By Nicole Staudt, Weicen Qian, and Wendi Wu
We are a group of graduate level students who are going to be teachers of students learning English as a Second Language. Weicen’s interest in English Language Learners (ELLs) stems from her learning English in the United States at the age of 22. Wendi is also currently observing in a classroom with 14 new immigrant students. Nicole is going to be a teacher of English Language Learners.
Because of each of our team’s personal connections to the education of English Language Learners, we began this research project hoping to answer the following question:
How do successful teachers of English Language Learners practice and reflect on their teaching?
As we read more in the research literature, we found that America has a rapidly growing population of non-English speaking immigrants. It is estimated that the population of English Language Learners is over 9.9 million which includes 5.5 million students classified as Limited English Proficient (U.S. Department of Education). It also surprised us to find out that the population of English Language Learners grows more than two times faster than that of English speaking students in U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Education, by 2015, it is projected that 30 percent of the school-aged population in the U.S. will be English Language Learners (David & Nonie, 2006). In any school now, there is a high likelihood that any teacher will encounter students who are learning English as a second language. We hope that our research can help ourselves and others understand the experiences of English Language Learners and identify the teaching practices that teachers have found to be useful for helping English language Learners achieve academic success.
Teacher Strategies in the Literature and Popular Texts
Research Literature discusses how teachers are not properly prepared for teaching ELL students, therefore are not maximizing the opportunities for ELL students to achieve academic success (Lewis-Moreno, 2007). We also found research literature and videos that outline the strategies that teachers can use to teach ELL students so that they achieve success. For example, they could use forms of modeling, repeated reading, or fluency interventions when teaching to help ELL students (Lewis-Moreno, 2007). Another example is the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) (2009) distributed by Pearson. The video that Pearson produced, “New Instructional Model Helps English Learners Succeed” provides talks about the importance of teaching differently for the ELLs, but does not provide further details- our guess is that they would want us to purchase the program to learn the details. However, it leads us to consider the areas that we have to explore in our research, and it will be explained later in our findings.
The Experience of English Language Learners
In addition, the literature also highlights the unique experiences of ELLs that the teacher has to consider. For example, in classrooms, ELLs are being taught in Standard English meaning everyday spoken English. They are not being taught in Academic English, which is what school work and tests, are typically written in. Teachers speak in Standard English when presenting material to students in the classroom. They do not speak in academic terms because most students cannot learn material in that way because it is easier to learn through everyday language and only test in academic language (O’Neal, 2010). ELLs also experience school differently. Immigrant students, for example, go through many struggles and obstacles such as having to help their younger siblings with school work, and working at jobs to help with their families’ finances (Stratton, 2009).
Reading the Literature, we found that we had many questions that were not answered. When the literature talks about the classrooms that ELLs are in, they fail to provide the whole picture – for example, information about whether the teachers are trained to teach ELL students, what types of classes and if the ELLs have support. The impact of the difference in the ages between the ELLs and typical students in the classroom is not really addressed in literature. We also did not come across literature that addressed how the teachers feel about teaching ELL students, or how the regular teachers work with Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) teachers. We would like to hear the students’ perspectives as well – whether they feel that their teachers are teaching them appropriately, or if they feel there are better ways to help them learn. Getting the students perspective is important, but having the teacher getting an outsiders opinion is important as well. They should be having administrators coming to observe them, or asking colleagues what they think about their lessons and if there are ways to improve them. They do not discuss in the readings if the teachers are getting outsiders opinions on creating lessons or different techniques they could use to improve their lessons.
After looking over and discussing what we all read as a group, we decided to look into the following two areas to help us learn to be better teachers to ELLs. These include:
- Students’ perspectives on their own education
- Teachers’ use of successful strategies
It is important that we get the students thoughts on what they need and not just go on what the educators think they need.
Besides reading the research literature on the topic, we are also conducted interviews. Each of us interviewed at different levels to compare findings.
There were 6 people interviewed in total.
- 3 were teachers
1. Jackie is a Middle School TESOL teacher that has been teaching for 10 years. She speaks both English and Spanish, which makes her bilingual.
2. Merry is a new TESOL teacher just started teaching five months ago in US, her nationality is Chinese which allows her to speak both Chinese and English. Before coming to the United States she had English as a second language for 10 years.
3. Min is a High school TESOL teacher in a high-needs district. She is a Korean American. English is her first language. She is only able to speak Korean, she is unable to read and write the language. This is her 3rd year as an TESOL teacher and the 6th year in the teaching field. Her reason for becoming an TESOL teacher is that she wants to help as many immigrant children as possible.
- 3 were students
1. Oscar is a 13 year old boy in the seventh grade. Recently moved to America from El Salvador, has been here less than a year. Speaks very little English, and his native language is Spanish.
2. Jerry is a 22 year old student that studies at a university. He is from China, and came to the United States in the summer of 2008. Jerry has already finished his TESOL class; he will graduate from university in the spring 2012.
3. Lydia is an eighth grader in a public school in Bayside, Queens. She was born in China, and this is her second year of being in the U.S. She is seen as a typical good Chinese student who works very hard.
Before interviewing each participant we gave them a copy of the questions. How long it took to interview each student was different for each person. We were able to sit down with each student only once and it ranged from 14-30minutes. Because we had to work around the teachers’ schedules, two of the teachers were interviewed multiple times with the time accumulating to around one hour for each teacher. The third teacher was contacted through email because a sit down face to face interview was too difficult. All face-to-face interviews were recorded and later transcribed. Some interviews included written notes with the recordings.
In order to collect the data about teachers’ successful strategies, we did several classroom observations. Wendi observed Min’s TESOL classrooms both beginning level and intermediate level before she interviewed Min. During the observation in Min’s TESOL classroom, Wendi found that Min used a lot of teaching strategies those are very helpful for our research question. Nicole observed in Jackie’s TESOL classroom, and was able to see all the periods that she teaches. She was able to see Jackie use both Spanish and English in the classroom to teach the students curriculum. Nicole was also able to see how Jackie uses her body language and visuals to help with teaching the students. Both of the classroom observations really showed us how the successful teaching strategies worked for the ELL students.
As we proceeded with our research we made many new discoveries. Not only did we uncover many useful teaching practices, but some general misconceptions about Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). You will see as you read further.
When we initially thought about a teacher of English as a Second Language we thought that the teacher must know another language in order to do this work. We found that many teachers of ELLs do happen to know another language and all the teachers that were interviewed happen to know another language, and this language may have helped them sometimes when they teach ELLs. However, knowing another language is not a requirement of TESOL teachers.
What makes a great TESOL teacher. Well a great TESOL teacher is extremely strong in English Language Arts and procedures to help ELL students in learning the language and curriculum. Also, TESOL teachers have to do a lot of researches to enrich their teaching strategies in order to teach students who come from everywhere and have cultural diversity. Some ways that these teachers help the students with learning the language is through lots of visual materials, gestures, and miming. An example of this that Nicole found is Jackie likes to use the ELMO (Electric Light Magnifying Object) to project pictures on to the whiteboard for the students so that she can refer to them while teaching a lesson. Another example of visual materials Jackie liked to use when teaching is to bring up YouTube videos for the students to watch and have a better visual of what she is talking about. Jackie also likes to use the Internet to find pictures and other visuals to use when teaching. Wendi found that Min also used a lot of pictures and gestures to help her students understand her. Min told Wendi that 90% of her students in the beginning level TESOL classes are Chinese students. Pictures that can be easily related to the prior knowledge of students are one of her main resources in her classrooms. Min also used a lot of gesture in her classrooms, she told Wendi that newcomers keep coming into the beginners’ class, and most of the newcomers’ listening and speaking proficiency is in the lower level, but they can understand her gestures. Both teachers use these methods to help the students with learning English if they do not know the students’ native language. Knowing the students’ language makes it a little simpler because you can teach in the curriculum in their native tongue and then teach it in English. That is what many of these teachers did because they find it important for these students to be able to understand what they are learning while also learning the language. It is important for these teachers to make sure they do everything possible to keep these students interested in learning the language and learning in school.
What we have found from our observations of successful TESOL teachers is that they make their classroom environment extremely comfortable. In Min’s classroom, most of the students are very active, they volunteered to answer the questions even if there answers were not correct. The students also asked some questions about their daily life. Min told Wendi that creating a comfortable environment is very important for an TESOL class, and Jackie feels the same way. Except her way of making the environment fell comfortable is that she allows the students to come and talk to her abut anything. She allows them to come to the classroom even if she is teaching to eat their lunch there. She allows them to stop by in the morning before class to help them with any work or to just talk. She has almost an open door policy with the students in her classroom. We believe that what both of these teachers do for the students makes the classroom feel as though it is a second home. They make it so the students feel like the classroom is a second home. It is a place for the students to go if they need help with anything in school. The teachers’ attitude also has a lot to do with this as well. If the teacher has a great attitude about the student and their school work it is going to make the student feel comfortable. When Nicole was observing Jackie one day, she saw how excited and happy she got every time a student understood something. One of the students in the class was having a very difficult time with math, and the all of the sudden just got it. Jackie was so happy she was jumping around the room and just encouraged the student to keep going In this instance Jackie showed that she cared about how the student does and wants the student to well. If the teacher shows this to the student, the student will want to come up to this teacher when he/she needs to for help or something to talk about and they will feel comfortable doing so.
Collaboration Between Classroom Teachers and TESOL Teachers
Most classroom teachers are not informed about practices used to help ELL students in the classroom (Lewis-Moreno, 2007). This is why it is important for these teachers to collaborate with the TESOL teacher. After interviewing the TESOL teachers we found out that many general education teachers will either come right up to the teacher for help or they would not seek out the TESOL teachers’ help at all. In the later cases the TESOL teachers would try to contact the classroom teachers about how to help the ELL students learn the curriculum they will be teaching. The teachers we interviewed talk about how all general education teachers should be well prepared about the differentiation needed in lessons for the ELL students. Now not just being prepared for a lesson is important, but being knowledgeable about the students is important as well.
The teachers we interviewed talked about how teachers should be aware that even if a child can speak English extremely well, they might still need special differentiation of the curriculum for an ELL student. Students, including ELLs, have the ability to pick up the social language fast because it is something they do every day. According to Jackie it is extremely difficult for ELL students to learn an academic language and takes about five to seven years to fully comprehend it. It could take even longer because many ELL students do not have the background knowledge – that most American students have. What they learned in school in their home countries might be very different from that of the American school. From what Jackie said the ELL students never learned about American history in their home country, they learned about things that happened in their countries history. She told Nicole that when teaching the ELL students she has to go back and give them background knowledge, so that they can understand what is going on in their classes. Jackie said the reason she has to do this is that the ELL students do not have all the background knowledge that the American students have in the curriculum. This is because the American students have been taught the same curriculum since elementary school. So, the students are not merely learning a new language and new school curriculum; but they are learning new ways of doing things and relating to people. In addition Jackie told us if these students do not have the skills to transfer their knowledge across different contexts, there is no way they are going to be able to learn this knowledge quickly. By this Jackie meant the ELL students need to have certain skills in their native language because if they don’t, there is no way they will have it in the new language. When Jackie was saying this she was referring to reading. If a student does not have skills that make them a successful reader in their native language, there is no way the student will be able to have this skill in the new language. The skills that students use to help them with learning and obtaining information are extremely important and if they do not have knowledge of these skills in their native language there is no way they will be able to do it in the new language.
According to the interviews and observations, we found that the learning environment is very important for ELL students. The students really need to feel comfortable in their learning environment to feel confident in their academic work. Students that seem more proficient or confident have more English speaking friends and are comfortable even away from the other ELL students. Jerry told Weicen that more proficient students also seem more capable of studying on their own, and the one’s less proficient are less likely to study on their own and seek some type of help. Lydia talked about how she enjoyed school and her ESL classes. Lydia told Wendi that she wanted to go to school everyday because she loves being with her foreign classmates and her ESL teachers. She has a lot of fun in school. When she was talking about her school, her teachers, and her classmates, she was so happy. During the interview with Lydia, Wendi found that Lydia mentioned her school and her ESL teacher at least five times, and she continued saying that her school was very good and how she loved her school so much. Generally, Lydia feels more comfortable being taught in the ESL classroom because she is surrounded by people learning the language and most of the time of the same ethnic group. Like Lydia, Oscar said many of same things. He talked to Nicole about how he enjoyed going to school everyday and learning the English language. He was very happy to share about how he loves all his teachers, and being in his school. Oscar also mentioned that he loves coming to the ESL class because he feels comfortable and knows that the other students in the room are learning English as well. This all goes back to how comfortable the students feel speaking English to others not in the ESL classroom.
We noticed in our research that the two students that were both in eighth grade had totally different views about learning and living in the U.S. The school where Min is teaching is a lower-socioeconomic school, there is one student in Min’s beginning level ESL class that tended to avoid communicating with other classmates who have a different cultural background than him. While Lydia who is attending a school that is considered middle-income talks about how she enjoys being with classmates who come from different cultures. These differences made us wonder if socioeconomics may play a very important role in the English Language Learning of ELLs.
However, there were some commonalities between these two students. For example, they both said that it was good for them to understand the content when their teacher put them into the group in which other group members were in the same level of English Language Proficiency. Learning or grouping with students at the same proficiency level is very helpful for ELL students and the teacher. Lydia said that she liked being put in a group with the students at the same level as her. Her ESL teacher gives the different groups different reading materials, her ESL teacher will also go around the class group by group to read those materials aloud to help students in the different levels learn English appropriately. Lydia told Wendi that she would feel overwhelmed if someone in her group has higher English proficiency than her. Oscar had a very similar experience to Lydia. In Oscars case he was put with a group of more proficient English speaking ELL students. Being in this group was a little difficult for him at first, but it allowed him to pick up English at a much quicker rate. He does not find it so overwhelming being with ELL students that have a higher proficiency because he is surrounded at home with people that speak only English. Having this makes a huge difference and is probably a reason why he feels so comfortable being in with higher English speakers. It is a little more difficult for the teacher to have him in this group, but she manages to help him just fine. We believe the reasoning that these students are grouped by proficiency level is that it is easier for the teachers to work with students that have the same needs and to not discourage the students that are not learning the English language as quickly.
When we did interviewing with teachers, we asked about the importance of the participation of ELLs. Different teachers gave different answers. Min said that she knew little about the parents of her students. There are parent-teacher conferences in her school, but few parents come to the conferences. Some parents work long hours, and some parents are not even in the U.S. Jackie knows a little about the parents from them attending Family Literacy nights that are held at the school. So she was able to talk about the parents that attend that, but knows very little about those that do not attend. Plus we asked the students about their parents and got some insight about what the parents are like based on what the student had to say. So everything we collected on the parents was based on what both the teachers and students had to say about them.
We assume that parents play a huge role in the ELL student’s academic career as well. How much they participate and how much stress they put on the students school work will tell you how hard the student is going to work and behave in school. What it comes down to is how much do the parents value education. If they don’t value it, how can you expect the students to see any value in education and put an effort in their school work. If the parents find education important then the students will and he/she will work hard on their school work. Keeping students motivated in school is the parent’s job. The teacher is just there to keep their interest in school.
In order to answer our research questions, we did a lot of research about ESL teachers, English Language Learners, and the parents of English Language Learners. We were only able to interview TESOL teachers and English Language Learners, but we received information from them about the parents.
We each had our own reasons for taking part in this study. One wants to be a perspective teacher, another is a student observer in an ELL class, and the last is an ELL learner. Going into the study we had many different perspectives on the topic and coming out there are many different perspectives on what was learned.
Each of us learned many new things, not only about ELL’s, but about teaching in general. Being a successful teacher of ELL does not mean you need to know another language. However, you need to be extremely patient, which goes for any teacher. Mainly because ELL’s may not understand something taught the first, second, or third time. You may have to re-explain or teach it multiple times before understanding can occur. As a teacher you should be prepared on what to do next if student does not understand as well. Also, how it is extremely important to get to know the backgrounds of your students, and their perspective on how they learn.
With the information we have collected throughout this project all of us have grown as educators. We may have focused on the area of ELL’s, but much of the information collected is usefully for any teacher or person looking to become a teacher. Each of us has taken something useful that will help us to grow into excellent and successful teachers.
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