Magazine article Momentum

These Students Don't Speak English: Now What?

Magazine article Momentum

These Students Don't Speak English: Now What?

Article excerpt

What one Catholic elementary school is doing to meet the needs of its growing English-language learner population

The middle school teachers were shocked. One of our brightest students and potential valedictorian of the class of 2002 had just failed the Minnesota Basic Skills reading practice exam that we had given to all of our eighth graders in October 2001. We knew Tou (named changed to protect privacy) was an "A" student, highly intelligent, conscientious about homework and always contributing to classroom discussions. What we didn't know at that time was that Tou, whose family spoke Hmong at home, did not have the academic English skills to make the inferences, draw the conclusions or make the analysis asked for on this exam. He had been successful in the classroom because of his excellent coping skills and his ability to pick up learning cues from classmates and teacher comments, responses and body language. Our ELL(English Language Learner) dilemma was staring us in the face.

Risen Christ Catholic School (RCCS) is a consolidated, K-8 school serving 340 children in the heart of south Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was formed in 1993 when five small inner-city parish schools were brought together to meet the needs more efficiently and effectively of the children located in their neighborhoods. What resulted was the most economically, ethnically and religiously diverse school in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. That diversity continues to be Risen Christ's greatest blessing and challenge, as it strives to address the ever-changing needs of the children who enter its doors. (See school profile at Figure #1.)

Increase in English-Learner Population

One of the greatest changes Risen Christ School has experienced since its formation has been the dramatic rise in its ELL population, particularly in just the last four years. Prior to 2000, when I became principal, the ELL population was so low we didn't even track it. In 2001, the first year we began collecting language data, the ELL population was 13 percent. At the end of the 2004/2005 school year it was 37 percent.

Even though we then had some data, we didn't know what to do with it. Most of our ELLs in 2000/2001 were in the primary grades and our major challenge (we thought) was communicating with their non-English speaking parents. We hired a bilingual educational assistant to provide limited ESL pullout instruction for the children and Spanish translation assistance for their parents.

We soon found this solution to be inadequate, as more and more nonEnglish-speaking children enrolled and moved up the grade levels of the school. Non-English speaking children who entered our school in kindergarten were learning to de-code and "read" text, but they couldn't comprehend what they were reading. ELLs entering at other grade levels, who couldn't keep up with their English-speaking peers, often were thought to have motivation or behavior problems because they so ably concealed the fact they couldn't read or comprehend English.

As a staff we were not yet aware of the fact that usually a child can acquire adequate social/oral English language skills in six to 12 months, whereas it can take anywhere from four to 10 years to acquire the academic English skills needed to be successful in school. Teachers would hear a student speak fairly fluent English and expect the child to be able to read, comprehend and write English as well as they conversed.

We were also not yet aware of the complexities associated with acquiring English as a second language. For instance, we did not realize the extent that culture shock, educational systems, background differences and the age of the child all affect how he or she is able to acquire and process a new language. Research has demonstrated that a person learns the mechanics of reading, whatever the language, just once, so the age and educational level of a child when arriving in this country have a great impact on the ease with which one is able to learn to read in English. …

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