Learning curve

Teaching ELLs: Keeping the old while learning the new

Alice Wong works with her 1st-graders.Jonathan FickiesAlice Wong works with her 1st-graders. Wong’s students work independently on literacy skills. Jonathan FickiesWong’s students work independently on literacy skills. In 1993, when I was a student at PS 101 in Forest Hills, Queens, a new student arrived at school. She had moved to the United States from Serbia, and for the first few months of the school year we saw little of her because she was initially placed in a special classroom for students whose home language was not English.

Fifteen years later, in 2008, just a few miles away at another school in Queens, I was teaching reading to newcomer students of my own. Although the school had grouped together these “beginner ELLs,” as we called them, in this one classroom, I was teaching them alongside native English speakers and was permitted to make few accommodations for them in the curriculum. When I asked our literacy coach if I might borrow a few lessons from our 1st-grade reading program to use with my 2nd-graders, the answer was a flat no. “We’re not going to dumb anything down for them,” I was told.

Like a great many facets of education, our approach to educating English language learners has changed course throughout the years. In the early 1900s, the New York Board of Education segregated new English speakers in what were called “steamer” classes with the intent of teaching oral English skills. Students in steamer classes were strongly discouraged from speaking in their native languages.

Today, the pendulum has largely swung in the other direction. Each year, the Department of Education adds dozens of new bilingual and dual language programs, and state Commissioner’s Regulations governing the education of English language learners now promote integrated instruction.

But it can be challenging to find a happy medium in which English language learners are encouraged to preserve and draw from their native language abilities while being nurtured in their burgeoning English skills and educated alongside their native English-speaking peers. Without the right school program to meet their needs, these students can end up like my 5th-grade classmate, segregated from her peers, or my 2nd-grade students, struggling to master grade-level reading without accommodation.

Educators at PS 66 in Richmond Hill, Queens, where nearly a quarter of the school’s 524 students receive English as a New Language services, are striving to find that balance. Chapter Leader Marygrace O’Gara describes her school as “truly a melting pot” and her prekindergarten classroom as “a United Nations.”

“It used to be about assimilating, and it’s not that way anymore,” says O’Gara, who has been a teacher at the school for 22 years. “People want to be able to keep their identity, which is important. We have to have the resources to be able to reach those children.”

At PS 66, supporting English language learners begins at the front door. The school’s three out-of-classroom English as a new language teachers provide support to parents taking surveys in their home language on the day they register. These teachers also facilitate parent workshops and encourage regular and open communication with immigrant parents, even if it means jumping extra hurdles like translating school documents into Arabic on short notice.

An entering English language learner is frequently paired with a “buddy” student who speaks the same native language and can help the new student make the transition from the home language to English. Buddies also help the new students acclimatize to the new culture.

“At the beginning, we want to provide as many scaffolds as possible and then gradually remove them without the student even noticing,” says ENL teacher Lisa Strippoli. “So the students might go from not speaking at all to speaking to their buddies to speaking out loud in class.”

Newcomers start out receiving direct English language instruction in small groups through thematic units — such as vocabulary for school, weather and holidays — but they also participate in regular content-area lessons. The school’s reading curriculum, the McGraw-Hill Wonders program, includes a special track for ENL students that mirrors the regular curriculum.

 ENL teachers at PS 66 have worked to establish common academic themes for all classes because, says Strippoli, “we’re all language teachers.” Teachers in all grades use the same writing strategy, for example, so that it becomes familiar over time. Classrooms with English language learners make use of similar labels and anchor charts so students who are pulled out for ENL services know what to look for when they return. Curriculum maps and pacing calendars are shared on Google documents that all teachers and service providers can access.

The school’s teachers also say the attitude of the staff goes a long way toward helping English language learners feel at home.

“It’s an amazing feeling when they come in with no language and then have the confidence to speak in full sentences,” says ENL teacher Katie Borowy, also a Special Education Teacher Support Services provider. “We make a big deal of their success.”

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