Relationship is key to English language learner’s success

03/21/2011  |  DR. KRISTIN POPPO
ESL Strategies

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to volunteer at a reading program in my daughter’s elementary school. For 45 minutes before school, I went from child to child and listened to them read aloud. After a few sessions, the program coordinator called me aside. She gestured to two young Latina girls sitting across the room, and whispered, “Those girls are new. They don’t speak much English, so they always try to speak Spanish, but they are not allowed. If you catch them, tell them to stop.” As I looked across the room, the girls sank in their seats. My heart sunk as well. If these girls cannot speak English, and they are not allowed to speak in Spanish, they can’t be learning very much — school must be truly miserable for them

In the ensuing weeks, I would take time to work with these girls. After listening to them read, I would often tell them what an asset being bilingual would be for them in their lives. I would also share my own struggles with learning other languages, and I would give them a lot of encouragement as they worked to master English. I in no way sought to undermine the program coordinator, but as an educator myself, I knew that the children who were incessantly chastised were not bound for success. I also knew that education was entering a new era in English as a Second Language (ESL) where the model of “English Only” was outdated and would soon be defunct.

Most educators understand that environments where students feel safe and affirmed are critical for student success. Although schools have become more inclusive for some students, in many cases, English Language Learners (ELL) still feel marginalized in many school communities. Clearly, for the young girls referenced earlier, school could quickly become a negative place that denies the essence of who they are. If these young girls are forced to choose between their culture/family and school, they may join the burgeoning population of drop outs. Relationship, not rejection, is key to these students’ success.

Dr. Esta Montano, Director of the Office of English Language Acquisition and Academic Achievement for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, asks teachers: “Are the home languages and deep (rather than superficial) cultural practices validated? Is the home language used to make connections, when possible? Is native language welcome in the class as a bridge to English?”

A constructivist approach teaches us that children can only begin to learn if the teacher starts from where they are. For English Language Learners, educators need to build bridges from the culture and language of origin to the school environment, which continually allow children to find value and meaning in both contexts. These questions point toward how important it is for teachers to use classroom strategies that would affirm, rather than marginalize, all ELL students.

Dr. Montano also reminds us that each child comes with a unique life experience. Educators need to be careful to not make assumptions about English Language Learners, and at the same time, to be open to the prior background that a student may bring into the classroom. Has the child had consistent schooling, or was there a war or natural disaster which closed the schools? Was the schooling experience in the native country positive? Why did the family come to the United States? Do the parents or guardians speak any English? Is there economic stability, or are parents working multiple jobs to make ends meet? Good teaching requires knowledge about the student so that the teacher can create avenues to success rather than build more barriers to learning.

Attentiveness to the needs of individual students is complemented by the recognition that English language acquisition takes years. As students move beyond the ESL classroom, continued support is needed. Specifically, if students are limited in English, they can’t learn science or math or social studies solely by listening to a lecture or reading the textbook. This means that teachers in the content areas need to embrace new strategies to deliver important information.

Using graphic organizers, explicit instruction and modeling, peer practice, and hands-on projects, educators can support the acquisition of knowledge for those students who are struggling with the English language. It is imperative that we teach teachers to embed these strategies in their teaching. Dr. Betsy Tregar is a 40-year veteran of teaching and administering ESL programs in the Boston Public Schools, and the program coordinator for the ESL program at Cambridge College. She states, “The best practices in ESL have you ‘teach the text backward.’ Instead of starting with lecture and text and proceeding toward a final hands-on experience such as a lab experiment, a field trip or a project, the teacher starts with a common experience and uses that as the basis for future learning. Rather than building up to fun, do it first. This allows ELL students to gain a context for future learning and become engaged. In fact, it is more effective for all students.”

Throughout her experience in the field of ESL, Dr. Tregar has worked to develop strategies that provide pathways for English Language Learners to gain competency in English, resulting in academic success, while maintaining a strong sense of who they are culturally and linguistically. In her program, seasoned scholar-practitioners teach using the strategies that work for English Language Learners. Walking into a classroom at Cambridge College, you will see students working with their “buddy” through collaborative learning. You will see time for students to stop and reflect on their work. You will see students completing projects that not only illustrate mastery of content areas but also application to the real world. When these teachers bring these strategies back to the classroom, they will see all students flourish.

Dr. Tregar leads the ESL program at The National Institute for Teaching Excellence which provides instruction in best practices in teaching English Language Learners. This five week intensive summer residency in Boston provides 15 graduate credits and a strong foundation in ESL. With continued work through distance learning, a Master’s Degree is available with initial licensure or as an area of professional advancement for current teachers. The purpose of this program is to ensure that no student shrinks in her seat as she is pointed out as being different and even deficient. Instead, each child is offered equity, and equity recognizes that educational success may require an appreciation of the unique challenges that face ELL students.

U.S. schools face the challenges of teaching English Language Learners in most every district across the nation. The Southeast is feeling a significant swell in this population. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Appreciating a student’s language and culture and teaching with strategies that support both content and language learning will lead to success.

Dr. Kristin Poppo is the Director of the National Institute of Teaching Excellence at Cambridge College and completed her doctorate at University of North Carolina-Greensboro in social and philosophical foundations of education. For more information, visit
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