The Pocket Mentor: Answers to the Questions you have about English Language Learners!
These questions have been compiled by thousands of teachers we have trained over the years, representing the ones that are asked more frequently.
English Language Learners (ELL) are the fastest growing segment of our student population. Knowing how to teach – and reach – them is possibly the most important training you will receive. You will find more information here about English Language Learners Strategies Training.
Q.1 What is the process used to determine if a student is an English Language Learner (ELL)?
a. Upon registration, a student’s parent or guardian is asked to fill out a Home Language Survey. This survey asks at least two questions which help the district to uncover the student’s primary language – usually these:
i.What is the language spoken in the home?
ii.What is the language spoken by the child?
We have noted instances where there are as many as five questions, however.
b. If there is a language other than English mentioned on the form, the student’s file is (or should be) flagged and tested to measure his or her English Language fluency. If the score the child receives indicates that s/he is ‘fluent’ (only as measured by the test – which may not or may not indicate true fluency in an academic setting. See the chapter on ____ to find out more about testing and results), the student will simply be labeled a PHLOTE (Primary or Home Language Other Than English) student, and not receive services. If the test indicates that he or she is not yet fluent, by Federal law, the student should receive whatever language acquisition services are available at the school or district.
2. How do I know if I have any English Learners in my class?
Many teachers have expressed concern that they are not sure whether or not they have ELLs in their classrooms. For those who are in schools that don’t serve ELLs on a daily basis (some private, parochial, and charter schools), the best way to find out if you have ELLs (and, equally as important, former ELLs) in your classroom is to go to the student’s cumulative file and check out whether or not they have been designated an English language learner through the testing process. Another way to find out if a student is an English-language learner is to talk to the language acquisition person at your school or district. Obviously not all schools have personnel who are dedicated to knowing the status of ELLs at the school. However, in the district office, this information should be available.
3. What is the difference between a migrant, and immigrant, and a refugee?
a. To answer this question, we will use definitions that affect the labeling of students in educational settings. It is important to understand that Outside of our field, there may be differing ideologies surrounding these designations.
i. Migrant – A migrant student is a child whose parent or guardian is a migratory agricultural worker or fisher who has moved from one school district or school administrative area to another during the regular school year. The child must have had his education interrupted as a result of this move. The move must have been to enable the child, the child’s guardian, or a member of the child’s immediate family, to obtain temporary or seasonal employment in an agricultural or fishing activity.
ii. Immigrant – Eligible “immigrant children and youth” include those individuals who are aged 3 through 21, who were not born in the United States and who have not been attending one or more schools in any one or more states for more than three full academic years.
iii. Refugee – The refugee student is an individual who is outside his/her country and is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of a well-founded fear that she/he will be persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
b. This definition does not include persons displaced by natural disasters or persons who, although displaced, have not crossed an international border or persons commonly known as “economic migrants,” whose primarily reason for flight has been a desire for personal betterment rather than persecution.
Refugee families may need different and more specialized services than a migrant or immigrant family. Many are shell-shocked from the sometimes horrific circumstances they encountered in their former country of residence. For more information on working with refugee families, and the needs of your refugee student(s), speak with your district’s refugee liaison, or contact the International Refugee Committee.
4. I really think that one of my students is an English Language Learner, but there doesn’t seem to be any testing done on him or her. How could that be? How can I help this student to receive services in English?
a. Check the registration form. It could be that the parent didn’t identify another language in the home. Even if the student appears to be an ELL, if the parent answers ‘English’ on the Home Language Survey, we must abide by the parent’s disclosure, or lack thereof.
b. If it turns out that the parent put a language other than English on the form, the teacher can inform the administration that the student is in need of testing. The results of the test will determine if the student will, in fact, qualify to receive services in English.
c. If the HLS indicates that there is not a language other than English in the home, but you have concern that the student is not yet fluent enough in English to be successful in the regular education environment, a conversation with the parent explaining your concerns would be in order. Perhaps requesting that the parent give permission to have their child tested in English would be a good starting point. However, it is important to note that some parents do not, under nay circumstances, want their child labeled, nor to receive English services. In this case, it remains your responsibility to provide instruction to the student in a comprehensible fashion.
5. Do all districts or schools have the same programs for Teaching English Language Learners?
a. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was consistency with services for language acquisition? The truth is, the services could vary from not only one district to another, but from one school to another within the same district. Let’s say, for example, that a student moves from one school (high English Learner population) in a district to another (lower-incidence of ELs in the school). There is a possibility that in the higher EL school the student was receiving services in a self-contained language acquisition environment (Bilingual or content ESL classroom). In the lower incidence school, he or she may only receive between 30 – 90 minutes of language instruction per day. This same set of scenarios holds true between districts, or from school to school. There are even some schools that don’t directly serve English Learners with a qualified teacher.
If you are unsure of what programs are available to English Learners in your district, please speak to your principal or contact your Title III Director.
6. Once a student is labeled an ELL, will s/he always have that label?
a. Generally speaking, the label of ‘ELL’ follows a student until he or she has exited the program. A student exits a language acquisition program by meeting the proficiency guidelines of the state in which he or she lives. Each state is allowed to define their proficiency guidelines and will usually correspond to include the exit criteria of their chosen assessment in the English Language. This differs from assessments which measure academic progress. At that time, the label is converted to that of ‘former ELL,’ which denotes proficiency in English. The new label remains for two years, which is the length of time that students are monitored to ensure that they are not falling through the cracks, so to speak.
7. I have a feeling that some of the students in my class are in the United States illegally. What should I do?
a. Luckily for those of us in the teaching profession, schools are not to be enforcing agencies for immigration. This was decided by the Supreme Court in 1982, in the case Plyler v. Doe. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that public schools were prohibited from denying immigrant students access to a public education. The Court stated that undocumented children have the same right to a free public education as U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Just by virtue of being a school-aged child on US soil, undocumented immigrant students are obligated, as are all other students, to attend school until they reach the age mandated by state law (varies by state).
Public schools and school personnel are prohibited under Plyler from adopting policies or taking actions that would deny students access to education based on their immigration status.
Here are some other considerations with respect to this case:
- School officials, teachers, support personnel, or school board members may not require children to prove they are in this country legally by asking for documents such as green cards, citizenship papers, etc. They may only require seeing proof that the child lives within the school district attendance zone, just as they might for any other child. They may however ask if the student is a citizen of the country. They may not ask the parents any questions about their own citizenship status.
- Schools should be careful of unintentional attempts to document students’ legal status which lead to the possible “chilling” of their Plyler Examples of this might be a teacher asking a parent if they were able to vote in the upcoming bond election.
Some other practices which are banned by the Plyler case:
- Denying the opportunity to register to a student on the basis of immigration status or citizenship status of the student or his parents.
- Inquiring about a student’s immigration status, including requiring documentation of a student’s legal status at initial registration or at any other time.
- Making inquiries from a student or his/her parents which may expose their legal status.
What that means to you, as a teacher or administrator, is that you cannot ask whether a student is here legally. Simply put, we have only the responsibility of teaching students, and if they are English learners, ensuring that their educational needs are met.
8. Am I legally required to do anything different for English Learner students (i.e. modify my teaching practice, classroom setup, or spend extra time with them)?
a. As a matter of fact, yes, you are. The landmark case, Lau v. Nichols, is the precedent case that brings the responsibility of meeting the student’s needs to both the district and the teacher. The justices in the case make this point: “school systems are responsible for assuring that students of a particular race, color, or national origin are not denied the opportunity to obtain the education generally obtained by other students in the system.” It also states this: “there is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers, and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education.” (Lau v Nichols, 1974)
The essence of the Lau case is that equality is not equity. Equality, of course, means that all students receive the same things – services, textbooks, time studying a particular subject. In education, we must provide equal access to our content. Equity, on the other hand, means that all students get what they need in terms of how they receive that equal access. We need to provide them access to learning the same content in ways that ‘level the playing field.’ Some ways to create equity in the classroom would be to use nonverbal ways to assess students, or to use a lot of visual cues or manipulatives to teach a given subject. See our chapter on Classroom Strategies to learn some great ways to effectively reach your English Learners.
9. Why don’t we put the English Learners in with the Special Education students? The instruction is at a slower pace, and would be easier for English Learners to understand, wouldn’t it?
a. At first blush, the idea may seem to make sense. However, it’s important to note that students who have qualified for Special Education have been tested and have been found to either have a learning disability or some other impairment that does not allow them to learn at the same rate as other students in certain content areas. Students who qualify for Language Acquisition services, on the other hand, have a lack of proficiency in English. While methods used to reach both groups (lots of scaffolding, repetition of new concepts or words, etc) may, at times, be similar, they are being used for different purposes with each group.
Therefore, to group students who are perfectly capable of grasping content, but who have a lack of proficiency in the new language (in this case, English), would be unfair, and does not provide complete equity of access to the material. Rather, the education of these students should include strategies that are known to enhance the comprehensibility (or understandability) of the content.
It is important to note that some ELLs already know the content, but lack the language necessary to demonstrate their knowledge, whereas Special Education students have difficulty grasping content and sometimes language, as well.
10. Why don’t schools just put all of the English Learners all in the same class together until they learn English?
There are a couple of reasons to avoid this practice, which follow, and are supported by not only Federal Law, but what we know about how students learn language.
a. Going back to Lau v. Nichols, the judge decided that “Any ability grouping or tracking system employed by the school system to deal with the special language skill needs of national origin-minority group children must be designed to meet such language skill needs as soon as possible and must not operate as an educational dead end or permanent track.” As a teacher, you recognize that students move at different levels in all subject areas. Just as some students seem to have a gift for reading or math, language learners will also learn at different rates. With respect to the Lau decision, it is important to not ‘sentence’ a student to an interminable period of time in a ‘language’ class, which may also stand the risk of jeopardizing equity of access to the content.
b. Federal law does allow for students to be placed in classrooms with other ELLs for educational purposes. As long as the student’s access to the curriculum is not impeded by the fact that he is an English language learner, he can be in a classroom with other ELLs only for a period of time. For example, there are classrooms around the United States called ‘welcome classrooms’ or ‘newcomer classrooms,’ in which a student might be placed if he or she is brand new to English. That student would usually be in that classroom only for as long as it takes for him or her to learn survival English and make it, with language acquisition assistance, in the mainstream classroom. “Assistance” might mean that a student receives either pullout or push-in ESL services during the school day, or has access to a classroom assistant who works with ELLs.
c. In order to achieve fluency in a language, it is important that students have the opportunity to interact with others who are proficient, or fluent, in the English language. Placing all English learners in a class together would severely limit their access to conversations and problem-solving opportunities with their English-fluent peers. An illustration of this in a sports context would a tennis player who has a desire to improve her game. Rather than play with someone who is exactly as her skill level, she chooses someone who is beyond her level to push herself, and to improve her game.
11. How are English Learner programs funded?
English learner programs are generally funded through Title III funds, which come from federal funds. Depending upon who is in office (Democrats or Republicans), the funds either come directly from the federal government, or from the state department of education in which you live. Most states have a formula grant that they use to determine how much each English language learner is allotted for their education in the schools. This is often done through a formula grant. For example, if you had 560 ELLs at your school, and for each English Language Learner your school received $300, then the allotment at your school would be $168,000 for English Learner education. Other funds also exist to assist in the education of ELLs – Emergency Immigrant, Migrant, Refugee. However, you may need to check to find out exactly how English learners are funded in your state and/or district or school.
12. Are their standardized test scores counted immediately, or is there a grace period given to us until they’re fluent in English?
The answer to this question is very complicated, and may change with the political leaders of the time. According to the current No Child Left Behind act, students are required to take Math, Reading, Language Arts and Science tests. While states or districts are not allowed to exempt ELLs from taking the state assessments (because those students must be included in the state assessment system), schools are allowed to exempt students their first year of enrollment in a US school. However, it is important to note that many states do not accept this waiver of testing because of the requirement to have 95% of eligible students tested.
What you need to know as a teacher is this: Ultimately these students will count, and it’s important that you do everything you can to help them understand and master your content.
13. How do I grade English Learners?
a. One of the questions that we frequently receive regarding ELLs is, “How do I grade my ELLs?” Grading ELLs can, at times, be difficult. One has to think about how well the student is performing, not only in English, but also in the content area or skill area being evaluated. For example, with a content area, it is much easier to grade an English language learner. By setting up alternative assessments which are not heavily dependent on the student’s production of English, such as matching assessments, cloze assessments, and others, a teacher can have a better idea of how a student is performing in that subject area.
However, it becomes a little more difficult to assess ELLs in skill areas such as reading and writing. Teachers are often lead to believe that they have to give students Ds and Fs because students are not performing on grade level for reading. Before addressing this, imagine that you have just moved to Thailand with your parents, who took a job as upper level executives. You are in a Thai school with native speakers of the language. No English is used to instruct you. While you were an A student in the US, now you are receiving D’s and F’s because you can’t perform on grade level due to a lack of proficiency in your new language. OF COURSE you can’t perform on grade level! Would you stay motivated to learn, or might you become a little restless and unmotivated? If the skill level of the student is not at grade level, how does a teacher grade this student? As a student in that Thai classroom, trying your hardest to keep up, what do you think should count?
b. In the case where a student speaks very little English, the teacher may want to look at several areas of the student’s performance so that she can adequately assess, evaluate, and ultimately grade the student. Using a rubric with these students, which includes areas other than just the skill area (i.e. behavior, attitude, how rapidly the student is progressing through English skills he/she may be missing), may be helpful in giving a grade to a student. Another way to grade a student is to use your state’s language acquisition standards to adequately place the students where they belong on the standards for that grade level. This will also help you to better understand how quickly the student is acquiring the English that is necessary to be successful in the mainstream classroom. Noting that the student is an English learner on the report card, then measuring his or her progress in the skill areas (reading/writing) by the standards, will help the student and his or her parents understand how he or she is truly progressing.