Monday, August 22, 2011

ESOL Mythbusters

It is time to go back to school, and that means that many teachers are meeting their students for the first time. Some teachers may be surprised to learn that they have more students in their class who speak a second language in the home than they expected.

According to the National Council for Teachers of English, English Language Learners (ELLs) now comprise 10.5% of the K-12 student population. Furthermore, in grades 7-12, the number of ELLs increased 70% between 1992 and 2002. So, it makes sense to take a closer look at some of those myths about ELLs and BUST them!

Myth: A student has acquired a second language once he or she can speak it.
As I discussed in this article, there are two types of language that we acquire when learning a second language. The first is Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS), which allow us to complete everyday tasks like following directions, making small talk, and asking and answering questions. The other type of language we acquire is called Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALPs). This is the type of language that allows us to be successful in a school environment- academic vocabulary and structure. Research shows that it takes approximately 1-2 years to master BICS, and 5-7 years (or more) to master CALPs. Educators must be aware of and make the distinction between the two types of language in order to properly assess their student's level of language proficiency. A good example for most teachers is to think back to your own foreign-language learning in high school or college. Unless you majored in foreign language, you likely acquired only enough of that language to be a successful tourist or at most, a conversationalist. If you were placed in an academic environment with that level of language, you would have a very difficult time, despite the fact that you "speak" the language!

Myth: Second language learning processes are the same for all students.
As teachers, we know that no two students are the same, and this goes for ELLs as well. Just because they have a common problem (a lack of English proficiency) does not mean that they all need the same materials and methods. Just as we are expected to differentiate for other students at different levels, we must also differentiate among our ELLs. Many teachers make the mistake of giving the same modified work to all ELLs in the class, regardless of their level of proficiency. This means that all of the ELLs are not having their needs met. A classroom teacher should consult with the ESOL teacher at his or her school to get copies of the results of the yearly English Language Proficiency test for each ELL in their class. If necessary, the teacher should ask the ESOL teacher to explain what the different levels of proficiency mean. Once the classroom teacher better understands the different levels of proficiency represented by the ELLs in his or her class, then he or she is better able to make appropriate differentiations to meet the needs of all ELLs in the class.

Myth: Teaching English Language Learners means focusing primarily on vocabulary.
While explicit vocabulary instruction is important and vital for English language learners, the teacher must remember that the vocabulary means nothing if the students are not able to understand it and use it in context. This means that they must also acquire the content of the subject area, and not just the vocabulary. Word walls are a great tool for newcomer ELLs, but I like to recommend sentence walls for older ELLs, especially in content area classes. Sentence walls can help ELLs put the vocabulary that they've used into the correct context and sentence structure for the content area.
Myth: Using strategies to help ELLs in my class will only benefit the ELLs.
The truth is that English language learners aren't the only ones struggling with reading, writing and understanding academic language- many of the native English speaking students in our schools are deficient in academic language. Using strategies and activities that help to teach and reinforce academic vocabulary and language structures will help ALL students who are behind in understanding and using academic language. 

Myth: Making modifications to lessons and classwork takes too much time.
I won't tell you that making modifications doesn't take time, because it does. However, many teachers often teach the same grades and/or classes for years at a time, and once you've modified some material- you have that modified material to make use of year after year. Some teachers become frustrated when talking about modifications because they picture themselves spending hours and hours creating special assignments for their ELL students and falling behind in creating assignments for other students. As with most things, there is a learning curve. I will say that the more you modify assignments and the better you know your students' abilities, the easier it will become to make appropriate modifications. I've written several articles about how to make simple modifications that you can read back on, but I'll quickly remind you that there are three specific ways you can modify an assignment:
  • Change the language process needed to complete the task- for example, instead of having students write a sentence to go with a picture, you might have an ELL match a picture to an already written sentence
  • Change the grouping strategy- for example, instead of having a student work independently, have ELLs work in pairs or triads, either with one another or with a native language buddy
  • Change the content delivery- for example, instead of the grade level text the rest of the class is using, ELLs might benefit from a lower-level text covering the same material, or you can change the text by simplifying or expounding the text
As always, I hope that this article helps you to better understand and serve your ELLs. If you have any questions, feel free to ask!

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