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Opening up to the issues: preparing preservice teachers to work effectively with English Language Learners.

A variety of trends in second language teaching have left many English Language Learners (ELLs) in the United States with well-intentioned teachers who, unfortunately, have limited understanding of the second language acquisition or cultural diversity issues that affect the ELLs in their classrooms. In this article, we present the current situation, offer recommendations made by researchers and professional organizations, and share teaching strategies from a college classroom.

The number of ELLs has increased dramatically in the United States. Over 5 million ELLs, approximately 10 percent of the total school population, were enrolled in public schools in pre-kindergarten through grade 12 in 2003-04. This figure represents nearly a 44 percent increase from a decade earlier (National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition [NCELA], 2005). The number of ELLs has been increasing in states with historically limited ELL enrollment (e.g., Idaho, Nebraska, Alabama, and Georgia) (Ragan, 2003), as it already has in states with a traditionally high percentage of ELLs (i.e., Texas, New York, California, and Arizona).

Frequently, the home language and culture of ELLs are not reflected in the background of their teachers, among whom the demographic change has not kept pace. In Texas, approximately 50 percent of students are minorities, compared with 23 percent of teachers (Reyna, 1993). Also, the number of bilingual teachers in California remains far below that of ELLs (California Department of Education, 1995).

General education teachers, especially those in states with recent increases in ELLs, are often under-prepared to educate ELLs without additional support or professional development (Zhao, 2002). As of July 2004, 42 states and Washington, D.C., provide teacher certification or endorsement in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), and 27 states and D.C. provide certification or endorsement in bilingual education. Remarkably, however, even in states with available certification or endorsement, only 22 states require ESOL teachers to be ESOL-certified, and only 17 states have the equivalent requirement for bilingual teachers (NCELA, 2004).

Among the states with the highest enrollment of ELLs, only Florida requires general education or content area teachers to have an endorsement to the basic teaching certificate indicating preparation in working with ELLs or to complete it in a specified time frame. Additionally, school personnel working with ELLs have a time allotment for training in related issues.

Heralding the need for change, accreditation and professional organizations continue to call for teacher preparation that includes adequate attention to ELL needs. In fact, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) Standards include the requirement that "the unit (i.e., the college) designs, implements, and evaluates curriculum and experiences for candidates to acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to help all students learn. These experiences include working with diverse ... students in P-12 schools" (NCATE, 2002). Professional organizations, such as the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI), the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the International Reading Association (IRA), and Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), also firmly advocate for improving the education of culturally and linguistically diverse children. For example, TESOL advocates that teacher preparation should include coursework on meeting English language language learners' academic needs (TESOL, October 2003), and Sunshine State TESOL recommends that school districts incorporate bilingual programs whenever feasible and desirable within the community (Sunshine State TESOL, 2005).

Theoretical Framework for Teacher Preparation Courses

The research literature, related theories, and professional organizations recommend that linguistics, theories of second language acquisition, and elements of cross-cultural studies be incorporated in teacher preparation programs (TESOL, June 2003). TESOL further states that, in addition to satisfying core requirements, teachers of ELLs are highly qualified only when they have met competencies in these areas (TESOL, February 2005).

Advocates for quality teacher preparation urge inclusion of linguistics in ESOL courses (Wong Fillmore & Snow, 2002). Prospective teachers who have gained an in-depth insight into the phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics of their own language might have a deeper understanding of the needs of ELLs and how to successfully address these needs.

Students must be able to understand the theoretical foundation of second language acquisition. Research indicates that a relationship exists between second language acquisition coursework and sensitivity toward language issues (Giambo & Szecsi, 2005; Griego Jones, 2002). The theoretical foundation in teacher preparation should include Cummins's iceberg theory, along with the differences between social language (i.e., Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) and academic language (i.e., Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency), as well as context-embedded/reduced language and its interplay with cognitive demand (Cummins, 1984). Krashen's hypotheses (1988) explain key issues, including the acquisition/learning distinction, comprehensible input, the natural order of acquisition, the affective filter, and the monitor.

A solid understanding of the interconnectedness of language and culture is fundamental for teachers of ELLs. Vygotsky states that language changes thinking in ways that serve a specific culture and simultaneously reflects culture (Bodrova & Leong, 1996). Hall (1976) argues that each culture accepts communication patterns aligned with cultural values and rejects those violating the value system. Clearly, students and teachers from different cultural backgrounds may exhibit conflicting communication patterns, possibly resulting in unintended breakdowns in communication and education. Cross-cultural understanding can facilitate communication across cultures.

Activities To Develop ESOL-Related Skills, Knowledge, and Dispositions

The Florida Department of Education allows the requirement of five ESOL endorsement courses to be met through two stand-alone ESOL courses, with the curriculum of the other three courses infused throughout the teacher education program. To meet state requirements as well as the research-based recommendations of professional organizations, the undergraduate course called Second Language Acquisition, Communication, and Culture offers the following activities.

Field Experience

The 15-hour field experience is designed to give students opportunities to gain experiences working one-on-one with an ELL on a variety of activities that support classroom work and that promote oral English proficiency. Required components include observation, engaging in conversation to learn about the student's language and culture, working on classroom teacher-suggested activities, planning activities to address student needs, and completing a reflective field log.

Oral Language Assessment Project

The preservice students analyze an oral language sample from an ELL, and rate an ELL student's oral English proficiency using the Student Oral Language Observation Matrix (SOLOM; California Department of Education and the San Jose Area Bilingual Consortium, n.d.), and perform contrastive and error analyses. This practical, hands-on project helps students learn to informally assess oral English proficiency in a classroom context, increases student awareness of positive and negative transfer, and requires students to engage in an in-depth analysis of the English language in the process.

Linguistics Project

Throughout the semester, preservice students interact with ELLs during the field experience and the E-mail project (described below). To lead students toward effectively addressing specific language needs, they diagnose and analyze samples of oral English errors through the application of their knowledge in linguistics and second language acquisition. To interpret an error such as, "I go to the grocery store last night," students use higher order thinking, including analysis, synthesis, and evaluation in the larger context of speech to determine whether the child needs practice in irregular verbs or in verb tenses. Based on their analysis, students design effective, age-appropriate activities for ELLs.

Linguistics Centers

Linguistics centers, a classroom activity targeting semantics, grammar, and pragmatics, are geared toward extending students' awareness in challenging areas of linguistics. For example, in one center, students practice identifying and categorizing homophones and homographs with the illustrations from the Amelia Bedelia books (Parrish, 1963, 1976). In another center, students consider the relationship between pronunciation and part of speech in such sentences as, "To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow," and generate ideas for supporting ELLs. The center on idioms is built around the print of Proveridioms (Breitenbach, 1980), which is accompanied by a list of illustrated idioms and helps students develop awareness of the literal meaning of idioms. To further raise students' awareness of the difficulty level that idioms represent for language learners, using direct translation of idioms from other languages makes for a great "guessing game." For example, Hungarian and Spanish idioms, such as "I have sweet mouth" and "To another dog with that bone," respectively, make little sense in English but help to shed light on the decoding process that all language learners face.

E-mail Project

On a voluntary basis, students have the rare opportunity to explore potentials and challenges of language learning and cultural diversity with a partner from a Hungarian university. In weekly E-mails, partners discuss issues related to second/foreign language learning and diversity and reflect on case studies that describe real educational issues from the two countries. The main purpose of this project is to utilize E-mail to facilitate sharing of viewpoints about language learning between the student dyads. This project offers a unique opportunity for the Hungarian students to receive

authentic English language input, while the American students often find themselves in the position of a tutor, explaining pragmatics, grammar, and vocabulary usage of the English language to their partners.

Practitioner Presentation and Case Studies

A practicing ESOL teacher makes a presentation to university students about the local school district's requirements for registration, classification, testing, exiting, and monitoring of students in relation to ESOL programs. This presentation is followed by information about state guidelines and requirements, which form the basis for the practitioner's procedures. Lastly, students are required, through case studies, to apply their knowledge and analyze specific details about an ELL to determine the services the student should receive and the classroom teacher's options.

Cultural Activities

Defining American Culture. Students are given a handout that outlines aspects of surface as well as more substantive, or "deep," culture (Florida Atlantic University Multifunctional Resource Center, 2000). With this information, they are asked to write a definition of American culture. The students get to work quickly, but soon realize the difficulty of their task. Inevitably, their discussion includes issues of what composes a culture and of heterogeneity within one cultural group.

American Culture Questionnaire. Students examine a list of 10 statements (Scarcella, 1990) meant to be representative of characteristics that are typical of people from the United States. They rate the extent to which each characteristic describes them individually, on a scale of one to five, total the score, and compare their total score to that of group members. Students are asked to explain whether the statements are representative of people in the United States and of them individually, and to explain the reasons for any heterogeneity within their group. One of the goals is for students to begin to realize how some see the culture of the United States and to develop their understanding that there is some heterogeneity within every cultural group.

Final Thoughts

The activities described in this article, which address second language acquisition, linguistics, and crosscultural awareness and communication, can provide foundational knowledge, skills, and dispositions for future teachers working with ELLs. This three-component course provides the springboard for a method course specific to effective instruction for ELLs.


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Debra Giambo and Tunde Szecsi are Associate and Assistant Professors, College of Education, Department of Undergraduate Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers.
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Title Annotation:Teaching Strategies
Author:Szecsi, Tunde
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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