Understanding and Meeting the Needs of ESL Students

Article excerpt

One of the best ways to understand what it is like to be an English- language learner in a U.S. classroom is to hear the stories of immigrant students. Mr. Miller and Mr. Endo use these stories to determine what steps teachers can take to help their students triumph over their struggles with a new culture and a new language.

AT LEAST 3.5 million children identified as limited in English proficiency (LEP) are enrolled in U.S. schools.1 Yet many schools have no programs for LEP students, and many others have only minimal English as a second language (ESL) or bilingual classes. In these situations, students are placed in mainstream classes after just one or two years in such programs, and teachers are put on the spot trying to work with students whom they are not trained to help.

This problem stems partly from a lack of funds and personnel in the schools, but it also reflects the influence of the government. Despite the 1974 ruling in Lau v. Nichols, a decision that required schools to provide services to LEP students, more recent government education policy has sought to bring immigrant students to "proficient" levels of English within three years.2 This policy contradicts language research that indicates that students need five to seven years in language programs to reach academic proficiency.3 As a result of such government policy, more and more students are being placed into mainstream classrooms before they are ready and without further support from ESL teachers.

In this article, we present the personal histories of immigrants so that educators can better understand their experiences. This research technique -- called narrative inquiry -- requires that the stories be told only by individuals.4 While the stories clearly involve interpretations of the facts, it is these interpretations on which identities are founded and through which lives are shaped.5 The stories we share are those of language learners in the U.S. school system, and they show that language learning is a "complex, contextualized, and narrativized experience."6

The Problems

English-language learners face a plethora of problems as they begin to build new lives in a strange land. The problems stem primarily from linguistic and cultural differences, and they are not the fault of teachers. However, it is important that teachers understand these problems so that they can provide these students the help they need.

Struggling with language. "Language shock" is perhaps the most common phenomenon that language learners experience when adjusting to their new environment. This term refers to the anxiety an immigrant experiences when first entering a community in which he or she does not speak, or is not proficient in, the dominant language. It is a common occurrence in schools, where, despite their desire to speak English fluently, students must struggle for several years before they understand everything that is said in their classrooms, in the hallways, and in the cafeteria. The feeling of anxiety is exacerbated by the ignorance of others. Laurie Olsen recounts stories of students being mocked by their peers because of the way that they speak English.7 While observing an ESL class, Olsen heard a student visitor comment that it sounded like he was no longer in America when he entered that classroom. (In this particular case, the teacher was allowing the students to communicate in their native languages.) Following that remark, all the students fell silent. Such occurrences only aggravate the anxiety of immigrant children.

Other examples of similar experiences have been documented. For example, Xiaoxia Li reports that, when she went to pick up her daughter Amy from school, she began to ask her some questions about her day, but in Chinese. Amy became upset with her mother and later explained that her classmates would laugh at her in those situations. Moreover, whenever the teacher in Amy's school inquired as to who had made a particular mistake, one of her classmates would point to her and say, "The Chinese girl," when it was usually not so. …