1. What are some common difficulties you see teachers having with ELL students (teaching AND behavior)?
English language learners (ELLs) are the fastest-growing student group in schools today. In order to assure success in America’s communities, it is imperative that we provide ELLs with access to an equitable and a quality education. Below are some challenges that teachers may face as they welcome this group into their classrooms:
A. Teachers are not always prepared to work with ELLs
When teachers do not receive the appropriate professional development, teachers find it difficult to help their ELLs function in the classroom. A student who speaks no English needs completely different instruction than a student who speaks some English, versus one who speaks fairly well. Unprepared teachers group all of these students together, thinking that is what is supposed to happen, or assign another student to assist with lessons, leaving these students to teach each other. It is extremely important for the campus administrator to make sure teachers are prepared by providing the assistance and professional development each teacher needs.
B. Students are hesitant to speak English
ELLs are either hesitant to speak English and may only feel comfortable using their first language or not speak at all. When this happens, teachers assume one of three things, the student did not understand the assignment, the student is lazy and does not want to try and speak English or the student is not capable of doing the assignment because he doesn’t understand the lesson. What the teacher needs to know is that students understand a lot more than they are able to communicate, receptive language versus expressive language.
There are several strategies that a teacher can use when they have non-English speakers in the classroom. One strategy is the buddy system, an idea that most teachers utilize; however, just placing an ELL with a buddy who is only there to translate will not provide the greatest benefit for the ELL, nor the student who has been asked to take over the teacher’s job. Working on the ELLs metacognitive skills is more beneficial; for example, teaching the child what to do if he needs to ask a question, providing sentence stems that the student can use to begin forming sentences on his own, or providing visuals describing the concepts and/or essential and critical vocabulary words, and a chance to listen to the pronunciation of words. (Teachers don’t always model the language and how a word sounds.) Asking a student, “Do you understand?” is not a good question; the student will either stay silent or nod. In addition, the more routines you have in your classroom, the more comfortable the student will be and the easier it will be for him to follow.
C. ELLs may be having problems getting along in the classroom
ELLs come from all over the world, and most recently from war torn countries; and because they are at war, will not want to sit next to someone they see as their “enemy”. It is extremely important for the teacher to know the background of each one of his students. It is also important for the teacher to incorporate cultural awareness into their everyday lesson plan. Not only does the teacher need to get to know each student individually, but also each student must do the same in order to respect each other’s backgrounds and find out how much they actually have in common. Placing these students in a different classroom is an option as a last alternative.
D. ELLs have excessive absences.
When an ELL is consistently absent, it is important to meet with the parents to see if the teacher and/or counselor can determine the reason for his absence. One of the top reasons a student is not interested in school has to do with relationships, either with the teacher or lack of friends in the classroom. Being in school is a social time for most students and if a student is not connecting with other students, it is important to provide those opportunities. At the secondary level, it is extremely common that the student is placed in additional reading or English classes, and no time is left for extra curricular activities, which is crucial to incorporate into their daily schedule, since these are excellent opportunities for students to interact socially. Parents can also provide additional opportunities after school for their child.
E. ELLs are uncertain of their classroom assignment
Something for the teacher to keep in mind is when he assigns a class project and the ELL is looking around to see what others are doing or the student does not start at all, and sits quietly with this blank look on his face. It is important for the teacher’s directions to be short, precise and clear and provide visuals, repeat the directions and provide examples of the assignment. Asking other students in the class to repeat the assignment and or model is also helpful, along with having written directions (with pictures); remember, even though a student is not ready to talk in complete sentences, they can read and understand better than they can articulate the assignment.
2. What common difficulties do you see in students trying to learn to read English?
English language learners enter the classroom with different backgrounds; therefore, both teachers and students face numerous challenges, especially in the area of reading. Especially in large metropolitan districts, ELLs arrive from all over the world with multiple languages and backgrounds, where learning the American alphabet is completely foreign to them when they are used to totally different characters. I don’t think I can emphasize enough the need for research-based professional development where teachers are introduced to resources and strategies that are needed to be successful in the classroom. Teachers are required to teach, evaluate, and make sure each student is provided lessons that are appropriate for his or her level. Due to stringent state and federal requirements, teachers are stressed to meet adequate yearly progress, in ENGLISH, and students are tested in English before they have had the opportunity to learn the language. How is the teacher to assess what the child knows when he or she may not know all of the different languages spoken in the classroom nor have the tools to appropriately assess each student?
What the ELL understands in class and what a student needs to be successful in reading, is dependent on several factors, the student’s vocabulary, both in English and his native language, his social and educational experiences along with the teacher’s lesson delivery. Some students arrive with limited schooling, some to the point of not even knowing how to hold a pencil and because of their age as they enter school, they are placed in 9th grade for the first time even if the child has never been in school. These students are sometimes identified as SIFE students, students with interrupted formal education. For these students, school is completely foreign. Parents have not had the opportunity to attend school either; therefore, making communication a challenge between teacher, parent and student. The actual pronunciation of words is difficult for ELLs, they have no idea what the word sounds like and therefore completely depend on the teacher for pronunciation, in addition to how to put the new vocabulary words together. Unfortunately, some teachers quickly rattle their words in conversation, while they are writing on the board and not think about the ELLs in the classroom who need more time to listen and make connections to their past experiences. ELLs also need to focus on the teacher’s lips to see how the word is pronounced, but when the teacher’s talking while writing on the board, the teacher’s back is all that the student sees.
3. DISD has a high number of middle and high school students that read below (sometimes FAR below) grade level. Why do students fall behind?
Achieving reading competency by the end of third grade, is continuously a goal for school districts. It is a goal that represents a critical milestone for every student, every teacher and every parent who seeks educational success. It is important to note; however, that both the success and failures begin before the child is even born. For some students it could be a result of health problems at birth, which can contribute to learning or language development. Families living in poverty do not always have the opportunity to engage in learning experiences that help develop vocabulary and cognitive development. They enter school already behind their more privileged friends and then also attend schools that are not prepared for them. They may have less qualified teachers and fewer materials that will help meet their needs. At times students do not receive adequate intervention until it’s too late. It’s easier to bring a child up to speed in reading when the gaps are small, yet sometimes a student will not get the help he needs until he’s two or more years behind. This in itself creates a major challenge time wise. The larger the gap, the longer the intervention time the student needs; yet by that time, it’s almost impossible to provide the actual time needed.
As I responded in a previous question, professional development is fundamental. Teachers need to understand the skill of teaching reading, whether they are early childhood teachers or math and science teachers in the upper grades. It is also imperative that professional development needs to include language development; this is a crucial component that is continuously missing in a good professional development plan. Teaching vocabulary is only the basics of language development. A student may know the meaning of a word, but the challenge comes on how he builds the word in a sentence. Using the appropriate assessments should also be part of the professional development plan. A teacher will not be able to provide the student what he needs if the teacher does not know the areas of need.
4. What should be the responsibility of teachers in helping those students catch up? What is the responsibility for DISD in supporting those teachers?
While it is the responsibility of the teacher to meet the needs of every child in the class, teachers should not be expected to do it alone. In addition to making sure students are successful in the classroom; teachers are faced with many challenges. English language learners have unique needs that must also be met. Again, it starts with a high quality professional development that includes, student assessment for both literacy and language, how to set up small and large student group instruction, language and literacy development, coordinating and implementing an intervention plan for those students in need of intervention, are some of the main basic components. Campus and district administration must assure that the teacher has the tools and materials needed, such as leveled readers, intervention tools, high quality professional development, parent involvement, a teacher mentor, along with a productive team. Having a teacher mentor is extremely critical. District level assistance is paramount in order for the campus, and the campus administration to get the help they need, in turn the teacher will then get the help he or she needs.
5. Teachers have a lot of students with very different learning needs. How much is too much to expect a teacher to do for a student struggling with literacy?
It is too much to expect a teacher to get it all done especially if the teacher is new to teaching, does not have the support from the campus and district administration, or the assistance from the parent. All teachers want to do a good job of reaching every student, but they need to learn to ask for assistance and not feel they should have all of the answers to every challenge. Like their students, they are sometimes hesitant to ask for help. Assistance also comes from working with a trained grade level team, which includes the principal and the librarian! The librarian is an excellent resource that is almost always forgotten. And never forget to include the student in the process; he should also be included in the learning.
Therefore, it is imperative that a comprehensive professional development plan for teachers and administrators includes learning how to involve the students in their own learning, developing metacognitive skills and learning how to engage parents in their child’s learning. Dallas ISD has these resources available for teachers, including a Parent and Student Services division, to help support teachers, administrators, parents and students become more involved in the learning process.
6. Would creating a school or specialized classes for students struggling with language and literacy be helpful/possible? Is one reading/ELL class fair to the students and is it fair to have them in classes with other students that are on level?
Most middle school and high school campuses set up an additional reading class for struggling students, but do not always include language development. In addition they add technology classes that help with reading and language development. Reading and language development should be included in all subjects, in order to take the burden off of one reading teacher facilitating all of the learning for the student.
7. Is just one class per day for ELL students or a reading class for students struggling with literacy enough?
No. One class is not enough to provide the extra time needed for an ELL to catch up in reading if he is two or three years behind, in addition to learning subject content AND develop the language needed in order to be successful. Reading and language development should be included in all subjects, in addition to knowing how to monitor each student’s progress, using data based documentation.
8. What is DISD doing well in this area and where can DISD improve?
Dallas has the highest percentage of ELLs in the State, and like any other supportive district, is in a continuous improvement mode in order to provide the best instruction for all students. For example, Dallas has increased the number of ESL teachers in the classroom in middle and high schools, offers a dual language program in elementary, which is now growing through secondary; provides early childhood and parent specialists to assist campuses, has a comprehensive language and literacy plan, which includes strong individualized professional development and provides supplemental campus and parent resources, along with dual language/ESL specialists and coaches who work one on one with campus administration and individual teachers. Partnerships have also been developed with institutes of higher learning, such as UNT Dallas and SMU, along with community and business partnerships.
It is important to note that English language learners face many challenges in their new environment, which affects their learning. Equally important, teachers are also facing just as many challenges in their new environment of working with students who do not speak English and are new to the country, affecting their teaching and in turn, student performance. The challenge is twofold, how do we help both the student and the teacher? Both are in need of assistance in order to increase their confidence so that they both feel that it is not an impossible task; it can be done. In addition, they both need to realize that they cannot do it by themselves without asking questions and learning the appropriate steps to take.
One of the goals for any district should be to improve district and campus climate where all teachers and students feel welcomed, respected and valued. District and campus climate is a measure, real or perceived, and should lead to increased awareness and the appreciation of all cultures. Until climate is addressed, any forthcoming efforts will go unnoticed, so it is paramount that campus and district climate is addressed as a total faculty. It is also a necessary component in a comprehensive plan for diversity.
There is a lot to learn and we are all continuing to learn. The good news is, research is growing and we are improving.