SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Opinion

October 19, 2012

Column: The challenge of teaching English Language Learners

Part 1 of 2

English Language Learners are the fastest-growing student population in Salem. While the majority are native speakers of Spanish, Salem students represent 37 different language backgrounds, from Albanian to Vietnamese. These students enrich our schools, our neighborhoods and our community by allowing us to better understand different cultures, viewpoints and histories. Yet, there continues to be a significant achievement gap on standardized measures between ELLs and their peers. As Salem seeks to “turn around” some of the policies and practices in our schools that affect students whose first language is not English, we may be better able to discuss the current challenges if we reflect on the past.

Discussion can start by mentioning the many confusing acronyms associated with teaching and learning ESL. For simplicity, I will refer here to the ones that make the most sense: We teach ESL, English as a Second Language; the students that we teach are ELLs, English Language Learners. Yet, ELLs are not all alike and cannot all be taught in the same way with the same materials. They have different literacy backgrounds, different levels of education, different skills and different ways of learning.

Amin is a newly arrived Somali teenager who has spent years in a refugee camp with intermittent and interrupted education. He has had a lifetime of trauma, including war, famine, disease and death. In addition to adjusting to a new culture and language, Amin has subject-matter knowledge far below the standards of that expected in a Massachusetts public education; he also has to help support his family. He has only two years to learn English, master his subjects and pass the MCAS if he expects to graduate from high school with his peers.

At the other end of the spectrum, Maria arrived to the U.S. in the third grade with the ability to speak, read and write Spanish. She may have gone through grade two in her home country, where English had been introduced as a foreign language as early as preschool. She has parents who are college-educated, have professional jobs, and can support and enrich her education at home. She can seamlessly apply her literacy skills and content knowledge to learning English. As such, she can keep up with her peers in understanding content and will make rapid advances in English both because she is young and because she has early literacy skills in her first language. She is likely to do well in school and finish high school with the language skills of a native speaker of English while maintaining the ability to use Spanish.

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