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English language learners (ELLs) is one of the biggest student populations in the United States. According to the New York Times, the number of students in need of ELL services has more than quadrupled over the few decades.
Most large schools have particularly been affected, and educators in these states have seen the need to come up with processes to address the emergent needs.
This guide, which draws upon recent research and advice of educators with experience in this field, is intended to give a deep insight on how to offer support to English learners at the ground level.
Who is an English Language Learner (ELL)?
An ELL is a student whose first language is not English and is, therefore, unable to communicate effectively or learn successfully in the classroom. Generally speaking, ELLs are a complex group of students with diverse backgrounds, multiple cultures, and educational needs. Most of them are from non-English speaking homes and characteristically require specific instructions to achieve full academic potential in their academic courses.
Every school has a way of identifying whether a student is an English language learner or not. In many cases, students are identified as limited English proficient after they complete a formal assessment of their reading, writing and speaking skills.
Once a successful identification is made, an educator must arrange for them to be given specific instructions designed to help them learn the English language by the law.
Categorically, ELL is also a term used to identify students who may have previously been limited English proficient (LEP) but have since been able to transition into regular academic courses taught in English.
However, even then, these students could still have a few problems excelling in the English environment. This, therefore, requires the teacher to monitor their progress for a couple of years until they achieve a satisfactory level of English aptitude.
ELLs Are One of the Fastest Growing Segment of the Population
The population of ELLs in America is on the rise. As of 2007, there were more than 5 million limited English proficient students in prekindergarten through to grade 12 classrooms, with a large concentration in the lower level classes. These students represent 10% of students in school and are projected to be at 25% in the year 2025.
There are no distinct English learner students. They come from many cultural and linguistic backgrounds and have a wide variety of experiences:
-Most LEP students are born in the US to immigrant parents and grandparents who speak their native language at home. They enter school having varying degrees of exposure to the English language.
-Some are immigrants who have recently moved to the US after having received some formal education in their native countries. Mostly, this group has learned English as a foreign language in their previous schools.
-Others are refugees whose countries have experienced social turmoil, war or major educational distractions. They often leave their countries involuntarily and may need specialized counseling in their home languages.
-Still, a small subset of ELLs is teenage students who have had little to no formal schooling as a result of specific medical or psychological challenges.
Recent studies show that around 43 percent of ELLs were born outside the US while 57 percent were born in the US. Formerly, a large population was concentrated in only a few states, but today they are found in almost every state. States in the Midwest have seen a significant increase in the number of ELL student enrollments.
Nationwide, ELLs now represent 10.5 percent of the total population in America.
Responsibilities of ELL Teachers
The rapid increase of English Language Learners coupled with the numerous educational challenges has led to significant changes in the teaching environment. Now, more than ever, teachers need to develop curriculums and instructions in ELL academic programs while infusing customized education and learning materials into regular academic courses.
The English language in the US has been shaped by a variety of legislative decisions in the last few decades. Schools face several state demands for improving the English language education policy.
Many propositions have been set out to public schools in regards to conducting instructions. One such proposal requires that non-native speakers be taught immensely in English through culturally relevant materials so as to reinforce their linguistic and cultural knowledge.
Teachers are expected to further the social, intellectual and career development of these students by helping them:
-Strengthen their capacity to communicate fluently in English both at school and at home
-Acquire the English needed for them to make academic progress and develop their potential within the education system.
-Feel a sense of self-worth ingrained in their heritage and cultural roots.
-Understand the similarities and differences between their culture and the values taught at school
Testing English Learners in Their Native Language
Following the passage of the federal NCLB (No Child Left Behind) law in 2001 and with the collective emphasis on testing in general, the need to produce practical tests for ELLs has become a matter of national concern. Limited English proficient students typically have a broad range of linguistic backgrounds.
While the majority of ELLs hail from Spanish origins, it is estimated that there are approximately 400 different native languages. It is, therefore, important to consider the use of mother tongue test administration in schools. At the same time, it is worth noting that not all native languages may be represented in a large school or state.
Another important factor to keep in mind is the varying levels of English aptitude among ELLs. Limited English Proficient students who have academic content knowledge may have difficulty demonstrating this knowledge in English.
Some students may be sufficiently proficient in spoken English but not in the academic English needed to pass content assessments. English language learners also vary in the level of proficiency in their native languages. Some may not be able to understand written tests in their native languages.
As a matter of fact, most of them are born and raised in the US and have no prior schooling in their native languages. This should be kept in mind when assessing them.
Tests given to them should, therefore, acknowledge the fact that they may not be able to comprehend the examination due to a variety of limitations. Teachers should not assume that just because they converse easily in English, they have the ability to understand written assessments. It is for this reason that it is necessary to utilize native languages to develop effective tests for English learners.
Second Language Proficiency Theory: BICS and CALP
English as a second language educators commonly refers to two types of English language proficiency: Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP).
BICS- Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills
Jim Cummins, a researcher, attempts to give a clear-cut differentiation between academic and social language acquisition among students whose mother tongue is not English.
According to Jim, BICS is a set of language skills needed for social interaction. It is the day-to-day language needed by English learners in the playground, on the bus, in the lunchroom, and on the phone. Basic interpersonal communication skills are not very demanding and, therefore, the language required is not specialized.
CALP- Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency
Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency refers to formal academic abilities including writing, reading, speaking and listening. This level of language aptitude is necessary for students to excel in their academic work.
English language learners need time and support to become proficient in this academic area. It involves skills such as classifying, comparing, evaluating and inferring. The language is more demanding as it requires more than a simple understanding of content vocabulary.
Advantages of Immersing English Language Learners in Mainstream Classrooms
One big concern for many teachers is how to effectively teach non-native English speakers while still meeting the needs of other learners. Come to think of it; they are in fact an asset and not a hindrance to the learning environment.
When teaching a class with both sets of students, teachers tend to provide triple exposure to all students. First, they introduce a concept in a way that all students can understand, next they help students grasp the subject matter then review it to determine whether every individual student has learned the concept.
Another advantage is that students with limited English proficiency feel more comfortable when put in one classroom with other students. They do not feel excluded and isolated from the rest of the students.
This is particularly important since isolation could have a learning disadvantage to the students. All things considered, ELL students can access greater learning opportunities in a regular classroom due to the level of exposure they are given.
Disadvantages of Immersing English Language Learners in Mainstream Classrooms
As limited English proficient students are integrated into their appropriate classes, teachers face the challenge of meeting their needs as well as those of their native speaking equals. It is common for teachers to wonder how:
-They can address all students while at the same time integrating the needs of the learners in a speed that is suitable for both groups.
-They can get all students to understand instructions, grasp the subject matter and participate in classroom activities.
– They can customize the instructions for individual students to understand.
-They can incorporate the native language of ELLs in a regular classroom to help them learn effectively.
When teaching English learners in a mainstream class, teachers need to familiarize themselves with individual profiles, cultural backgrounds and prior education of their students.
They are also required to acquire visual instructional aids that are particularly useful in complementing verbal explanations for age-appropriate classes.
However, most teachers have realized that limited English proficient students make faster improvement in the long run as long as they are given enough time to adjust and are not pressured to meet their expectations right away.
Strategies to Help Support Non-native English Speakers
-Present them with challenging academic Content
The school curriculum should not only focus on vocabulary. It should be a proficiently organized unit around authentic reading and writing skills as well as useful questions that will enable ELLs to learn effectively by their context.
-Set High Expectations for them
Non-native English speakers will naturally perform if placed in challenging environments with quality learning instructions. Teachers, therefore, need to embrace their learning spirit and set them according to academic accomplishments rather than language proficiency.
-Recognize Socio-Cultural Limitations
It is imperative for teachers to understand that ELL students come from diverse backgrounds and could, therefore, have a strong sense of multiple cultures or identify only with a single culture.
The Internet provides a platform where students can access maps, photographs, and diagrams for any subject to develop a broad-spectrum understanding of new concepts while acquiring background knowledge.
-Carry out Major Assessments
A regular evaluation is useful in determining what services will be given to them, how opportunities for learning will be distributed and the categories into which they fall into. The evaluation also involves gathering evidence from class performance and tests to have a sense of expectations set for them.
English learners face the double challenge of learning linguistic content as well as cultural heritage. Schools and teachers can help non-native English speakers significantly by treating language and cultural differences as a resource rather than an obstacle.