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Teaching English Language Learners: a self-study.

Abstract

This study investigates the implementation, challenges, and successes of a district-wide, intensive, three-week English as a Second Language (ESL) summer program in an elementary school in the southeastern United States were where the English Language Learner (ELL) population has grown significantly over the past ten years.

Introduction

The 2000 Census (US Census Bureau) found that 53.6 percent of Alabama's foreign-born population had arrived in the state after 1990. The 2000 Census also recorded 87,772 foreign-born residents in the Alabama: this was an increase of 44,239 residents since the 1990 Census which stated that the foreign-born population was 43,533 residents. If we add the 2003 estimate of illegal immigrants in the state by the Immigration and Naturalization Services (24,000 individuals) then the total foreign-born population rises well above 110,000 residents. This dramatic change in Alabama's demographic profile is very visible in the schools around the state. In an effort to help further educate the ELLs, a university established an intensive ESL summer school program that took place over three weeks. We performed a self-study as we observed, interacted and spoke with all of the participants in the summer program (ESL students, their teacher-interns, administrators of the elementary school, and the ESL program director). The guiding questions of the self-study are:

1. What strategies and instructional settings are most effective in teaching ELLs not only English, but also provide opportunities to learn how to mediate and organize their lives outside of school?

2. How can we use the ESL summer program to build, strengthen, and inform the Professional Development School (PDS) relationship with Broadlumber Elementary School?

Professional Development Schools

An important facet of a future language teacher's education is participation in inquiry-based teaching (IBT). The benefits of IBT practices emerge during real-life teaching episodes in the schools within our communities (Frey, 2002). Vital to the concept of IBT is involvement in an academic setting outside of university classrooms that afford future teachers opportunities to reflect on their personal development, professional growth, as well as their academic preparation. IBT places the emphasis on activity within appropriate educational settings and applies Wells' (1999) practice of education to teacher preparation, and in this case, language teacher education. Glass and Wong (2003) bring to light the concept of engaged pedagogy which compliments IBT and supports successful PDS relationships by preparing teachers and teacher-educators to extend their understanding of activity beyond the traditional roles. As Glass and Wong (2003) state, engaged pedagogy:

--Permits educators to understand the local contexts of each students' student's life while providing a global framework for success in their community.

--Strengthens the teacher-pupil relationship as each is transformed through IBT.

--Provides opportunities for critical reflection and the formation of knowledge within all of those involved.

--Offers teacher-educators a framework to involve themselves in professional development as well as curriculum development in the community's schools.

Engaged pedagogy distributes the responsibility for success among the school, teacher-educators, the community, and student-teachers. It fosters a shared vision, continuous evaluation and renewal of the partnership in order to develop a symbiotic mutualism (Bailey et al, 2002), and affords the participants opportunities to reap benefits that may not have been included within the original PDS framework. Keeping these ideas in mind, I then set out to investigate the ESL-specific PDS that was in beginning stages of development.

Broadlumber Elementary School

Broadlumber Elementary School (BES, a pseudonym) is located in the Southeastern United States and is part of a school system that serves a city of about 165,000 inhabitants and a district that serves 16,466 students. Of the seniors in the school district about 50% are college bound. The school has 347 K-fifth grade students: 50% white, 45% African American, and 5% Hispanic. There are 17 classroom teachers and one administrator. BES administers the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT) to their students in the third, fourth, and fifth grades each year. The national norm for the 2002 SAT, ninth edition, is 50 (Alabama State Board of Education School Report Card for 2001-2002). The letter grades are BES performance compared to the rest of the nation.

The average score of BES students in all grades and areas assessed is "C" when compared to the rest of the nation. It is interesting to note that BES's school system receives less funding than other school systems in the nation (on the average), and the BES students' are "average". This makes us think about the effects on student learning and achievement if the school system was to match its student funding to that of the national average. All of the ESL students in BES are Hispanic. This is important because the SAT report for 2002 also presents averages based on race. The report uses the terms: Black, Hispanic, and White. According to the SAT report, the Hispanic students' average score in BES's system was 48, which is not far below the national average of 50 for all students. The white students' average score in BES's system was 60, and the black student's average score was 36. However, further investigation and data from the Alabama State Department of Education reveals the following information for the ESL students at BES:

--Third grade ELL SAT average in Reading is about 33, and their average Math score is 27.

--Fourth grade ELLs scored and average of 48 on the Language section of the SAT, an average of 34 on the Math section, and an average of 29 on the Reading section.

--Fifth grade ELL average scores on the SAT are: 43 on the Reading section and 40 on the Science section.

BES's school system is comprised of 29 schools: 16 Elementary, 7 Middle, 5 High Schools, and one regional learning center. There are two, certified-ESL teachers employed by the system who are in charge of serving the 29 institutions. These teachers are responsible for the assessment, placement, and supervision of the ESL students as well as general community interaction and individual school support. The school system employs some tutors and translators to help on an as needed basis. Also, the ESL teachers provide an ESL-specific workshop once a year for the teachers in their system.

Methodology and Data Analysis

As part of the university's commitment to assisting local schools with the challenge of teaching their changing and diverse student population, we established a three-week, ESL summer program that took place at BES. The ESL teachers in the summer program participated as part of an internship that was supervised by the local university. The three groups of interns were observed daily (Monday through Friday) for 3 weeks from 8 AM to 11:30 AM. There were a total of 56 ELLs who took part in the program. The students in the ESL summer program were from grades 1-12 and the teacher-interns were all from the university's graduate program in language education. The interns' interaction with the ELLs outside of class was also noted and analyzed by the researchers. Data from each of the three classrooms was collected everyday during the three week period. Also, any communication or encounter between the school's staff and / or administrator and the interns and/or the ELLs was noted as relevant to the central theme of the overall investigation: preparing and educating ELLs to mediate, organize, and transform their communities of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991).

Every teacher-intern was observed during every day of the program. Detailed notes on classroom management, activities, assessment, personal interaction, content knowledge, and professional growth were made about each teacher-intern. More specifically, we noted the teacher-interns' and ESL students' language ability and use, content knowledge, and patterns of social interaction while engaged in activities in and out of the classroom There were three different types of educational environments set up by the teacher interns during the intensive, three-week Summer school:

--Group 1: 6,7 year olds (19 students), three teacher-interns. The teacher-interns in this group divided the class according to English language ability and formed three smaller groups within the class. Each teacher taught a group for one week then rotated to another in-class group.

--Group 2: 8, 9, l0 year olds (19 students), two teacher-interns. The teacher-interns in this class decided to team teach the class as a whole

--Group 3:11+ year olds (18 students), two teacher-interns. The two teacher-interns divided their class into two smaller groups according to English language ability. Each teacher intern spent one-half of the program with each in-class group.

The ELLs responded best to lessons that engaged them in activities and allowed them to interact with each other in real-life school or social settings. Interestingly, a few of the younger students (8-10 year olds) said that they were told that they were coming to an ESL camp, but that they thought this was just a "regular school". The instructors in the two younger groups (ages 6 and 7, and ages 8-10) were the most successful in providing opportunities for the students to learn language and social skills that they could use outside of class. The third group (ages 11+) became very grammar focused and linguistically-oriented. The instructors of this group structured very traditional, teacher-centered lessons. No activities were observed that would have allowed the students to transfer any "life skills" into their communities and families.

Of particular interest to this study is that the overall school learning environment was adversely affected by the administrator and support staff's lack of familiarity with and knowledge of diverse populations. This is important to note because the administrator and support staff are the same who serve BES during the regular school year. Although always very professional and cordial during our discussions and interactions, the administrator did not have the background needed to understand the process and intricacies involved in learning to participate in a new society in another language. For example, the administrator walked in during an information gap / puzzle making activity about dinosaurs that occurred in the Group 2 classroom. There were several groups of children on the floor working with big-piece dinosaur puzzles. The students were very active and talkative while trying to complete the task. They were constructing not only the puzzle but meaning as well during this lesson. After observing this activity for a few minutes the administrator stated that the class had become rather noisy and disorderly. The teacher-interns told the administrator that this was part of the process involved in learning another language, the social use of language during an activity. But, this explanation did not seem to convince the administrator. It was also evident that the administrator was not familiar with the concept of the student's first language affecting English language learning. Comments were about how Spanish-speaking students seemed to pick up English quicker or were 'smarter' than students from non-Spanish speaking countries. After one of these comments, it was explained to her that Spanish has more cognates (words that appear similar and the same meaning in both languages) than Chinese, for example. In other words, students whose first language includes English cognates will be able to acquire some vocabulary more quickly than other students whose language does not have English cognates. Therefore, the rates of language learning may vary from student to student with different first languages.

There were two teacher-interns who had backgrounds in teaching Spanish as foreign language. One teacher-intern had not had any actual classroom experience teaching Spanish, and became extremely grammar-oriented in her lessons. The students in this group (Group 3) were observed to be disengaged from the lessons during many of the classes observed. In general, the instructors in this classroom were not as successful in engaging ELLs as I had initially thought they would be because the other teacher-interns had been teaching and tutoring ESL students for the past year. The director of the ESL summer school told both instructors that they needed to move away from pure, grammar-based exercises and lessons (verb conjugations or preposition worksheets), but the instructors were not very willing to re-design their lessons. The second intern with a foreign language education background had taught Spanish in the k-12 setting for quite some time. Bill (a pseudonym) was a more effective instructor with this class (Group 2) than were the instructors in Group 3. He brought in many hands-on activities for the students to work on in groups with each other every day during the three-week period. His was the "dinosaur puzzle" activity mentioned earlier. Also, the co-instructor and he worked well together during the lesson and met daily to discuss the lesson and activities. It was evident that Bill's experience with language students in the public schools helped to focus his efforts and those of his co-teacher. The teacher-interns who were the most successful with the students had little or no experience teaching second languages, but did have extensive experience as regular classroom teachers. This was apparent in the youngest classroom (Group 1). As in every class, during the first two days of instruction the teacher-interns in Group 1 assessed their students' English language proficiency in reading, writing (or spelling), listening, and speaking. We did not have access to the districts' ESL teachers' assessment instruments or results so we mainly relied on in-class evaluation methods.

After the initial assessment, the teachers then decided to create 3 sub-groups in the classroom according to the student's language proficiency. Each teacher would instruct each group for one week. The teachers in Group 1 decided that the beginning and the end of the day would be spent as a whole class in order to build relationships among the students and to give the class a more cohesive feel. After the initial, morning activity the class then divided into the three sub-groups. The three subgroups were taught within the same classroom, but the students' paid attention and were very engaged in their activities. Every now and then, one of the children (usually a 6 year old) wandered off to another group to see what was going on. The teacher-interns had decided to let the student take part in the activity for a bit to see how the others interacted with the "visitor'. Although this interaction only lasted for a few minutes, the students were always willing to explain what they were doing (in English) and some even let the visitor help with the activity. The visiting student would then go back to his or her activity and relate to everyone what was going on in the other group(s). The teacher-interns in Group 1 brought everyone together at the end of the day and the students would take part in a closing activity and see the products of their daily efforts (a counting sheet made with colored cereal, for example). The students always seemed to enjoy this sharing time with each other although it was not part of the teacher-interns original plans.

Discussion and Implications

The self-study of the intensive ESL summer school revealed that it would be more beneficial for the program to:

--Include more community-based activities group activities for the older students.

--Invite regular classroom teachers from the whole district to take part in or observe classes.

--Build an information bank of materials, lessons, strategies and activities that were used during the ESL summer program to share with teachers from the schools system. The district's ESL teacher would make these available to the classroom teachers.

--Address first language literacy as well as second language learning. This would address the issue of administrator's knowledge about the effects of the ESL student's first language on learning of English.

As a result of the self-study, we plan to bring together the district's ESL teachers before the start date of the summer program so that they can share any information and assessment data about the ELLs who have enrolled in the program. We also plan to invite teachers from BES and the district to meetings and workshops conducted by our future teacher-interns (supervised by their university instructors and the school system's ESL teachers). This supports Glass and Wongs' (2003) concept of engaged pedagogy and Frey's (2002) inquiry-based teaching and teacher-interns learn about the concerns and expectations from regular classroom teachers. This will also serve to strengthen the PDS relationship. It will take the combined effort of many to learn as much as they can about teaching and living within diverse populations in present-day America. Experience is incredibly important in education, but it is complimented and balanced by opportunities for professional development. Futhermore, teachers must take advantage of every opportunity to inform themselves about how to approach, educate, and interact with English language learners and their families.

References

Alabama State Board of Education School Report Card (2001-2002). Retrieved March 15, 2004 from www.alsde.edu.

Bailey, J.L., Mitchell, B., & Winstead, R. (2002). A school-university partnership across five countries in the South Pacific. International Education, 31, 2, 5-17.

Department of Education, Office of the Secretary (2001). State education indicators with a focus on Title I. Planning and evaluation service: Document # 2001-28: Washington.

ESEA Implementation Guide (2002). Section G: Programs for English Language Learners. Washington: Small Axe Educational Communications.

Frey, N. (2002). Literacy achievement in an urban middle-level professional development school: A learning community at work. Reading Improvement, 39,1, 3-13.

Glass, R.D. & Wong, P.L. (2003). Engaged pedagogy: Meeting the demands for justice in urban professional development schools. Teacher Education Quarterly, 30, 2, 69-87.

Immigration and Naturalization Services (Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services). http://www.immigration.gov

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

US Census Bureau (2000). Retrieved March 15, 2004 from www.census.gov /main/www/cen2000.htmlUS.

Wells, G. (1999). Dialogic inquiry: Toward a sociocultural practice and theory of Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Miguel Mantero, The University of Alabama

Miguel Mantero's research interests include cognition and SLA, as well as classroom discourse processes.
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Author:Mantero, Miguel
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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