Many Tongues, One Goal E Pluribus Unum Could Be Motto for District 214's Growing ESL Programs

By Holmes, Erin | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), March 8, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Many Tongues, One Goal E Pluribus Unum Could Be Motto for District 214's Growing ESL Programs

Holmes, Erin, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)

Byline: Erin Holmes Daily Herald Staff Writer

Their stories are as varied as the nearly 30 languages they speak.

Some arrive with few classroom skills. Others haven't attended a school in 10 years.

Some come to America academically strong, only to find their English is too weak to allow them to be the student in this country they were in their own.

Today, 700 students take part in the English as a Second Language program in Northwest Suburban High School District 214.

They are there for a common reason - to learn English, adjust to American culture and graduate from high school - and they will face common challenges.

"ESL is the window to their academic life," says Dennis Terdy, District 214 director of grants and special programs. "In general, it's basic English language development - listening, speaking, writing. The goal is to make them competitive. You've got to look at what's important for kids to know. You're going to miss a lot. In this realm, the only thing we need to do is focus on the end."

First things first

ESL technically counts for English classroom credit.

But ESL teachers go beyond the nuts and bolts of language, playing the roles of counselor and parent, helping students adjust to America and put their lives into words.

"You get very, very much more personally involved in the kids' lives," says Hersey ESL Coordinator Sue Arnoux. "Not that regular teachers are not, but we have to be."

The process of teaching English as a second language is similar to the teaching English as a first language to a toddler.

There is a lot of pointing, a lot of hands-on doing, and sentences are infused with basic vocabulary.

A teacher, for instance, may tell a student, "Pick up your pencil. Pick up the pencil by the desk," pointing to both the pencil and the desk.

With a goal of graduating and, in some cases, moving on to college, the students often want to learn quickly because they don't have a whole lot of time.

As high schoolers, "their optimum years for learning a language are lessening," Arnoux says. "And the demands on a high school student ... are much, much greater. We're in a time crunch."

The culture barrier

At Prospect High School, ESL teacher Sheila Heck hands a worksheet to her students.

It lists familiar American sayings, each with words missing. The students must fill in the blanks, completing the proverbs.

One reads, "It takes two to..."

From the back of the room comes a timid suggestion.

"Complete?" the student guesses.

"Kiss?" another asks.

Not found in regular classes, the approach pays off in ESL, where students aren't familiar with American traditions and customs.

And, Heck says, it's shows that the phrases that come so easy to many of us are a little trickier for those who don't know English.

The idea of kissing a wound to "make it better," for instance, is an American custom. So is the term "TGIF" and the ideas of eating contests and fall shopping sprees.

"It's engrained in you, and you live that way, so you don't even think about it," Heck says.

But her students have to.

"It might be painful and slow," Terdy says of the ESL process. "It's not only patience, but it's strategy. If the kid doesn't get it with one strategy, you've got to be able to pull out something else. You can't just say, 'I'll repeat it again.' It doesn't work."

Demand is growing

As the Northwest suburbs have become more diverse, enrollment in ESL classes has grown in many District 214 schools.

The program takes in more than 700 students, representing 29 different languages, with high numbers of Spanish, Polish, Russian and Gujurati speakers.

Wheeling High School's ESL population, the largest in the district, has nearly 200 students.

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Many Tongues, One Goal E Pluribus Unum Could Be Motto for District 214's Growing ESL Programs


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