Our biggest challenge here is helping students become readers and writers when they do not read or write in their first language. They have very little support at home and don't see reading and writing modeled as their parents are not fluent in English. Yet, beginning in 3rd grade, they are expected to read and show proficiency on mandated state tests.

Has anyone had similar concerns? How do you address them?

Tags: ESL

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This is a growing challenge, both because of newly arrived students who were undereducated in their countries of origin, or kids born in the United States whose first language is not English but who have no access to reading instruction in their native language. The shortest path to literacy in English for such kids, believe it or not, is helping them become good readers and writers in their first language. Those skills (print concepts, phonemic awareness, comprehension skills, etc.) are then transferred to their study of English. This kind of instruction is a great way to deliver needed content knowledge, too. Level of first-language literacy is a reliable predictor for how quickly and how well students will do when learning academic English. We should find ways to offer native-language literacy courses to these students through our schools, or through local tutors who are native speakers, or perhaps even through distance instruction facilitated by technology. How cool would it be to offer a native language literacy course to students from a variety of language backgrounds by hooking them up with kids (and instructors) from other cities or states? So they're all sitting in one room at computers, each experiencing a different class in a different language.

The next best thing (if we focus narrowly on developing English literacy) is to try to make English their dominant language (through immersion at school AND home), which then sets them up to go through literacy instruction similar to the pattern which native English speakers experience. The major downside of this, of course, is they lose a hugely marketable skill and also stand to lose touch with their family's culture. It also takes a while to make the switch and during that time not much literacy instruction is going to stick. I should add that it's so sad to see a kid who can understand parts of what their grandparents say to them, but can't interact with them because they've forgotten their native language. Is learning to read and write English worth it? Tough call. Such a method also relies on the parents to try to make English their home language, which reverses the parent/child role at times. I've seen this work only a few times, with immigrant families who did not have other speakers of their language nearby (i.e. a Sudanese family who spoke a tribal language and made an effort as a family to use only English).
I agree that it would be best if students first learned to be literate in their first language. However the Hmong language, which most of our ESL students were born into, was phonetically transcribed into English only after the immigrants arrived. Even teachers who are very literate in English and speak Hmong may not be able to translate written documents into Hmong or read them. There is very little research on "preliterate"languages and how to best use knowledge of spoken language in educating immigrants. We're finding that many of our students who are learning English and are not fluent in either language.

An additional challenge is academic vocabulary for which there is no direct translation or explanation that works in the first language.

I guess the conclusion could be...more research is needed. In the mean time, we have about 450 ESL students to teach!

There are so many issues surrounding teaching ESL students. It isn't just the student but the whole family that must be embraced and be made part of the process.....

I've taught ESL many years and my last school (I'm now training teachers), Rose Ave. in Toronto won an award from the U.N. as the most multicultural school in the world. We had 94 mother tongues! When the under secretary general visited, we had students sit up in the school and say hello in their language one by one...it took ages but was beautiful!

What really really worked in my experience (and echoing Jeremy's comments about "home" and reading) and what I forced my school to enact as process was to get students of different cultures mingling....the worst is to have isolated pockets of students just speaking L1. Second, they need lots of great support, meaning input. I had all use laptops (I bought) in my class for reading so that speech and text were swatted, killing two flies with one swat (as the Russian idiom goes). Lots of input.....Lots of text to speech support out there where everything in the browser can be read/defined.

Also, send them to EFl Classroom 2.0 . I've put up one of the largest directories of of stories and games for EFL / ESL students around. What is nice about ning is that they can use your ID and ning allows multiple log ins under the same ID. I'm going to advertise this more with the teachers on EFL Classroom 2.0

You are right, it is a big, if not the BIGGEST challenge facing American and Canadian education. But with wisdom, it will be handled and make us all richer. I know I am much richer through being an ESL teacher.....

Look at what Larry Ferlazzo has done. He has done research on his work, and he is teaching the same population that you are teaching. I don't think this is either a new, and unusual problem. My great-grandfather was a translator during the Spanish American War. He spoke about 4 language and was illiterate in every last one of them. We've taken many elementary students who spoke their home language, but never read it, or learned it in an academic context, and taught them English. I'm concerned that you are focusing on how these students are not fitting the model, when the model is not always, well, the model. What grade level are you teaching?
This is a sizable chunk of the students in my current school. We get most of them in primary, so it's all about teaching literacy anyway. Look at the work that is being done by Larry Ferlazzo (http://larryferlazzo.com) who teaches high school students who are pre-literate and language learners. Can I echo Jeremy and Nancy's points? Do direct instruction in English. Because of changes in state law here in California, by default we instruct all language learners in English (parents need to request bi-lingual education, most don't or won't) so this is the model. If you haven't had training in ELD, there are lots of courses offered online because it's a requirement for teaching in California. Look for CLAD courses at places like University of San Diego. Read Christina Igoa's book "The Inner World of the Immigrant Child" Really, this has been the reality in California for over a decade, so the entire credentialing process is geared towards teaching these students directly in English and has been for 10 years. You take extra coursework in English Language Development, and in every class you are supposed to cover incorporation of good ELD strategies. You cannot get a credential that does not qualify you to teach language learners. The rest of the country is still in that bi-lingual vs. regular credential dichotomy, so that teachers who are not bi-lingual are not supposed to have any language learner students. As areas get more and more immigrants, this will not suffice.

Nancy, like yourself, I teach in a school with a huge Hmong population, and you are right, the level of literacy in that language really varies. The last group of refugees that came to our area were supposed to have more education in written Hmong (http://www.scusd.edu/multilingual/update.htm) than previously, but I know from talking to Larry Ferlazzo that he still has a large number of pre-literate students from that wave of students.
I think is a concern in many school communities. Approx 90% of the elementary students in my school teach speak English as a second language with Spanish being their first language. Students are not normally literate in their first language and parents may or may not be. We also came across the cultural issue of separation of home and school. All learning (language and otherwise) is considered a school responsibility. As far as instruction goes we are using Guided Language Aquisition Design (GLAD) and Nancy Fetzer strategies which are working VERY WELL. They use frontloading and visuals (plus more) very effectively. We also began a few new projects this year and they seem to be helping.

1) KinderCamp - an optional 2-3 weeks of pre-kinder to get new kindergartners ready for how school works.

2) Kindergarten and 1st grade parent nights. These are separate from Back-to-School and Open House Nights. Parents learn about what their students are doing in school and specific small ways to help them at home (read/tell stories in Eng or home language, give students time/place to read at home, ask questions about what they read/learn in school, etc.)

3) Family Friday - parents come in on one Friday morning a month and learn about a reading strategy they can use with their child. It's also modeled using a book they get to keep. We've been able to find enough books that are printed in English and Spanish...not sure what is available in Hmong. Parents then go to their child's class and read that book with their child. The teacher reads the book with students whose parents could not attend.

4) Sight words/books on CD - We recorded all of our sight word lists and then can burn applicable ones onto CDs that students can use in class (on the computer or a portable CD player) or take home to practice with. Parents liked this idea because many were often unsure how to pronounce the words their child was supposed to be practicing. We are continuing to use recorded books and/or class stories this way also.

Our students aren't as proficient as we like to be yet, but the numbers are getting better. We all need to find something that gives us (and them) a little hope :)
You are not the only one facing this problem. My community is mainly hispanic and we have in our school many children with the same problem. We have third, fourth, and fifth grades who cannot write in their first language.They dont know the basis of grammar and their spelling is atrocious. You're not going to find much or any support from their parents.They dont read and write either. They also have two jobs and two or three more kids to feed. Wrapping up, even though we are doing our best to teach English to these children, and they're also in bilingual classes we cannot expect proficiency on state tests. Just a few, the proud, we'll make you feel good about the job you are doing.The rest will be a 60% or 70% reader and writer for the rest of their lives. From my every day teaching, I had a kid in first grade who always was refusing to speak English during my class. One day, I asked him," why dont you speak English ( I know he could) during my class". He answered me, " My father doesn't want me to speak English,
he cannot understand".
Thanks to everyone for your wonderful responses. We in Minnesota are trying hard to find ways to make sure the LEP students are successful. I think it's the fear of not making AYP or AMAO that creates some tension.

Keep up the good work, everyone!
Yes Nancy,
I face the same problem, with my students. I am from India and I am assigned to teach english to the beginners who generally comes to school without any prior knowledge of the language and get less support from their parents and the environment(as they are from vernacular background).I am looking forward for your valuable discussions, so that I can learn from your experiences.
Good point. Millions of people remain illiterate in our world today.

Sometimes in the United States, by preferring tact to truth, we overlook the reality that millions of people have never received a formal education and millions more were held back by inadequate schools and very low standards. As a result, education officials feel compelled to give press conferences and submit absurd testimony expressing "bafflement" at why children from low-income household score so much lower on standardized exams. Historical consciousness is almost verboten.

A secondary effect of this false "bafflement", again partly caused by surplus tact, is the pretense that literacy has no cultural consequences. People with limited reading and even more limited writing skills in a predominantly literate culture face many practical obstacles. Secondary orality, the fancy academic term for being unable to read and write in a print culture, hurts individuals and the larger society.

Of course, education opens doors and opens minds, but recognizing that education actually improves lives would also raise questions about the relative merits of various subcultures in the United States. Education is partly about development and transformation. Yet our multicultural mantras raise many objections. Who is to say that life in Beverly Hills is superior to life in South Central Los Angeles? What's the criteria? Are people happier? Blah, blah, and more eloquent nonsense.

Acknowledging the reality that far too many immigrants and citizens lack basic literacy and focusing on approaches to solving that terrible legacy of oppression would be a starting point. Unfortunately, because our rhetorical embrace of cultural equality, we end up denying millions of underclass citizens and residents access to a quality public education.

Or so it seems to me.
You've identified a real problem, especially when these students are expected to perform at the same levels as the offspring of English-speaking, middle-class professional parents on standardized exams.

Hopefully, the children and parents will recognize the meaningful, significant progress made in your classes even if the official standardized exams fail to recognize the obvious.
Hi Nancy,

This is not really my area at all, but I did hear this excellent program on Australian Public Radio. The transcript is here


and if you look on itunes you may be able to track down the audio.

Catherine Walter is writing a lot of interesting stuff about it too. I`ve attached an article of hers I found.

Doesn`t really help you day to day, but it might spark something. Good luck, I admire teachers in your situation a great deal ; )


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