Teaching Literacy to English Language Learners in the Borderlands: A Case Study of a Sixth Grade Language Arts and Reading Teacher

By Smith, Ann Marie; Salgado, Yolanda | Reading Improvement, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

Teaching Literacy to English Language Learners in the Borderlands: A Case Study of a Sixth Grade Language Arts and Reading Teacher


Smith, Ann Marie, Salgado, Yolanda, Reading Improvement


Teachers can expect to have English language learners in their classrooms, and many may not feel prepared to help ELL students meet the academic demands of school (Fu, 2004; Hansom-Thomas & Cavagnetto, 2010). The percentage of public school students in the United States who were ELLs in 2014-2015 was 9.4 percent, or an estimated 4.6 million students. In the state of Texas, the location of this study, the percentage of ELLs was 15.5 percent in 2014-15 (https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator cgf.asp). Along with academic instruction, teachers support students' emotional and intellectual identities as they negotiate the boundaries and challenges of literacy learning in public schools, which may emphasize English over first languages, often to the detriment of students (Garcia, 2009; Gomez, Freeman & Freeman, 2005).

In spite of teachers' best intentions, public schools may place restrictions on teachers who desire to help their students learn English while developing their native languages and cultures (Calderon & Saldivar, 1991; Fredericks, 2012; Moll & Ruiz, 2002; Showstack, 2012; Valenzuela, 1999). Research on teaching methods and bilingual programs is extant; however, in depth study of bilingual teachers negotiations of school boundaries and students' language needs is limited.

Linton (2003) has shown that there is a positive relationship between upward mobility and bilingualism especially for U.S. Latinos. Students may grapple with retaining their language and cultures yet they are expected to learn English to become successful in school and workplaces. English language learners who live near the Texas-Mexico border, such as the students in our study, must adapt to contradictions in language and culture as they attend school in the U.S. and speak Spanish at home. The intention of this study is to add to the field of literacy and English language learners because it includes a close examination of a successful ELL sixth grade teacher who uses young adult literature (YAL) to engage ELLs. In this case study school, ELLs are required to transition to English only classes after grade 6. In schools where English fluency is valued over home or second languages, ELL teachers may need to push against school policies that inhibit them from helping students become bilingual (Garcia, 2011).

Purpose of Study

Our study analyzes the methods a Latina, bilingual teacher uses to teach language arts to middle school students in a school geographically located near the Texas-Mexico border. This study also demonstrates the problems and possibilities experienced by an ELL teacher who must consider how to best support students in a year of transition from ELL-supported instruction to English only.

The following research questions guide this study:

1. How does the teacher use young adult literature to teach ELLs?

2. How does the teacher support her students in learning English while improving overall literacy skills?

Through the lens of Anzaldua's (2007) borderlands and Rolon-Dow's critical care (2005) discussed in the next section, our study explores the methods of a sixth grade ELL and language arts teacher.

Theoretical Framework

In schools with rapidly growing ELL populations, teachers are encouraged by researchers to incorporate high interest young adult literature along with teaching strategies for improving literacy and English language skills (Angay-Crowder, Choi, & Yi, 2013; Fredericks, 2012). In addition to the engagement perspective, we ground our research in Anzaldua's (2007) theory of borderlands, and the toll it takes on young, recent immigrants to the U.S. Anzaldua's work is discussed first as it applies to our interpretation of the emotional and literacy struggles teachers and students experience in the borderlands of Texas/Mexico. Following the discussion on borderlands we discuss Rolon-Dow's (2005) theory of critical care, which combines critical theory with an ethic of care. …

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