Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The case against full inclusion for ESL students

            In recent years, the ESL world has experienced a trend toward “push in”, or inclusion programming instead of traditional pull-out or free-standing ESL programs. However, as educators, we must ask ourselves if this is truly best for LEP students who face special challenges in the mainstream classroom. It is important to remember that while No Child Left Behind (NCLB) promotes “equal education” and “equal access” for all students, this does not necessarily call for the same education for every student. NCLB also mandates that the instruction our students receive be based on research of best practices.

            In the field of Special Education, there are social, historical, legal and philosophical factors that promote inclusion. However, for LEP students the issue is not as clear cut, and little empirical research has been done on optimum ESL program design. It is important to keep in mind that the route to language acquisition and development is different for a second language speaker than a native speaker (Platt, 2000), even one who is learning challenged or learning disabled. LEP students are not special education students and thus do not face the same challenges. It is important to remember that the research done on inclusion in special education does not support the implementation of inclusion in an ESL environment.

            As educators, it is our job to consider the needs of our students and implement a program incorporating ESL strategies that are designed to meet the needs of our students as they transition from elementary to high school. Although many [mainstream] middle level educators may provide a positive environment for LEP learners, they often fail to address the very specific needs of this population. Other factors affecting the student must also be considered when designing a program and choosing placements, such as educational background and language ability (National Middle School Association, 1997).

            One of the biggest arguments against the idea of full inclusion for Limited English Proficient students is affirmed through studies which demonstrate that ESL students adopt fluency more quickly when involved in specialized language support programs. In addition to current research data, many parents and educators also argue that an ESL environment allows the teacher to maintain a challenging and rigorous classroom environment for all students.

            Mainstream English classes are meant to address the needs of students who are of “average” English speaking proficiency. Placing non-native speakers in this environment often forces the teacher to slow the pace of instruction, making the class less rigorous for the students whom it is meant to serve (Chen, 2009). Also, inclusion classrooms often include students with other special needs that are vastly different from those of the English language learner, making it more difficult for the teacher(s) to address the needs of all students.

            Ideally, full inclusion with no separate ESL block should mark the final stages of language acquisition, however, this is not always the case. A study done by Verplatse (1998), found that when LEP students are totally immersed in the mainstream classroom before they are proficient, their opportunities to interact with their classmates are often unwittingly limited by their teachers, even those teachers with the best intentions. In the study, teachers gave LEP students more directives and commands, and asked markedly fewer questions. In addition, the cognitive level of questions directed to ESL students was often much lower than those asked of their English speaking peers. Interaction with peers during all stages of language acquisition is essential (Verplatse, 1998), but it must take place in an environment that is comfortable for students.

            Duff (2005) insists that ESL courses not only provide students with the skills and instruction that they need to acquire English as a second language, but also the opportunity to build crucial social networks that would not be possible when students are placed only in mainstream classrooms. In addition, ESL courses provide ample opportunity for students to express themselves orally and in writing while in a comfortable environment. This opportunity allows students to reveal aspects of their interests, histories, personalities and aspirations that are often overlooked in the mainstream. The validation they receive from such opportunities is crucial and not available in an inclusion classroom (Duff, 2005). 

            According to Harper and Platt (1997), “Educators must recognize the possibility that the placement of linguistic minority students in mainstream classrooms regardless of the willingness, ability, philosophical orientation or certification qualifications of the teacher, is not in the best interest of the student,” (1997). Harper and Platt (1997) go on to say that the most unreasonable full-inclusion scenario places LEP students into only a mainstream Language Arts classroom with native speakers, following a state-mandated course of study instead, with no additional support of an ESL curriculum centered around ESL skills or separate ESL block. Educators who promote inclusion must understand that this model does not adequately serve students with limited English or literacy skills (Harper and Platt, 1997). 

While the ELL’s  (English language learner) progress toward language proficiency may be great, it is often insufficient for them to adequately express the content knowledge that they do possess in the mainstream environment (Platt, 2000). Furthermore, they may be hesitant to do so for fear of making a mistake and being ostracized by peers. Krashen’s (1988) Affective Filter hypothesis states that for language acquisition to occur successfully, the student must be in an environment that is as conducive to language learning as possible. The affective filter is a screen of emotions and feelings that can block language learning if the student feels embarrassed or self conscious. Optimal learning occurs when the student is in an environment in which he or she feels comfortable, confident, and free to make mistakes without judgment (Krashen, 1988). Often for LEP students, this environment is not the mainstream or inclusion classroom, but rather a structured ESL class in which students are instructed alongside other students with similar needs in such a way that their linguistic and content knowledge needs are met.

Another argument against full inclusion for ESL students is the lack of training pertaining to the needs of English language learners that teacher education programs provide pre-service teachers. According to my own research, 66% of teachers surveyed report taking 0 college-level courses related to the instruction of Limited English Proficient students. 41.4% of teachers surveyed responded "completely disagree" to the statement "My teacher education program prepared me for the challenges I would face with English language learners in the classroom." 31.3% of teachers somewhat agreed that their professional development courses had helped to prepare them for teaching English language learners.

Ideally, in my opinion, ESL students would be placed in the mainstream environment for content level classes, and according to research, should receive the additional support of a separate ESL block. Students should be clustered together in grade-level classes with teachers who are sensitive to and trained to meet the needs of LEP students and who is willing to work with the ESL teacher to modify materials, provide testing accommodations, and work out a pull-out schedule.

This means that having the ESL teacher come into the mainstream classroom and co-teach or offer support is not enough- there must be a separate time for the ESL teacher to instruct and interact with the ESL students in a separate environment. On the same token, I am not saying that co-teaching should not occur as well. The best program design is one that meets the needs of the students, and this means that both mainstream and ESL teachers must be flexible. and work together. It may well be that the optimal program includes a combination of push-in and pull-out, but I do want to stress the importance of a separate ESL block in all programs. 

Update: Please see the follow-up article, More Thoughts on ESL Inclusion

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