“I know that I don’t have a background in working with English language learners, but aren’t you using far too many videos in your class?” said the district level administrator. “You need to make sure that you are teaching the curriculum ‘as is.’ We can’t have you teaching any differently than the other teachers.” The principal stood by silently after admitting unfamiliarity with best practice for ELs but sided with his supervisor. Unfortunately, variations on this conversation are being repeated in schools throughout the country.
Administrators or team lead teachers without knowledge of second-language acquisition and best practices for providing culturally and linguistically responsive instruction often question EL specialists or even pressure them to alter their teaching methods. Many EL teachers I have spoken to nationwide say they feel like they are being turned into reading specialists who happen to work with ELs. Many schools, in a misguided attempt to help ELs close the achievement gap, are not actually meeting their needs and are missing out on the many benefits of having a culturally and linguistically diverse student population. I strive to be the type of administrator who will have the information needed prior to making any programmatic decision that will impact a student.
As an EL/bilingual teacher, I worked with a wide range of administrators. There were some who trusted my knowledge and experience in working with EL students and either sought information from me on best practices or wanted to understand my rationale for the approaches I was using. These administrators were usually supportive when I requested materials or approval for carrying out special projects with my students. Others, such as the one in my introduction, did not have an understanding of second-language acquisition yet they wanted to control the instructional delivery, even when I knew it was against best practice. I did my best to advocate for my students while following administrative guidelines. Informed administrators are at the core of providing the increasing number of ELs with the instruction they need to increase their English language proficiency and to meet or exceed rigorous academic standards.
Required of All Schools
Federal law requires that all students qualifying as LEP (Limited English Proficient) must be provided an equal opportunity to access curriculum and instruction which is appropriate for their current level of English-language proficiency. All teachers are legally responsible for the education of EL students, not only the bilingual or EL specialists. Administrators must ensure that their bilingual and EL students are making gains in English-language proficiency while meeting challenging academic standards. EL and bilingual students need to receive culturally and linguistically responsive instruction from every staff member who works with them.
Furthermore, schools must strive to build connections with all of the parents of their school communities. The parents of our EL and bilingual students often remain outsiders from our schools for a variety of reasons, including their own limited English proficiency and unfamiliarity with both the structure of American schools and the opportunities to become involved. Some cultural belief systems hold explicit trust in the education system to provide their children with what they need to make academic gains. When families speak other languages, they may feel both intimidated and disenfranchised by their inability to comfortably communicate through the dominant language of power, English.
Administrators need to look at all aspects of their schools through the lens of EL or bilingual families. Are signs in place that will help all feel welcomed? Are documents and newsletters provided in multiple languages? Do families have the ability to translate content from your website easily into their native languages? Are there representative members from your school population participating in parent/teacher organizations? Are family members provided the opportunity to spend time volunteering in classrooms or sharing information about their cultures?
While there are external signs to look for in a school to determine the level of inclusion of all families, there is a deeper, less-visible layer to a school that must also be examined. This layer is the level of bias and cultural superiority that can be expressed silently through the attitudes and actions of staff members who may have deeply ingrained beliefs such as “they live in this country and they need to learn English.” Even if this message is never directly articulated, if the belief is held by staff members, it will be felt by those with culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
Administrators must help their staff honestly evaluate their convictions and beliefs while articulating the clear expectation that the building not only values but celebrates diversity. Multilingualism is not viewed as a deficit but as an asset; this viewpoint is demonstrated at all levels. All students are encouraged and provided opportunities to become multilingual so they can excel in our increasingly global community. Do students in the school feel that they should maintain their native languages as they increase their English-language proficiency? Do multilingual students understand and feel the pride of having more than one language? Are teachers encouraged to reach out to both families and students in their native languages?
Knowledge Is Power
Even when all students and families feel welcomed, and valued and are actively involved within a school community, are EL and bilingual students receiving the instruction that they need to succeed? Are administrators familiar with best practices in EL and bilingual instruction? Do they know what to look for as they observe the instruction of EL and bilingual students in all settings throughout the school? Can they provide instructional leadership and support to those teachers who are finding increasing numbers of EL and bilingual students in their classrooms?
Administrators need to acquire the knowledge necessary to ensure culturally and linguistically responsive instruction for all of their students. This includes knowledge of second-language acquisition, understanding common myths and misconceptions regarding EL and bilingual education, visible ways to embrace native language and culture, establishing learning communities that encourage students to take risks with their new language, and providing comprehensible input that provides access to academic content, while continually moving students to increasing levels of English proficiency.
There are several key practices in place in the schools that are successfully meeting all of the needs of their EL and bilingual students. Some of these include:
• Comprehensible Input: Ensuring that teachers know the current English-language-proficiency levels of their students and plan instruction and content assessments accordingly. Students are continually receiving meaningful instruction, and assessments are reflective of academic gains rather than current English levels.
• Explicit Objectives: Schools that are meeting the needs of EL and bilingual students require staff to provide students explicit content and language objectives for each learning episode. All students understand what they are to learn in each lesson. These objectives start and end the lessons. Students are provided opportunities to reflect and take ownership of their learning.
• Increased Student Talk: Teachers structure their classes so that all students have several opportunities to engage in academic conversations with peers. This may be with a partner or small group. All students have time to share their thinking and make newly acquired academic content and vocabulary their own. There is an intentional shift to decrease teacher talking time while increasing student talk.
• Skillful Scaffolding: Teachers support their students’ learning through scaffolding techniques that enable students to gain academic knowledge while increasing language development. They make use of instructional aids such as graphic supports including charts, tables, graphic organizers, or timelines. In addition, sensory supports such as realia, videos, manipulatives, and models, along with interactive supports through cooperative structures such as partner work, small groups, and use of native language is part of a successful program.
• Meaningful Use of English: Providing students with meaningful, authentic reasons to use their new English language. This may include involvement in service learning projects such as writing to seniors or veterans, publishing and sharing their own stories, and becoming writing buddies with other students or mentors. All of these provide reasons to use English while building connections to the school community and empowering the students.
Response to Intervention (RtI)
While schools across the country are using differentiated instruction, problem-solving teams, research-based interventions, and data to best meet the needs of all students, many do not have considerations in place when working to best meet the needs of EL and bilingual students who are not making gains. As administrators, we must review our current RtI system and ensure that we are not under- or over-identifying EL and bilingual students as qualifying for special-education support services. Is a student’s struggle to make academic growth a language issue or a processing issue?
First, we must circle back to the quality of core instruction that our EL and bilingual students are receiving. If students do not have comprehensible instruction or their academic growth is being measured through assessments that are beyond their current English-proficiency level, then we must address this core deficit before accurately determining a student’s academic ability. Once confident in the appropriateness of instruction and assessment, we need to look closer at language or ability to learn.
We need to provide relevant information to all team members that includes the students’ formal academic backgrounds and their language allocation indicating the expressive and receptive use of languages in the home. Interviews with the families should also be conducted to determine if the families have any of the same concerns or observations regarding the students’ learning or language use at home. It is important to explore any cultural beliefs that may be impacting a student’s educational experience, such as not asking questions or interacting with students of another gender. The better we understand the individual learner we are trying to help, the better we will be able to make the appropriate determinations about his or her learning.
We may need to conduct qualification testing both in English and the native language to provide the data needed to arrive at informed decisions. If we are implementing an intervention for that student, we need to ensure that it has been researched to show effectiveness with EL or bilingual students. If the determination is made that an EL or bilingual student is in need of receiving special-education support, it is imperative to ensure that the student continues to receive language support services and that your special education staff receives training in best practices for EL and bilingual students. Effective schools have structures and protocols in place to ensure that all staff members working with the same students collaborate and plan together on a regular basis.
As the number of English language learners and bilingual students continues to increase in our nation’s schools, it is our responsibility to increase our knowledge base in this area to best meet their needs. If administrators continue to lead without this information, we face increasing risk of the achievement gap widening, students not connecting with our schools, and students slipping through the system without realizing their true potential. These factors will contribute to the increase of the dropout rate of this population. We must walk the talk of lifelong learning and take the steps needed to confidently lead the education of all of our students.
You can further your knowledge base in this area through professional journals, blogs, and online articles. Consider enrolling in a graduate course relating to the education of EL and bilingual students. Go directly to the source: learn from the knowledge and experience of an EL or bilingual teacher or director whom you respect. Use your knowledge to survey your school, take action, make improvements, articulate expectations, and support your teachers in meeting the needs of all of our students.
This article originally appeared in Language Magazine in January, 2015. At the time, Anne Scatchell was an assistant principal at Sarah Adams Elementary School in Lake Zurich, IL. She designed and taught a graduate-level course in innovative methods for teaching EL at the Illinois Resource Center for National Louis University. She presented at the state and national level on EL topics and was a contributing author to TESOL publication Language Teaching Insights from Other Fields.