January 11,2017 by Suzan Moore
Students enrolled in K-12 public schools in the United States that do not speak English as a first language grew by 60% in the last 10 years. Though many assume that this growth is limited to the large cities, many student that do not speak English fluently are enrolling in sleepy suburbs and small towns that do not have the resources to service them.
The surge of students that speak a language other than English in US public school, plus the unique needs of this population, has left many school districts perplexed about where English as a Second Language (ESL) support fits into their existing public school instructional model.
Where do we put English as a Second Language supports? It’s not really reading intervention and it’s definitely not special education services. It’s not English language arts. They really don’t fit anywhere.
Because they both involve foreign language, some school administrators have decided that the most appropriate choice is to include ESL in the foreign language departments of their district. Makes logical sense, they both involve foreign language, right?
Not at all. While both foreign language classes and ESL teach their students a second (or third) language, that’s where the similarity ends. There are many basic differences between teaching ESL to non-native speakers and teaching a foreign language to a classroom of English speakers.
The reason the students are taking your class
A Spanish teacher in the United States teaches students that have intentionally enrolled in her course. Some students want to complete her class because they want to learn how to have a conversation in a language that is foreign to them. Maybe they will learn a different phonetic system. Maybe they need the credits to graduate. But they are all there intentionally.
An ESL teacher teaches minor children and teenagers whose families made the decision to come to the United States. While most students in ESL classes, as well as their families, see the value of education, some of these students are also extremely homesick for the family members and the home countries they just left behind. Some have been traumatized by war or crime. Some were born here, but their families speak another language. Some move quite often. Some are quite resistant to becoming bilingual and will shut down, stay silent, or only talk to other people that speak their native tongue. In these cases, the ESL teacher job is not just to teach English. She is tasked with reaching out to students that have experienced major life changes, and encouraging young children to work hard to achieve fluency in the language of the country they now live in.
How much their success in this class affects their success other subjects
Students sometimes do poorly in Spanish class. They may be concerned about how this bad grade will affect their overall grade point average and their college applications. But a bad grade in Spanish will not mean that they will not understand what is going on in Chemistry class.
At the lower levels, low fluency in English means that the student cannot tell someone in English that they have to go to the bathroom, or that they are lost, or feeling sick. In addition, slow progress in an ESL class means that the student is falling farther behind in all of their other classes. They cannot fully understand the information presented in lectures and can’t do the homework. They are busy both learning English and all the information in their other core subjects. They constantly have to deal with the frustration that their reading level and test scores lag way behind their English speaking peers.
Who is in the class
Most of the students in a conversational Spanish class in the United States speak English. All in all they share a similar culture, and they are put in a class where they generally are at the same Spanish conversational fluency level.
A typical ESL class can include students from many foreign cultures and with no common language to communicate with each other. Some student may have learned English as a foreign language in their home country, while some others will have had years of no schooling at all. Some families move often for employment and other reasons. Even though students have been assessed at a certain fluency level in English, there are a wide variety of factors that determine what English is known and how fast each student will progress.
It is important to realize that there are major differences between teaching a K-12 student the dominant language of the country they live in, and a conversational foreign language. ESL services is unique in its diversity and student need. Both classroom teachers and administrators must know that there are significant differences that require adjustments in both curriculum and instruction. Incorporating this student population into your school requires flexibility and patience while these students gain English fluency.