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According to an NEA Policy Brief, nearly 25 percent of students in public schools will be English Language Learners by the year 2025. That’s a lot of kids who will need our support.

Are we ready?    

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Academic support

It’s common practice for English-learners in the U.S. to be assessed when they begin their school experience in order to determine placement and support for learning.

While it’s true that many are able to read and write in their home language, ELL students require extra support when it comes to reading and writing in English. Common practice is for these students to be placed in general education classes with additional pull-out or push-in language instruction.

The problem is that many of our students entering American school as immigrants have had an interruption in their schooling. This lapse in their education means that they are also below level in reading and writing in their home language.

Close examination of our ELL students’ reading and writing competence is critical if we are to know how to design appropriate instruction. Does this student need beginning reading instruction in English and who will plan for that? Will there need to be reading instruction delivered in both the general education class and the English-learner class as well?

Is this student able to read English fluently, but has insufficient background knowledge in vocabulary and culture (idioms, colloquialisms) to fully comprehend when reading, writing, listening, speaking? How much instruction will be provided in the general education setting and what is required in additional ELL services?

Many times the only option for our kids learning English is a submersion model; better known as the “Sink or Swim” language learning program. Students are expected to pick up the English language and academic content at the same time without the benefit of any support in their home language.

Classroom teachers, ELL specialists, coaches and support personnel can collaborate and plan instructional support that is customized for English-learners. Students who receive this kind of intentional backing not only survive, they’ll thrive.

Emotional Support

I often think of my own experience in language acquisition. We lived in Austria for seven years while my husband traveled to Eastern Bloc countries for his job. I needed to learn German to survive in the community that we’d chosen to live in.

After researching language programs, I chose to attend the University of Vienna for German language classes. My only support network was the girl who sat next to me. She was from Czechoslavakia (known now as the Czech Republic).

She spoke no English. I did not speak Czech. We had plenty in common, however. We experienced the trauma of trying to understand and be understood.

The instructor made it clear on the first day that only German would be spoken and that we’d need to do a lot of study on our own outside class. I’d had several years of German in high school and university so I understood a lot more than I could speak, but I found it painfully difficult to be in a language learning environment with no home language support.

Each class session was intense and I remember the exhaustion I felt on the train ride home. I get it now when I see our ELL students looking bewildered and beleaguered.

A recent Edweek article explains their plight:

“These students are often labeled as having a double disadvantage,” said Louis Volante, an education professor at Brock University in Ontario. “They have to adjust to a different way of doing things and they also generally have a low socioeconomic status in their new host country.” And refugee children often have a “triple disadvantage,” Volante said, since many of them also have experienced trauma because of war or natural disasters.

Triple disadvantage. Are most teachers aware of that reality for our immigrant students? Do we feel the weight our kids carry each day? What can we do to truly empathize and take action?

Photo by Anna Louise on Unsplash

Again, in the Edweek article:

Twenty-six high school students are in a quiet, darkened classroom, eyes closed and breathing in unison. This is a ‘Mind Your Mind’ class for 15- to 18-year-olds, meant to reduce stress and promote mental health. One student, 18-year-old Aslam Azami, is from Afghanistan and came to Canada just two years ago. He’s now in 12th grade and dealing with anxieties familiar to young people on the verge of a major transition. “All the stress builds up from the subjects, all the homework, tests, and exams,” he said. Nicole D’sousa, a youth mental-health worker, runs the class. She has an office at the school, but she works for The Neighbourhood Organization, one of Ontario’s network of more than 200 settlement centers. These are community organizations, funded in part by the federal government, and meant to help immigrants and refugees with their “healthy social, economic, and cultural integration” into Canadian society.

OK, so in our district and community we don’t have a mental-health worker who is available as support to our newcomers. What can I do?

Smile—a friendly face in a sea of strangers can be a welcome sight.

Check in—find out from the ELL teacher what else I can do to connect with our new
immigrants. Get additional information from teachers on ways that I can connect to
our recent newcomers.

Support—as an instructional coach, I can provide resources and build capacity for
our teachers. Can I type up a shortened version of a reading selection that ELL
students in the class would find it easier to access? Would it help if I sit beside a
student in a teacher’s class to provide support in comprehending by sharing images
or additional tools that will build adequate background knowledge?

Dispel biases—reflect on my own personal biases and take a stand to promote a
positive perception of immigrants. The vast majority of people migrating to the U.S.
make the sacrifice to leave their home for a chance at a better life. They are, in
many cases, willing and able to learn and contribute to our economy and culture.

Be vocal—consistently bring up the challenges our immigrants face
so that the school board and central administration staff can innovate in order to
provide fiscal and personnel resources to ensure success for these fragile students.

One final thing, and I believe this to be THE single most important thing we can do to support the success of recent immigrants.

Let’s not delay the intellectual development of our students while they’re learning to speak the language.

In a classroom where I’m supporting a teacher and her ELL students, I visit daily during their language arts block. A couple of weeks ago I sat beside a newcomer, Naomi, and read a short excerpt about Louis Zamperini aloud to her. She had picture and vocabulary support to scaffold her comprehension.

The teacher had assigned a question for discussion at her table. “What qualities did Zamperini possess in order to survive for forty plus days out on the open sea?” Naomi used visual supports as she rehearsed her response with me first so she’d be ready to discuss with her tablemates. After a few minutes she said, “Determination.”

“Tell me more,” I said.

“Determination—again, again, again and again,” Naomi said.

Weeks earlier, her teacher had provided character trait vocabulary support for selected students in the class. Naomi referred to the list of character traits as we talked. She doesn’t speak English fluently yet, but she had all the knowledge she needed to enter into the conversation.

Her teacher is clear on the fact that Naomi can access the content with adequate scaffolding and she provides that support often. Naomi is learning English, but she’s also learning academic content along with her classmates.

Providing academic support as well as emotional support for our immigrant students acts as a strong safety net ensuring success. Raising awareness and intentional, collaborative planning can prepare us to meet the needs of our growing population of English-learners.

Let’s ensure that we’re ready for the challenge.