Left Behind, Still: English Learners Still Need a Bridge to ELA Standards

Estimated Reading Time: 4 mins, 24 seconds

I started teaching in 1991.  I was an ESL teacher and taught LEP (Limited English Proficient) students at the secondary level.  Finding resources that were high interest, age- appropriate, and at a Lexile level for non-English speakers was pretty much impossible.  My students ranged in age from 13 to 16 years old and most of the books out there that were simple enough for them to decode were about Bobby and his kite or Mary’s missing skate — definitely nothing my students could neither relate to nor find interesting.

Then, I came across a collection written by Tana Reiff. She was an adult ESL teacher who apparently had hit the same roadblocks as I had when it came to finding suitable resources for her students. She actually started writing her own books for them.  I thought I had finally found what I needed and began to use them with my own students.  However, I soon came to realize the content of these books were really intended for adults.  So Long, Snowman was not actually about a snowman, but rather someone with a cocaine addiction who also had a problem with domestic violence.  These books were definitely not suitable for young teenagers.  So, I then began to write short stories of my own to use with my students.  It was exhausting and time consuming, but they worked and were well worth the effort.

frustrated learning englishFast forward to 2022. It’s 31 years later, but what has really changed?  Well, ESL is now referred to as ESOL or ELD and LEP students are now labeled as ELL (English Language Learners) or in some states, EL (English Learners).  But honestly other than that, we’re in the same spot we were back in 1991. There still isn’t much available to teach the English language at the appropriate reading level to secondary non-English speakers, while still exposing them to grade-level ELA standards.  We keep seeing all of these innovative ideas to foster student learning, such as SEL (social and emotional learning), rotational models, collaborative learning, flipped classrooms, and along with all of these the word “fidelity” keeps being thrown into the mix, but yet our grade 6 through 12 non-English speaking students keep being overlooked, or maybe it’s just ignored.

In many states, students must pass a standardized state assessment to receive their high school diploma.  English learners at the secondary level have a very small window of opportunity to learn English, be able to read and comprehend grade-level text while mastering grade level ELA standards, which are all required in order to pass their state high school exam and earn a high school diploma.  Can you imagine arriving in Germany as an 11th grader and being told you have two years to learn German and pass a 12th grade test so you can graduate?  Sounds absurd, doesn’t it?  Yet, it’s been happening here in the U.S. for decades and we’re still doing it to these students who have left their home country to come here for a better life.

One would think that with the passing of ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) which focuses on subgroups, and ELLs is one of them, that there would be more of an emphasis on these students, but there’s not.  We have so many future scientists, inventors, engineers, doctors, and many other amazing professionals among these students, but we will never be able to help them reach their full potential if we can’t even help them effectively learn English in the short time that we have them in our schools.

"So, what’s needed to help these students reach their academic potential and graduate? In my view, we need instructional resources that would help English learners decode and comprehend grade-level text while they are simultaneously developing critical English language skills."

For example, some Florida districts offer a Developmental Language Arts Reading course for English learners that is designed to do just that. However, in many districts they’ve had to eliminate this course because there aren’t suitable instructional materials available for teachers. This has resulted in students being scheduled into mainstream reading classes and having to use the same resources as monolingual students who struggle with reading and standards mastery.  However, the language needs of English learners still are not being addressed which leads to them floundering in those classes too.

We know English is a difficult language to learn right? Otherwise, we still wouldn’t be teaching it in 12th grade.  So, let’s help our English learners become proficient in English so they can read, write, converse and understand the English language while also being able to master grade level standards.

OK, so what is available to help accomplish this mission?  There aren’t many resources I believe that is up to the task.  One that is up to the task is the Language Tree Online ELD program.  There aren’t any cartoons, but rather a real teacher presenting relevant lessons to English learners that not only teach the English language but also teach ELA standards.  The Language Tree Online ELD programs start off by teaching foundational literacy skills, but only for those who need to learn them.  Not every student’s path needs to be the same.

"In most states, foundational skills are only taught through 5th grade, but if you just entered the U.S. at the age of 15 and came from a non-English speaking country, chances are you don’t know there are long and short vowel sounds and that the letter y sometimes sounds like i, or an e.  So yes, English learners at the secondary level need to be taught foundational skills."

Some countries teach the basics of English, so there may be some students that can read the language, but not understand it.  This program allows for these students to be placed in modules that address their needs, be it grammar, comprehension, writing or being able to communicate orally in the English language.

We may not be there yet, but we’re on the right track to helping our English learners overcome the barriers to become proficient in English in a very limited time frame and accomplish their goal of making their American dream a reality.