to work effectively with ELLs in their own classes, including:
    • The essential role culture plays in the classroom;
    • Strategies to scaffold content instruction to make it more comprehensible;
    • Basic principles of second-language acquisition and how to promote the development of both social and academic English in mainstream classes.
  • Teachers and administrators recognize the critical importance of supporting students’ first-language development to promote an additive rather than subtractive form of bilingualism, and communicate this to parents and students.
  • Schools have explicit English proficiency standards and assessments, and teachers understand how these tools can support the development of academic English skills in all classes.
  • Classroom and content teachers understand how to collaborate with ESL specialists in planning, instruction, and assessment. These principles describe a new instructional environment for ELLs in the 21st century, and many schools are already moving in this direction.

Teacher roles are changing as the entire school community shares responsibility for educating ELLs. Two keys to understanding this evolution are integration and collaboration.

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