Are Schools Getting Tongue-Tied? ESL Programs Face New Challenges

By Schachter, Ron | District Administration, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Are Schools Getting Tongue-Tied? ESL Programs Face New Challenges


Schachter, Ron, District Administration


English as a Second Language programs have historically focused on Spanish-speaking students, but the ESL map is undergoing a dramatic transformation that is challenging K12 schools to cope with a burgeoning number of different native languages--more than 100 in some locations--as new immigrants arrive in districts across the country.

And the number of English language learners has increased by 65 percent between 1993 and 2004 compared to barely a 7 percent increase in the total K12 population, according to a 2006 study by the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition. And according to the Migration Policy Center, better than 70 percent of ESL students are Spanish-speaking. But the native tongues in many districts belong to recent arrivals from the former Soviet Union, a growing number of immigrants from Middle Eastern countries and Asia, and a large cohort of students--many of them refugees from war-torn or poverty-stricken lands--from the Balkan countries to Africa.

"There are more than 380 languages spoken in the United States, and they've spread into many geographic areas--including rural areas--that traditionally did not have many non-English speakers," says Rosa Aronson, executive director of TESOL, or Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, an international organization[

One of the big challenges for states, districts, and educators is developing the capacity and expertise" to teach and deal with the widespread increase of ELL students across the country, Aronson adds. They include: Russian, Arabic, Vietnamese, Hmong, and Somali as well as languages that many teachers and administrators may never have heard of: Kirundi (from Burundi in Africa), Dzonkha (from the Asian country Bhutan), Cushitic (spoken in parts of Kenya, Tanzania, and the Sudan), and Amharic (from Ethiopia).

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TESOL Associate Director John Segota points out that the states with the biggest jump in ESL students, who in many districts are designated ELLs, include Kentucky and North Carolina, which has seen a 250 percent increase over the last five years.

For its part, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has developed five standards for teaching ESL students, from providing instruction and "social" English language, which covers everyday communication with teachers and classmates, and ascending to higher level and more specialized uses of English to understand and converse about core subjects such as math, social studies, science, and language arts.

Even as the numbers of foreign languages and their speakers proliferate, though, the stakes in educating them are increasing as states and districts implement the rigorous Common Core Standards in almost all subjects.

Meeting Content in Minneapolis

But fortunately, a few districts do stand out in meeting ELL needs. In the Minneapolis Public Schools, Jennifer Leazer, the ELL content lead for the district's multilingual department, more than 95 native languages other than English are spoken, accounting for 11,500 of the district's 33,000 students. Spanish, Somali, and Hmong, the primary Laotian language, are the main languages.

"All of our teachers have the same basic job--teaching academic English proficiency," regardless of the native language, says Leazer. "Our classroom teachers need to see themselves as ESL teachers," by using techniques that tie language to specific tasks, from project-based learning to working in small groups.

ESL students born in the United States tend to acquire language more quickly than those born in other countries or their own native countries, Leazer explains. "But their English is usually social English, and one of the key challenges is teaching them academic English," which requires they go beyond the basics of daily conversation to reading, writing, and talking about school subjects.

To fulfill that expectation, Leazer's department deploys 150 ESL teachers to the district's more than 50 schools. …

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