From my first two posts, All Children are AEBLL and Let’s Get Started with Oral Language, you already have a sense of where I’m headed: English Language Learners (ELLs) or the preferred label of NY State and academia – Emergent Bilinguals (EBs) or Multilingual Learners (MLLs) –are an ever-increasing group of students in our schools (about 5 million nationwide, or 10% of the U.S. school population) who are continually underserved, undervalued, and underestimated, along with their teachers, who are struggling to do their best. The statistics are not pretty – ELLs continue to lag their peers on measures of reading, math, English proficiency, and graduation rates.
It would be easy to lump English Language Learners altogether as one large group of students with the same needs, but that would be a mistake: ELLs are a diverse population of learners and different students have different needs.
Have you ever asked yourself, what the definition of an ELL is?
In NY state, a student is labeled an ELL if 1. after an initial interview, it’s determined that the home language is not English and that the student doesn’t have sufficient proficiency to answer questions and 2. the student is assessed as less than proficient by the New York State Identification Test for ELLs (NYSITELL).
Once the label of ELL has been applied, the student gets labeled (not necessarily immediately) in one of five sub-groups: Newcomer, Developing ELL, Long Term ELL (LTE or LTELL), Student with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFE), and/or ELL with Disabilities.
The state classifies ELLs by how many years of English as a New Language services they have received: Newcomers (0-3 years), Developing ELLs (4-6), LTELLs (7+ years because they have not been able to pass the NYSESLAT); SIFE are unique because they have been in enrolled in school for less than 12 months and are 2 or more grade levels below their peers in home language literacy and math; ELLs with disabilities have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and are also supposed to receive Special Education services.
Although NY State has an ELL population of just over 200,000 students, NYC has the lion’s share of over 160,000. NYC’s ELL population is also heavily concentrated in certain districts in primarily Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx due to the immigrant and ethnic populations who live there.
As you can see, the designation of ELL is not a simple one, nor is there a one-size-fits-all strategy. It’s good to reflect on your students and gain more awareness around who they are, where they are in the language and literacy acquisition process, and how you can support them.
Take a fictional profile of three different students:
Yi-Sheng, 7 years old
Yi-Sheng is seven years old and arrived at the beginning of the school year from a small city in China. She lives with an aunt and two cousins; her parents are still in China and don’t know when they can move. She was placed into the 2nd grade in NYC because of her age. School in China typically starts at age 7, so she is in the 2nd grade despite never having been to school.
She is beginning to develop oral proficiency in English, but continues to have difficulties with basic print concepts, alphabetic knowledge, and decoding. Her teacher is concerned because the 2nd grade curriculum is too advanced for her and she is falling further and further behind her peers.
What are Yi-Sheng’s needs?
At 7 years old, Yi-Sheng has already experienced the trauma of being separated from her parents, coming to a new country, and being placed in a grade that is inappropriate to her academic experience. Not only is she a complete newcomer with little oral proficiency, she also has no foundational language and literacy skills in Chinese to help her transition to literacy in English. In an ideal world, Yi-Sheng could be in a dual language program, so she could develop academic language and literacy in both languages, and eventually be prepared for the demands of middle school.
How can a teacher support Yi-Sheng?
Supporting this student academically is a daunting challenge, especially when she is just one of many other students with diverse needs. So, what can we do, right now?
- Put her with a language partner or group her with a home language group if possible (remember that Chinese has a number of varieties – the most common being Mandarin, Cantonese, and Fujianese – so make sure a language partner speaks the same variety). Have students discuss content in Chinese and make them report back to you in English.
- The classroom teacher and ENL teacher can collaborate on what’s best for Yi-Sheng during push-in and pull-out and try and coordinate materials and scaffolds. Collaboration doesn’t have to take a lot of time – quick emails or even a shared google drive folder can work.
- Visual scaffolds will be very important for a newcomer – do you have access to an iPad, so you can pull up images on Google quickly? Have the student point to images to signal comprehension.
- Google translate can work for short instructions or vocabulary words and phrases.
- Check out my Resource Hub for multilingual resources for teachers.
Miguel, 11 years old
Miguel is eleven years old and was born in NYC. He is currently in the 6th grade. He speaks mostly Spanish at home with his family. He speaks fluent English without an accent. He can read and write well in English but has not been able to test out of the NYSESLAT in terms of reading comprehension. His ability to analyze the more advanced texts in the 6th grade seem to overwhelm him.
Last year in the 5th grade he spent four months in the Dominican Republic. Upon reentering school in NY, his teachers noticed that he lost a lot of skills. They are wondering how to help him regain the skills he lost and prepare him for the 7th grade.
Miguel feels like a failure in school; no matter how hard he tries, he can’t seem to make progress.
What are Miguel’s needs?
Miguel represents so many of our students. Born in the U.S., one would not expect that he can’t pass the NYSESLAT. Yet, Long Term ELLs make up 11% of ELLs in NY State. It’s not that he doesn’t have good oral language or basic literacy skills, but he is having trouble putting it altogether, which is required for fluent reading. Miguel desperately needs practice connecting what he understands orally to what he is reading. He needs multiple exposures to a text to deepen his comprehension, and then extend that comprehension into writing.
How can a teacher support Miguel?
- Have Miguel focus on key academic vocabulary necessary to access the text, and design oral language activities around that vocabulary and conceptual understanding of the topic. Do a concept sort activity with me.
- Have Miguel, with a partner, read aloud a section of the text. The partner reads, and Miguel has to summarize it orally. Then they can switch, either re-reading the same section, or moving on to the next section. This is called Partnered Reading or Read Retell Respond.
- Have Miguel do a morpho-syntax scramble, where important sentences from the text are cut up into chunks (keep each sentence separate), and he has to piece the sentence back together. This can also be a partnered activity. Then, he has to find the sentence again in the text.
- Have Miguel identify the subject, verb, and object of important sentences from the text. Make him circle pronouns back to their original subjects (e.g., Miguel – he). In this way, he can start to gain some syntactic awareness, which is critical to reading comprehension.
Samira, 13 years old
Samira is thirteen years old and arrived one year ago from Yemen with her family, who are refugees of the ongoing civil war. Because of the violence and instability in the country, Samira was not able to attend school regularly. The family is adjusting to a new life in NYC, but many of Samira’s family members are still in Yemen, and she worries about them and misses them terribly. She is still traumatized after losing her house and spending the previous two years in a refugee camp.
Samira was designated as SIFE and is currently in the 8th grade. She is still struggling with oral English but manages to communicate. She loves being in school and is a motivated student. However, she is unable to keep pace with the curriculum. Even with ENL services, she is still struggling to learn the basics of reading in English.
What are Samira’s needs?
Samira, like SIFE in general, needs tons of practice with oral language and foundational literacy skills. Besides the trauma she has been through which almost certainly affects her ability to focus in school, Samira also needs to catch up on academic content. Concepts that may be familiar to other students may not be familiar to her. She also needs to learn how to read. This is a very difficult situation for Samira and her teachers.
How can a teacher support Samira?
- Like Yi-Sheng, Samira is not yet fluent in English, and so comprehension is a major issue. If there are other Arabic-speaking students in the class, let them work together to discuss and analyze critical content. Create focus questions for them and give them specific things to report back on in English. They can start working on a word wall of key vocabulary in English and the Home Language that you can hang up in the classroom for reference.
- Coordinate with Samira’s ENL teacher or Literacy Specialist to go over foundational literacy skills: the alphabet, basic phonics, spelling, and decoding. Have them use academic content words to do this work.
- Whatever it is that’s being taught, have Samira approach the task orally first, then give her short amounts of text to work with. Give her visual scaffolds to support comprehension.
- Check out NYSED’s resource page for SIFE and watch a video on oral language strategies for teaching SIFE.
That’s it for this week. Have a restful weekend and enjoy your upcoming Monday off from school!