English Language Learners: Experiences of Teachers of Students with Visual Impairments Who Work with This Population

Article excerpt

The number of children who are English language learners in the United States and Canada has increased over the past two decades. According to the United States' National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA, n.d.), more than 5.3 million (10.8%) children in prekindergarten through the 12th grade were enrolled in English language proficiency classes during 2008-09. The U.S. states with the highest representation of English language learners are California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, Arizona, and North Carolina, with these seven states having 68% of the population of students who are learning English (Boyle, Taylor, Hurlburt, & Soga, 2010). From 1998 to 2009, the number of these students in U.S. schools more than doubled (NCELA, n.d.). Although Spanish is the language most often reported as the home language of these students, in 2007-08, 400 languages were spoken in the homes of these children (Ramsey & O'Day, 2010). From 1989-90 to 1999-2000, the population of English language learners grew at a rate of 105%, while the general population of students grew only 12% (Kindler, 2002). Milian (n.d.) hypothesizes that the number of students who have a visual impairment and are English language learners should be no different than the number of students who do not have visual impairments and are learning English.

Determining the number of students who are learning English in Canada is challenging because national educational data are not collected. In a 2004 report, the Coalition for Equal Access to Education reported that one in five schoolchildren in Canadian urban areas had immigrated to Canada within the previous 10 years. The makeup of the Canadian population has changed over the past 30 years. As was noted by the Coalition for Equal Access to Education (2004, p. 7), the "2001 Census data profiles the mosaic of changing population in Canada. Foreign born population is at its highest level in 70 years. Due to greater diversity of ancestry and countries of origins among immigrant families, visible minority population has also tripled since 1981."

Any student, regardless of country of residence, who must acquire a second language in the current educational system is confronted with a daunting task. Programs in different states in the United States and provinces in Canada vary in terms of guidelines, state or provisional laws, and programming for these students. The variations of laws guiding the instruction of English language learners mean that not all students will get the same opportunities for structured English immersion (SEI) because models of instruction vary from state to state and province to province. According to Cummins (n.d.), a student who is learning English must learn basic interpersonal communication skills or surface skills of listening and speaking that are typically acquired by many students, particularly those from language backgrounds similar to English, who spend a lot of their school time interacting with native speakers. Cummins (2000) also theorized that these children must also learn cognitive academic language proficiency skills, or the language that is the basis for their ability to cope with the academic demands placed on them in various classes on academic subjects. Cummins (2000) noted that many children develop native speaker fluency within two years of immersion in the target language; however, it takes five to seven years for them to be working on a level with native speakers as far as academic language is concerned. The implication for all children is that nonnative speakers who have a high degree of fluency in everyday English may not have the corresponding academic language proficiency. Given that written language for a student who is visually impaired (that is, is blind or has low vision) and learning English may involve reading and writing braille, one must wonder if the student's ability to master academic reading and writing of English braille may take even longer than the five to seven years suggested by Cummins (2000). …