Supporting English Language Learners

Demographics are changing in our communities and many schools are seeing an increase in the number of English Language Learners.  Teachers often struggle with how to support the academic success of students who are not only learning rigorous academic content but also learning a new language.

This article extends the concern with the achievement of ELL students to focus on the social-economic status of their families, stating that adults who do not speak English often are limited to low wage jobs and may be linguistically isolated from the mainstream population, The economic status of the ELL students’ families adds another barrier to academic success for these students. Poverty has its own stress with which students and their families must deal. Available, affordable housing often clusters these students into “poverty schools” where resources are stretched and teachers are overwhelmed.

Proposals focus on extending existing service: language classes, engagement activities and wrap around services for families; extra learning time for students; and training for teachers.  One of the phenomenon surrounding recent immigration patterns is that new areas of the country, especially suburbs are experiencing a large influx of English Learning Language populations, including students.  Seeking job opportunities and safe housing, immigrants and other linguistically isolated populations find pockets of affordable housing within suburban areas.  These are often pockets of poverty inside wealthier suburbs and school districts. These areas do not have the infrastructure nor experience to support successful integration of this population group.

In my experience, this insufficiency extends to the suburban schools. School district leadership are often unprepared for, or “in denial” of the changing demographics of some of their schools.  These leaders look back to historical patterns of achievement and resource allocation as a guide to the future. This denial of changing demographics is often accompanied with “handwringing” and finger pointing over the underachievement of the poverty schools within their midst. With the aim of improving academic achievement, leaders often buy programs and place mandates on schools rather than investing in services and additional personnel. Personnel added is often at district level without direct impact on students.

This article proposes several ways to provide multi-generational support to English Language Learner families.  It is important to recognize that these services, like language classes and parent education cannot be offered in the traditional venue of “bring the parents to school in the evening.”  Schools must look at venues within the community, like apartments and churches, even groceries stores, to meet the people where they live.

Included in the recommendations for improving the academic success for English Language Learners is the charge to prioritize specific ELL training for teachers.  Citing the improved achievement of ELL students in Denver Public Schools where the district required all teachers to be ELL certified. I would posit that certification alone will not improve achievement, but the fidelity of implementation of best instructional practices that support language acquisition and literacy within all content areas.  This will mean more that a certification or workshop, but a school culture that prioritizes literacy and views all staff as partners in teaching reading, writing, speaking and listening.

The article concludes with five case studies of communities and their strategic plans to support English Language Learning students and their families.  These studies provide examples of ways other districts, schools and communities can raise the achievement of their students. The use of Saturday and summer learning time, a proactive retract/retest policy that catches students before they fail, a focus on attendance, and other differentiated school initiatives require the support of school and district leaders, as well as funding from the community, state, and federal government.


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