Delaware’s Learning Curve on English Learners

Author: Neil Kirschling

I studied Spanish throughout the entirety of my schooling. Even after the point when foreign language classes were no longer required for students in my district, I elected to study Spanish every year until I graduated high school. I entered the University of Delaware with a few AP Spanish credits to my name and declared a Spanish minor, spent time abroad in a Spanish-speaking country, and successfully complete the minor. Still, as a native English speaker, this did not come easy to me. I felt at many times like I was not making progress, or even slipping backwards, and I felt dependent on the ability of my instructors to help me navigate the class content. There were many times I felt lost, and appreciated when class ended to head to my next, English-instructed, class.

 

These experiences are the origin of my passion for advocating on behalf of English learners because learning a second language as a luxury gave me a small window into the world of an English learner—where  learning English is an expectation and necessity. I still find it very hard to imagine myself as a young student learning a second language (or third language! Or fourth, in some cases!) in a school system where I was a linguistic and cultural minority, where I was unable to ask my parents for homework help, and where the typical social and emotional challenges of fitting in and making friends are amplified.

 

It is with this in mind last month that I attended the “Success for All: English Learners Conference” at the Red Clay Consolidated School District alongside hundreds of educators eager to learn more about how to serve this growing population of learners. I was left with three major takeaways…and questions:

 

  1. I heard many educators speak to the value of bilingual educators and staff, including clerks in the main office, and that the amount of requests to these individuals for translation and interpretation was overwhelming. I was left wondering: How do we quantify the need to bilingual school staff? What are the retention rates for bilingual and English as a Second Language (ESOL) teachers? How do they compare to the average retention rates?

 

[Read: In Delaware, looking for language teachers who ‘don’t really exist,’ WHYY. Note: immersion programs described in this article are just one type of instructional practice that can serve ELs.]

 

  1. Educators want more information on determining language difference vs. disability in order to help correctly identify the services and placement that the child requires. While some ELs may also have special learning needs or disabilities, being an EL is not in and of itself a learning disability. How can we help schools and districts who may be underidentifying or overidentifying the number of ELs who receive special education services?

 

[Read: “Addressing ELLs’ Language Learning and Special Education Needs: Questions and Considerations,”¡Colorín Colorado!]

 

  1. In terms of the political climate, it’s been a hard year for educators of English learners who care about diversity, value multiculturalism, and are advocates for immigrants. We can all contribute to creating a culture that views ELs as assets, not deficits by looking at language as the solution, not the problem. In other words, we should avoid the tendency to simplify language, speak loudly, or too slowly; instead, providing ELs with meaningful context and language serves as a scaffold up to the next level. This seems obvious, but I had never thought reflected on this. What are my expectations for what ELs can understand and learn? What are my implicit biases toward cultural diversity?

 

[Read: Delaware Seal of Biliteracy]

 

According to the results of the TELL Delaware (Teaching, Empowering, Leading, and Learning) survey, which was completed by nearly 40 percent of the state’s certified teachers, there is a large demand for continued and additional support for educators to work with ELs. Fifty-two percent of respondents reported wanting professional development on the topic of English learners. I saw this statistic personified at the “Success for All: English Learners Conference,” as well as over the past year the 15th Annual Delaware Policy and Practice Institute and the 23rd Annual Inclusion Conference, which also offered professional development for educators on the topic of English learners.

 

With the EL student population continuing to rise, we all have more we want to learn.

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