Nine percent of all public school students are English language learners, and in states like California, over 23% of students speak a language other than English at home. As the number of ELL students continues to grow, districts are left scrambling to accommodate multiple languages within each classroom. Studies show that most districts are failing to meet the basic academic needs of students for whom English is a second language, which means that a sizable portion of public school students are going underserved.
During the following interview, Olivia Elliott, a New Partnerships Associate at eSpark and a former bilingual teacher, answers a few of our questions about why ELL instruction is so challenging and how districts can better meet the needs of English language learners.
Q: Can you tell me about how you ended up working in education and why you’re so passionate about working with English language learners?
My mother was born and raised in Mexico. Right after high school, a series of events led her family to the United States, and she soon followed. Unfortunately, this came at an expense to her education. Upon moving to the United States, she worked long hours and tried to help her parents financially but was presented with many challenges because she didn’t speak any English. At her age, she struggled to learn the language needed to be truly successful in the United States at the time. Because of these circumstances, she didn’t have the opportunity to attend college and she often reminded my sisters and me of that. She always said she wished she could have had the opportunity to attend college as a means of bettering herself. Because of her missed opportunities, my mother constantly pushed us to take our education seriously. Both my mother and father invested themselves, their money, and their time in making sure we had the best education from kindergarten through college. So when it came time for me to look for a job after graduating, I knew I wanted to not only work specifically with the Hispanic population but within the education realm as well.
I became a 5th grade bilingual teacher and had 25 students on varying levels of English acquisition. I saw a lot of the same challenges and struggles my mother had experienced exemplified in the families of the students I was teaching. My students were often the only English speakers in their family, especially if they were the oldest. Often, my students would translate letters and bills for their parents—even translating parent-teacher meetings for teachers who didn’t speak Spanish.
The ELL students in my school had to take on so much more than their native English speaking peers, but were often underserved in the classroom. It’s not uncommon for ELL students and other subgroups to receive fewer resources or less support as their peers. This, coupled with my upbringing, fueled the passion I have for helping ELL students get the resources and voice that they deserve.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges that ELL teachers face?
ELL teachers face two big challenges: resources and differentiation.
There aren’t enough classroom resources that are both rigorous and help the student grow in their native language. It often falls on the teacher to go out and find age and ability appropriate materials and resources that help students in their native language. Before passing new content to ELL students, teachers must first carefully go through it to make sure that all material is age appropriate, accurate, aligned to individual skill levels, and free from distractions such as advertisements and pop-ups. This can be a time consuming process, and few teachers are able to do it successfully and have the time to provide targeted support to their students.
Just like with any classroom, students come to teachers on so many different levels, and with ELL students you often add another layer to that in which students come with varying English abilities. For a teacher to successfully differentiate instruction and reach every student at their unique academic level and language level is near impossible without outside support.
Q: What does effective ELL support look like?
In my classroom, students were constantly talking and working cooperatively, and the classroom was hardly every silent. I think this really helped students practice their speaking skills in a natural, comfortable environment with their peers. It was a no judgment zone that helped build student confidence.
We had a print-rich classroom. Both student-generated posters and teacher-created posters lined the walls as anchor charts for students to refer back to after a lesson. We also had the classroom labeled in both English and Spanish. From the windows to the light bulbs, there were labels throughout. And we had a word wall, a place where students could add words they had just learned and refer back to when speaking or writing.
My students worked in small groups and I taught in a center rotation model. My reading and math lessons were taught in small groups in order to provide differentiated instruction for my students. I think for ELL students to be truly supported, teachers must have multiple approaches for teaching the same concept. What might work for a certain student may not work for another, and while this is true in general when teaching any student, it’s a huge part of helping ELL students become successful.
Q: How can a strong ELL program benefit a school or community?
I believe that the strategies we use with ELL students are often beneficial for the entire student body. Having a print-rich school, providing differentiation, and allowing students to become successful on their individual levels are really good strategies for all students.
Once you help grow confidence in ELL students, it trickles back to their families. When ELL students’ needs are being fully met, they begin to achieve at much higher levels. The parents and families I worked with recognized that their students were valued and supported in the classroom and were encouraged to become more involved in their student’s learning. As students excelled, their parents began asking more questions and got involved in programs at the school.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
From my experience, these are the five key takeaways that I learned from teaching ELL students:
1) All students can benefit from ELL support
ELL strategies are just good teaching.
2) Supporting an ELL student means supporting a family
ELL students often are primary English speakers in household.
3) ELL community demonstrates strong word-of-mouth effect
ELL educators are more likely share best practices with their peers.
4) ELL community is radically underserved
Districts and teachers are desperate for real support for ELL students.
5) ELL teaching strategies are NOT based on translation
ELL students are diverse and come from a multitude of backgrounds.