, Salem, MA

October 19, 2012

Column: The challenge of teaching English Language Learners

Julie Whitlow
The Salem News

---- — 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.

In between these two extremes are the majority of ELLs in our K-12 public schools. Most struggle, yet most also have the potential to succeed. In Salem, ELLs represent close to 12 percent of the student population. More than 30 percent of students in Salem speak a language other than English at home. The number of ELLs in Salem has increased 57 percent in the past 10 years, and this trend will continue. Urban districts across the United States face similar challenges.

A historic court

decision affecting ESL

Our nationwide commitment to the education of ELLs came after the 1974 Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court case, which guaranteed all children the right to a “meaningful education” regardless of their language backgrounds. After the Lau case, ELLs could no longer be left to languish in remedial or segregated classes without a focus on helping them learn English in an effective way. The Lau decision did not prescribe a particular way of teaching, but left it up to the schools to ensure that all ELLs would have access to the same curriculum and quality of instruction as their peers. Any alternative, according to the court, would “make a mockery” of public education.

Almost four decades after the Lau decision, however, the court’s promise remains to be fulfilled with a huge achievement gap both locally and nationwide between ELLs and native speakers. More ELLs drop out of school, have low-wage jobs and remain in poverty than their peers. In Salem and in many other communities, the MCAS scores of the ELL “subgroup” are far lower than those of native speakers. In 2012, Massachusetts was cited by the U.S. Department of Justice for not meeting the educational needs of students whose second language is English. A federal investigation found that Massachusetts was not preparing enough teachers to teach ELLs, thus denying them an important civil right.

What happened to

bilingual education?

After Lau, Transitional Bilingual Education became the most common model to instruct ELLs. In this model, students are taught content material in their native languages until they have the academic English skills to study math, history and science in English. The premise behind this model is that students will continue to learn content area material in their first languages for two to three years so as not to fall behind, while simultaneously studying ESL until they were able to understand, read and write at grade level in English. TBE is still the most common instructional model across the United States, but it is no longer legal in Massachusetts.

In 2002, Ron Unz, a West Coast millionaire, financed a successful-yet-mean-spirited ballot referendum in Massachusetts as he had also done in Arizona and California. Voters in Massachusetts supported ballot Question 2, which eliminated bilingual education as a way to instruct ELLs in Massachusetts. The result was a new law that has mandated that English be used for classroom instruction, regardless of students’ levels of English proficiency or literacy levels in their first languages. In Salem, bilingual education has disappeared completely.

In Massachusetts, this has led to the widespread use of the Sheltered English Immersion model, where students receive a year of English immersion and then are mainstreamed into classes where teachers “shelter” or adapt English in order to make subject matter meaningful and understandable. Students are expected to master grade-level English skills within two to three years of entering an SEI program.

This makes all classroom teachers ESL teachers, but with little support or coaching and no background in language studies. Only 8 percent of teachers in Massachusetts have an ESL license.

With the goal of improving the situation, all teachers and administrators will have to take a course designed to help them provide effective instruction to ELLs by 2014.

Will this be enough?


Julie Whitlow is a professor in the English Department at Salem State University. She coordinates the graduate programs in teaching English as a Second Language. This is one in a regular series of columns from the Community Advisory Board for the Salem schools. Part 2 of this column will run next Friday.