English language learners have much more in common with native English speakers than many educators might expect. As children grow into adolescence and prepare for adulthood, they need to develop the linguistic, cultural, and cognitive skills necessary to succeed in the United States and the 21st century world. The older students are, the harder it becomes to catch up to the expected levels of academic achievement, technological skills, critical thinking, and literacy required to succeed in the adult world. High school dropout rates across the nation are disturbingly high: 7,000 students drop out of high school every day (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2005a). The majority of these dropouts are minority students and ELLs – and these populations are expected to outnumber the majority White, native English-speaking students in the future.
All students need teachers who are not only content specialists but also literacy specialists. All students need the opportunity to participate in college preparatory classes. All students need to become versed in both social and academic language in English, and to be able to integrate knowledge across disciplines. In addition, ELLs, who may not be first-generation immigrants, need teachers who understand principles of second language acquisition and who are able to shelter content materials that are embedded in thematic units. Some ELLs may need orientation to the American school system before they are able to learn English.
The strategies presented in this chapter provide clear rationales and classroom examples of what works for ELLs. As many ESL teachers know, these strategies are good instructional practices that will benefit native English speakers and ELLs alike. Working with ELLs requires an understanding of their backgrounds and personal stories, their academic strengths and challenges, and their potential and goals for the future.
When Marco was a boy, his father and older brothers moved to the United States, leaving Marco and his younger sisters to help their mother with the small family farm in rural Mexico. Though he was needed on the farm, Marco’s mother demanded that he attend school as often as possible. When Marco was 15, the rest of the family was able to move to the United States. While Marco’s parents completed only a few years of schooling, his mother was determined that her children would receive a good education. Marco often talked about his mother’s dream that her children attend college.
Shortly after his arrival in the United States, Marco began working as a cook in his brother’s restaurant. Though he worked 30 hours a week, Marco was able to maintain more than a 3.5 grade-point average. He wanted to attend college so that he could learn accounting or business management to help his brother manage the restaurant (and some day possibly have a business of his own), but neither he nor his family knew much about the college application process. Nor could they afford to help pay for college. In fact, they needed Marco’s help just to keep the restaurant open.
Fortunately, during his junior year, one of Marco’s teachers suggested that he participate in his school’s Honors Council, where he received help in choosing a college and filling out the necessary forms for admission and financial aid. He learned that he was eligible for a state-guaranteed access grant for disadvantaged students with good grades, as well as a federal Pell Grant. He took a course to prepare him for both the SAT and the TOEFL and applied for and received both grants.
Unfortunately, Marco’s scores on the SAT and TOEFL were lower than he had hoped; he feared that his dream of a college education would not come true. However, during one of the field trips he took with the council, Marco learned about the local community college, where he could earn an associate degree in accounting and perhaps be able to transfer to a four-year college. He also discovered that his grants would pay for all his expenses. Marco is now in his second year at the college—majoring in accounting and still working at his brother’s restaurant. He plans eventually to transfer to a four-year college.
Patricia was 14 when she left her mother in El Salvador to come to the United States to live with her father and stepmother. In El Salvador, Patricia lived in a rural area, where she had little opportunity or need to attend school. When she arrived in the United States, it was almost the end of the school year, and Patricia was placed in 8th grade, though she needed to learn English as well as the basic academic concepts that others in her grade had already learned.
When she moved to the high school, she was fortunate to be placed in a special literacy and basic skills course for ELLs, as well as in a beginning ESL class. Though she had to overcome many obstacles, her determination and the support of her teachers and family enabled her to make steady progress. In just a year, she achieved a 2.25 grade-point average; after another year of a special academic skills class, she was able to pass two of the four required state examinations as well as raise her grades substantially.
Much of Patricia’s success was due to the highly structured, though flexible, approach of her literacy and basic skills teachers, who taught her the importance of attending class and being prepared to learn. They convinced her that she would succeed. In her class, she learned how to organize a notebook, work with other students, and ask for help when she needed it. Family problems (her father and stepmother separated, and her brother was injured on the job) have forced Patricia to work both at home and in a part-time job. Though these demands are taking their toll and Patricia’s grades are falling, she is determined to finish school. Her ESL teacher has suggested that she enter the school’s work-study program next year and finish the last two tests. If she does, she will be one of the proudest seniors when she graduates next year.
Elementary School Newcomer
Yesenia arrived from Mexico two months before beginning third grade in a Title One school in inner-city Phoenix. Prior to her arrival, Arizona had voted to approve Proposition 203, which changed the system of bilingual education in Arizona schools. Proposition 203 required that school instruction in Arizona be implemented in English only, with a one-year English immersion program for monolingual Spanish speakers. Yesenia began the third grade in a classroom where she could not communicate with her teacher.
Although every student in her classroom was also Hispanic, she was one of the very few who could not speak English at all. Moving to a new school would be difficult for any student at such a young age, but Yesenia had come from a different country and found herself in a new setting that was unfamiliar. As a result, she appeared withdrawn, and painfully shy, rarely speaking to any of her classmates. She found school frustrating – although she possessed basic literacy and numeracy skills in Spanish, her lack of English fluency kept her far behind her classmates in school achievement.
Mathematics appeared to be the area she most excelled in, although she continued to interact with numbers in Spanish. She quickly grasped concepts common to the third grade curriculum, such as money, telling time, place value, basic mathematical functions, and fractions, experiencing the most success when working on hands-on activities that incorporated manipulatives and pictures, along with small group discussion. One of her greatest strengths was her ability to think conceptually, applying mathematic concepts to real-life problems. As to be expected, Yesenia continued to struggle with story problems and with following directions. However, she developed keen observation skills which enabled her to watch and listen to others in her small group, ultimately increasing her understanding of the activity.
Yesenia’s shyness was in itself a barrier to her English language acquisition. However, as the school year continued, she gradually gained the confidence to ask for help in Spanish, rather than waiting for her blank stares to indicate her lack of comprehension. By the end of the year, Yesenia had adjusted to classroom activities and began to speak up for herself in both Spanish and English. She continued to be one of the strongest math students, and began to transfer her learning strategies for numeracy and apply them to English literacy.
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