Diverse Teaching Strategies for Immigrant Children

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Diverse Teaching Strategies for Immigrant Children

JoAnn Crandall, Ann Jaramillo, Laurie Olsen, Joy Kreeft Peyton, and Sarah Young

“Adolescents entering the adult world in the 21st century will read and write more than at any other time in human history. They will need advanced levels of literacy to perform their jobs, run their households, act as citizens, and conduct their personal lives. They will need literacy to cope with the flood of information they will find everywhere they turn. They will need literacy to feed their imaginations so they can create the world of the future. In a complex and sometimes even dangerous world, their ability to read will be crucial. Continual instruction beyond the early grades is needed.” – International Reading Organization, 1999


“While great attention has been paid to increasing early childhood education opportunities and reaching the national goal of making sure every child can read by the third grade, little has been done to confront the real and growing problem: Hundreds of thousands of high school students can barely read on the eve of their high school graduation…Less than 75 percent of all eighth graders graduate from high school in five years, and in urban schools these rates dip below 50 percent. We believe that the great promise that no child will be left behind should not be limited to just the children in America’s elementary schools… [but should also] include adolescents who continue to struggle to meet high standards or, worse, simply give up and leave school without a high school diploma. Approximately 25 percent of all high school students read at “below basic” levels. Affecting more than their achievement in English and language arts classes, low literacy levels also prevent students from mastering content in other subjects. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many teachers in schools serving large numbers of low-performing students are neither trained to teach reading nor well-qualified in the subject they teach.” (Joftus, 2002, Alliance for Excellent Education)

This chapter addresses the challenges facing immigrant students as they make the transition to schooling in the United States and the qualities of schools and instructional approaches that assist them most effectively. Due in part to the struggles that many immigrant students have in graduating from high school, we place particular emphasis in this chapter on the education of students of secondary school age. The older the students, the greater their difficulty in catching up with their peers and graduating from high school. Immigrant students can succeed in school if (1) they are immersed in academic content and strong literacy practices that are presented in interesting, understandable ways; (2) they are integrated into the school’s social and academic life; and (3) they have coaching and support from teachers who understand second language acquisition and are committed to the success of their students. In this chapter we describe instructional and assessment strategies intended to develop students’ language and literacy skills and to make academic content challenging, interesting, and accessible. These strategies represent excellent educational practice for all students. We also describe important qualities of a professional development system that will support teachers who use these strategies in their classes.

Unstable Learning:

The Effects of Immigration on Education

The United States is experiencing an unprecedented wave of immigration, with people from every continent joining an already diverse population. In 2004, the number of foreign-born in the U.S. reached a record 34.2 million people, or about 11.9 percent of the total U.S. population. School-age children make up a large part of this population; in 2000, almost 20 percent of the 58 million students in grades PreK-12 were children of immigrants (Capps, Fix, Murray, Ost, Passel & Herwantoro, 2005).

Public schools are at the heart of efforts to incorporate these immigrants into U.S. society, and the number of immigrant students grows rapidly. The diversity of these newcomers, the complexity of their needs, and the swiftness and magnitude of change require new programs, materials, and approaches. And these swift changes demand teachers who are knowledgeable, responsive, and prepared to work with students of diverse language, educational, and cultural backgrounds.

The Immigrant Population

Children who speak a language other than English, many of whom are immigrants, are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. school-age population. Figure 3.1 shows the definitions of the terms used in this chapter to describe immigrant student populations. Between 2000 and 2004, the number of PreK-12 students designated as limited-English proficient (LEP) increased by 46 percent in grades PreK-5 and by 64 percent in 6-12 (Capps et al, 2005). In 2003-2004, there were 4.3 million LEP students reported by states in the United States (Padolsky, 2005). Some of these students speak no English at all, and some have limited prior schooling. Most English language learners (ELLs) are not immigrants but were born in the United States: 77 percent of PreK-5 students and 56 percent of ELLs in grades 6-12 are second or third generation citizens (U.S. Census of Population and Housing, 1 percent PUMS, 2000) and are sometimes referred to as “Generation 1.5” (see McKay & Wong, 2000; Park, 1999; and Figure 3.2 for more information about what has been referred to as “Generation 1.5” students] .

ELL students live primarily in the western United States, in urban areas, and in large school districts. California, New York, and Texas enroll the majority of ELLs, but other states are experiencing large percentages of emerging ELL populations: Nevada and Nebraska have both seen a 350 percent increase in ELL elementary school populations, and states like South Dakota, Georgia, Arkansas, and Oregon are not far behind (Capps et al, 2005). Forty-three percent of all public school teachers have at least one ELL student in their classes (Zehler, Fleischman, Hopstock, Stephenson, Pendzick, & Sapru, 2003).

This wave of immigration shows no signs of abating; demographers project that there will be 42 to 43 million immigrants, or about 13.5 percent of the total population, living in the United States by 2010 (Capps et al, 2005). Furthermore, the situation is far from static. The number of immigrants in a school district, and the languages and cultures they represent, can vary dramatically from year to year. Increasingly, immigrant students are settling in communities that do not have the social and educational infrastructures in place to meet their needs; others find themselves in already highly populated immigrant areas that have taken a heavy toll on the available community resources.

The majority of immigrant students enter school at the elementary school level. Fifty-three percent of ELLs are enrolled in grades K-4, 26 percent in grades 5-8, and 20 percent in grades 9-12 (Zehler et al, 2003). These students represent more than 100 different language groups, but the majority, three out of every four students, speaks Spanish (Capps et al, 2005). However, the overwhelming majority of public school teachers are white, middle class, English speaking women. Thus, increasingly, teachers do not share the language, culture, or national background of their students (see Figure 3.3).

Challenges Facing Immigrant Students

All immigrant students face the challenge of learning English well enough to participate fully in an English-speaking world. They also face the pressure of learning academic subjects before they are fully proficient in English. The U.S. Supreme Court—in Lau v. Nichols (1974) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964—addressed this problem, defining the school’s obligation to take affirmative steps to overcome immigrant students’ language barriers and provide access to education.

Specifically, immigrant children need to learn not only social English, but also the academic English required to participate in school successfully (Cummins, 1979; Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, 1997). They must learn to read in English; comprehend academic discourse; write coherently; and speak and produce English at cognitively complex, academic, abstract levels. And they need to do so quickly. Depending on the strength of students’ language development in their native tongue, developing a mastery of academic English can take from four to seven years (Collier, 1989; Hakuta, Butler, & Witt, 2000).

While they are becoming able to participate fully in instruction presented in English, immigrant students need a comprehensive, comprehensible means of learning academic subjects. And they often need an accelerated curriculum to catch up with their English-speaking peers, whose progress is a moving target. Each year, native English speakers improve both in English and academic content knowledge. To catch up, immigrants have to make more than a year’s progress each year.

From 4th grade on, when the school’s academic and cognitive demands begin to increase rapidly, students with little or no academic and cognitive development in their first language do less and less well. Catching up, and maintaining gains, becomes increasingly difficult as the curriculum becomes more challenging. High stakes assessments in grades K-12, which determine student promotion and graduation regardless of English proficiency, can also challenge ELL students – particularly those who are required to pass a high school exit exam to receive a high school diploma (Abedi, 2004; Ruiz de Velasco & Fix, 2002). Nineteen states currently require exit exams for high school graduation, and seven others are planning to implement an exit exam by 2012. The initial pass rates on math and reading/language arts exit exams are often much lower for ELLs than for native English speakers, often lagging 30 percentage points or more behind (Center on Education Policy [CEP], 2005b).

Consequently, graduation rates for many ELL and minority populations fall behind those of native speakers and Whites. Although graduation rates are often calculated using different methods, one source found that 75% of Whites, 53% of Hispanics, 51% of Native Americans, and 50% of Blacks graduated from high school in 2001. In districts with a 9% or higher population of ELLs, the overall graduation rate was only 60% (Orfield, Losen, Wald, & Swanson, 2004). Percentages of “college ready” students, defined as those who graduated from high school, had basic literacy skills, and took the minimal required high school courses for admission in postsecondary education, were even lower: 40% of Whites, 23% of Blacks, and 20% of Hispanics were defined as such (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2005a).

Certain provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 are intended to improve the education and opportunities for success for ELL children, such as holding states accountable for providing services, curricula, qualified teachers, and assessments that support ELLs (CEP, 2005a). Other NCLB requirements may prove to be more detrimental to ELLs. This includes an emphasis on testing and accountability measures that penalize low performing schools that often, by geographic segregation, have large populations of ELL students who also fall under NCLB-regulated minority and low-income categories. The degree of concentration of these students, and accompanying challenges, is high: One study found that nearly 70 percent of ELLs are enrolled in 10 percent of elementary schools (Consentino de Cohen, Deterding, & Clewell, 2005).

Personal and Social Challenges

ELL students are tremendously diverse, with differing national backgrounds, languages, cultures, schooling experiences, and reasons for immigration (Zehler et al, 2003). Some come from rural, isolated parts of the world; others, from urban, industrialized areas. Some fled wars and political repression; others came to join family members or seek work in the United States (United Nations Population Fund, 2003). Although the majority of ELL children are, unlike their parents, born in the United States, the strain of issues related to language, culture, and their parents’ possible lack of legal documentation can result in further difficulties (Van Hook, Bean, & Passel, 2005). All must adjust to a new culture and language, but the size of the gaps they must bridge, the resources they bring, and their success in making the transition differ enormously. Some immigrant students achieve at high levels, adapt quickly, and learn English well; others do not. Some are far more at risk of school failure than others. Understanding the factors that place students at risk helps educators recognize when extra support is necessary. The issues that particular groups of immigrant students face include the following (from Olsen & Chen, 1988):

• Living in Transnational Families. Many immigrants, especially those from Mexico and the Caribbean, maintain a binational life and sustain strong relationships on both sides of the U.S. border. For students, however, moving between countries can result in missed curriculum, loss of credits, and attendance problems, unless the school aligns its calendar with migration patterns, provides independent study options, offers partial credit, or provides other support.

• Acculturating. Immigrant students arrive in the United States with a variety of backgrounds. The shock of entering a new culture and making a place for oneself is a daunting task. Many young people must choose between cultures, which can create deep identity crises. The process of acculturation often involves painful decisions about what to save or sacrifice, what to adopt or reject (Aronowitz, 1984). Rifts can open within families as youth become “Americanized” and reject their family ways. Tension can erupt at school, too, as immigrant children seek to maintain key parts of their traditional or cultural identities. Few students find within their families or schools a strongly supported middle ground—where they can be bicultural and bilingual and not have to give up a part of themselves to become a part of the U.S. culture.

• Arriving as an Adolescent. Young children often have an easier time than older ones in making the transition to a new land. Some go directly to work and never enroll in school (Cornelius & Rumba, 1995). Those who do enroll must leap from one school system and curriculum to another. Those with solid schooling in their native land have greater success in U.S. schools. Unfortunately, the number of immigrants arriving in secondary schools with little prior schooling and little or no literacy in their home language is increasing (Zehler et al, 2003). For these students, accelerated basic literacy instruction is necessary, though few secondary schools are prepared to provide it.

• Learning a New, Very Different System. Immigrant students have an immediate need to learn how U.S. schools work. Bells ring, and people change rooms; lunch is served in cafeterias; students store materials in lockers. More profound are the differences in teaching approaches, relationships between students and teachers, and school structure and expectations. Students in the United States are expected to participate in discussions and voice opinions. Tests do not determine their whole future. Teachers are often not accorded respect and authority. Immigrant students need support and orientation that their parents usually cannot provide. Instead, parents rely on their children to explain the system of schooling and to translate materials provided only in English.

• Recovering from Trauma. Some students arrive from war-torn nations or refugee camps, scarred by the disruptions and trauma of war, trauma that may have dispersed their families (Rumbaut, 1994). They may have had little or no schooling; they may well have suffered hunger and disease. Nightmares and violent memories haunt them, and many suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome which is often largely undiagnosed and unrecognized. Resettled refugees in western countries are ten times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome than the general population (Fazel, Wheeler, & Danesh, 2005).

Displacement within the United States. Similar to ELLs who arrive from other countries and are recovering from trauma are those students who have experienced trauma and stress due to crises and natural disasters in the United States, such as 2005’s Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (Batalova, 2005). U.S. Census (2000) records show 13,600 foreign-born children under the age of 18 living in the area affected by Katrina and 110,000 in the area affected by Rita. Disasters such as these can cause interrupted schooling, loss of official records and documents, greater unemployment and poverty, and separated families.

• Dealing with Isolation and Discrimination. In recent years, anti-immigrant sentiment has swept the United States. Many immigrants find they have entered a racially divided society. Immigrant students often encounter unwelcoming, sometimes hostile or violent attitudes at school. Hate crimes and anti-immigrant incidents are on the rise. This unsafe atmosphere seriously hampers immigrant students’ willingness to participate in school. Unfortunately, a common aspect of the immigrant experience is isolation and marginalization, the shame of being teased or ostracized for imperfect English and foreign ways. This isolation adds yet another barrier to acquiring English.

What Schools Can Do

Schools face a major challenge in responding to the needs of immigrant students, because most schools were designed (and most teachers prepared) for a more homogeneous reality. Studies have analyzed the characteristics of effective schools for immigrant and language-minority students (August & Hakuta, 1997; Berman et al., 1995; Carter & Chatfield, 1986; Council of Chief State School Officers, 2004; Garcia, 1988; Genesee, 1998; Genesee, Lindholm-Leary, Saunders, & Christian, 2006; Lucas, Henze, & Donato, 1990; Mace-Matluck, Alexander-Kasparik, & Queen, 1998; National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2005; Olsen & Mullen, 1990; Short & Boyson, 2004), and some schools boast innovative programs. But few schools have the capacity to deliver effective, comprehensive programs for immigrant students that support full participation in school, provide access to the entire curriculum and strong English-language development, and result in high achievement. Getting from where we are to where we need to be must begin with a vision of what a comprehensive program could include.

Comprehensive Programs

A comprehensive approach to schooling provides both a strong academic program and a support structure to facilitate full student participation (August & Hakuta, 1997; Crandall, 1994; Duff, 2005; Lucas, 1997; Olsen & Mullen, 1990). The academic program includes customized learning environments for students with varying levels of English fluency and academic achievement. Articulation and coordination within and between schools is also strong. The curriculum incorporates a focus on English language and literacy development, is accompanied by pacing guides, and is aligned with state content standards and accountability systems (see California State Board of Education, 1999 for an example of state standards for English language learners). A curriculum balanced between basic and higher-order skills incorporates students’ native languages and cultures and offers opportunities for student-directed instruction (Garcia, 1988; Olsen & Mullen, 1990; Wong, Filmore, & Valadez, 1986). Teaching methodologies and curricula draw on students’ home and community cultures (Trumbull, Rothstein-Fisch, Greenfield, & Quiroz, 2001) to bridge the gap between home language and literacy experiences and those expected in school (Garcia, 1988; Heath, 1983).

A comprehensive program rests on a strong initial assessment process to ensure appropriate student placement and to inform classroom instruction. After assessment, teachers monitor student progress and provide feedback to enable students to move to new levels of curriculum as their fluency in English grows, using informal assessments such as observation, portfolios, competency checklists, rubrics, conferences, self-assessments, group projects, and questionnaires (Duff, 2005; Fisher, Frey, & Fehrenbacher, 2004a; Wiggins & McTighe, 1998). Common assessments and consensus scoring within academic departments not only provide opportunities for teacher professional development but also ensure that student progress is monitored locally and that instructional decisions are made in standardized, evidence-based ways (Fisher, Lapp, & Flood, 2005).

Full access to the curriculum is ensured through a combination of native language instruction, if possible and appropriate, and sheltered-content instruction in English. Teachers are well-prepared with strong training in the principles and practices of second-language acquisition (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2004; Crandall, 1994; Zeichner, 1992). In providing a well-rounded, content-rich curriculum, schools may consider the benefits of block scheduling, an alternative to the traditional six- or seven-period school day. This method of scheduling has been found to result in more time spent on academic content and on task, a smaller teacher workload, less stress for teachers and students alike, better relationships among students and their teacher, more active participation in richer learning processes, and fewer interruptions (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2005b; Freeman, 2001; Olsen, Jaramillo, McCall-Perez, & White, 1999).

Finally, a comprehensive program provides extended time to allow students the extra support needed to learn English and academics simultaneously. Support services addressing war trauma, acculturation, orientation to a new culture and school system, and other challenges are either provided directly by the school or ensured through referral relationships with community agencies and organizations that can deliver such support bilingually and biculturally. After-school clubs, tutoring, and other extracurricular activities are available for those students who need extra help and who might not have a safe place to go when the school day is over. ELL parent nights and parent centers provide a place for caregivers to learn more about their children’s education or even take some ESL or parenting classes on their own.

A supportive climate sets the tone for an educational program that promotes high achievement for all students. Research shows that a supportive school climate that helps ELLs succeed includes the following components (August & Hakuta, 1997; Lucas, Henze, & Donato, 1990; Olsen & Mullen 1990; Zeichner, 1992):

• Valuing students’ primary languages and cultures.

• Making high expectations concrete.

• Having school leaders who make the education of ELLs a high priority.

• Having school staff members committed to empowering ELLs through education.

• Enacting policies and programs that promote positive intergroup relations such as conflict resolution; community building; antiprejudice programs; and curriculum about scapegoating, racism, and exclusion.

• Building strong relationships to support parent and community involvement.

• Valuing diversity.

Responsive Habits

Immigration provides a constantly varying stream of cultures, languages, and national experiences; therefore, effective schools have found they cannot simply institute a good program and leave it alone. Instead, they build habits and mechanisms for responding to the continually changing mix of cultures and languages. Responsive schools have the following characteristics (Olsen & Jaramillo, 1999):

• They consciously and conscientiously build capacity to deliver an effective academic program by investing in sustained professional development in collaborative, inquiry-based, and individual formats. (See also Crandall, 1994; González & Darling-Hammond, 1997.)

• They internalize accountability for inclusion and access for immigrant students by creating data systems and processes that support ongoing analysis of data about immigrant student achievement, participation, and progress. These data become the basis for program improvement and new interventions.

• They recognize the importance of learning about immigrants’ cultures, experiences, and needs, and they build structures that support listening to and learning from immigrants.

• Their structures support optimal teaching and learning for immigrants, including time for teacher collaboration, reflection, data discussions, and inquiry.

• They create mechanisms that allow parents and advocates to come together, shaping a voice in the school and district on behalf of immigrant students.

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