Closing the Education Gap for English Language Learners

It was my first year as a teacher and Wilson’s first year as a student in the United States. He had arrived from Guatemala in September earlier that year. Wilson was a special kid. And he said something one day that has stuck with me, five years later:  “All the people I see cleaning speak Spanish…like me. That’s why I want to be a doctor. I want to show that people like me can do more than just clean like that.”

This was my wake-up call. This job is about people – the kids with dreams and the adults who either have or lack the knowledge and skills to make those dreams a reality.

Wilson was an English language learner (ELL). On top of learning a new language and culture, he was also tasked with learning standard sixth grade topics: geography, earth science, ratios, and more. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, Wilson represents the fastest growing population of students in the U.S. Today, five years after Wilson came to my class, there are 64 ELLs in my school. Our students represent nearly twenty different countries and a dozen different languages. They bring with them a host of different cultural backgrounds and educational experiences. And, like Wilson, they all come in search of the opportunity to learn English, get a good education, and have a better future.

Despite clear goals, these students are consistently failing in our school system. As a group, ELLs are among the country’s lowest-performing students, scoring far below the national average on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. ELLs have failed because we have failed to serve them. We often place these students in mainstream environments long before they are ready, with teachers who do not have the training or the preparation to meet their needs. In this reality, medical school for Wilson seems like a long shot. But it doesn’t have to be.

In order to close this gap, all teachers must view themselves as language teachers. So much of the content that we teach gets lost in the language, and students lose out on valuable instruction.  With a group of students growing this fast, we cannot afford the alternative.

  • Teacher preparation and ongoing support. As the numbers of ELLs continue to grow, all teachers are likely to encounter a greater number of students with language needs in their classrooms. We need to develop strategies to include ELLs and make content accessible to them. State-mandated professional development courses are a great starting place, but they are not enough. In order to meet the needs of these students, teachers will need regular and ongoing support. Teachers need to collaborate with ESL specialists to identify and refine instructional practices, and integrate language goals into content. Our students’ growth demands that we grow, too.
  • Greater interactions with the language. Allow students opportunities to interact with one another and negotiate meaning, using the actual target language. We need to give students plentiful opportunities to use the language we expect them to master.
  • High expectations … for students and teachers! Common Core standards raise the bar for all students, including ELLs. ELL students will not be able to access rigorous content if we “dumb it down” for them. That said, we must be mindful to use specific strategies and supports to help make that rigorous content comprehensible to students who are just learning the language.

As I think about the students who sit in front of me each day, I think about the ways in which language shapes their world. I think about the words they have mastered in English and those they have not yet acquired. And I think about how these words will either grant or deny them access to the academic world we expect them to navigate as learners.

Wilson will be a junior in high school this year. For many students, junior year marks an important time in their academic trajectory, with high school halfway completed and college on the horizon. I hope that this is true for Wilson.

Lindsey Mayer is a 6th-8th grade English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at the Garfield Middle School in Revere and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

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