Professional Development for the New Century: Teacher Education Programs Address a Growing Number of Non-English Speaking Students

By Fratt, Lisa | District Administration, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Professional Development for the New Century: Teacher Education Programs Address a Growing Number of Non-English Speaking Students


Fratt, Lisa, District Administration


MOST DISTRICTS FACE AN UPHILL challenge when it comes to English Language Learners, or ELLs. Not only are there language barriers, but also the numbers of such students are skyrocketing. The federal No Child Left Behind act further squeezes schools, because it requires that ELL students pass standardized tests in English within their first two years of living in the United States.

Another challenge is training. Most classroom teachers aren't prepared to meet the instructional needs of ELLs, as pre-professional programs don't focus on instructional strategies for English as a Second Language (ESL).

But that is changing. Some districts, such as San Marcos (Texas) Consolidated School District, are addressing the challenge with hefty investments in ESL professional development.

Last fall the Texas district began the process of training content teachers, ESL specialists and principals in the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SLOP) model, one of a few professional development models that target ELLs. "SLOP changes the way teachers teach," explains Niki Konecki, coordinator of bilingual/ ESL and innovative programs in San Marcos. The program is designed to help kids simultaneously learn grade-level content in any subject, such as math or science, while they also learn English. Today San Marcos has 70 students in high school who are immersed in English language and content vocabulary in all classes. The students are mixed with native English speakers in classes taught by SIOP-trained teachers, who use techniques that help all kids master vocabulary. This new model is a shift from traditional ESL methods that segregated language learners until they demonstrated basic English mastery.

In a geometry class taught by a SIOP-trained teacher, for example, students might review terms such as angle, hypotenuse and obtuse in a conga line--with students pairing up to define each term. Kids would then rotate pairs because this would provide multiple, varied exposures to essential terms. How student A defines a term will differ slightly from how student B defines it; English learners benefit from repetition and varied use of language. Students speak, listen and digest to accelerate content vocabulary acquisition.

San Marcos ensures that ELLs are placed among their 24 SIOP teachers. The new approach is a stark contrast to traditional ESL methods centered on pulling kids out of the mainstream classroom to teach them English. After such students had demonstrated basic English mastery they were moved to mainstream classrooms for instruction in academic content. The problem, says Melissa Castillo, senior national faculty at the SIOP Institute, is that students fell further behind in content area classes as they learned English. Today ELLs are expected to simultaneously acquire language and learn content--and prove it on standardized tests.

The Significant Challenge

Census data from 2000 indicate that the ELL population is dispersing beyond traditional destinations such as California, New York, Texas and Florida. Indiana has seen a 400 percent increase in ELL students in the last three years, says Castillo. Mexico and Latin America account for about half of English learners in the United States, and another 25 percent are Asian. Many districts grapple with a panoply of languages "and cultures. For example, ELLs in Clifton (N.J.) Public Schools speak 68 different languages.

NCLB exacerbates the impact of the demographic shifts. In the past, students learning English often were exempt from testing. Now pupils must be tested in their first year of U.S. residency, although some states do allow schools to suppress the first year's scores. But by their second year of residency, ELLs are expected to perform as monolingual English speakers, says Janina Kusielewicz, district supervisor of bilingual education and basic skills in Clifton Public Schools.

In the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a mere 29 percent of eighth-grade ELLs scored at or above the basic achievement level in reading, compared to 75 percent of native English-speaking students.

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