Ann Snow

ANN SNOW

There’s a tendancy to think that what we ought to do with students who come uh with limited English proficiency we ought to give them just more and more and more English. And that they ought to be in ESL classes all day long. And while it’s important that they have access to really focused instruction that deals with answering those questions about grammar and about pronunciation and gives that kind of focused attention, it’s not going to be enough to prepare them to function in English reading classrooms. They need the pos they need opportunities to interact with texts to perform tasks to even take tests that are written in English in other content areas but they need that um in a sheltered environment. They can’t be just sort of emersed in a classroom with everybody else who speaks English as a as a first or primary or dominant language, they have to have some kind of of specialized instruction. And I am not of the school that believes these students need to necessarily all be put in a sheltered classroom without English speakers. I think a good teacher can actually teach students of various levels of proficiency within the same classroom. And in fact I I talk about that a lot because I’ve seen it done. I it it’s it’s a really tal a talent, it’s not a talent, it’s a certain amount of talent, but it’s also somebody who’s really thought through how can I help students to learn from each other, how can I use grouping strategies, cooperative strategies, how can I model as a teacher the way in which I approach these problems so that other students can understand, so then of course they can help each other with that. Um how can I divide up the text so not everybody has to read everything, I don’t know where we every got this idea that everybody had to read every page of every chapter in every textbook, but but it’s hard to disabuse teachers of that notion that the only way to learn is by slogging through the textbook. But a good teacher with a mixed group of students can assign them different roles and they can do different parts of the text, they can teach each other what’s in that text. I mean there are lots of ways. Content is engaging, it gives people reason to want to learn a language, and it gives them uh a realistic um purpose for for for using it. Um and I guess the the the alternative is is not having access to that content and one getting behind all your peers and two never learning the language. Cause you cannot learn scientific language in the absence of scientific test and texts. You can’t learn that the language of of social studies unless you’re doing social studies. So it it’s really critical that the students have access to these from the very beginning. And a lot of people believe we shouldn’t put students in the content area classes until they reach about an intermediate level of proficiency. I actually don’t believe that and I think I’m really alone. I sort of stand out on the on the corner. But I have seen teachers teach beginners content area. I’ve seen some really marvelous sheltered instruction, I’ve also seen co-teaching by an ESL teacher and for example um a social studies or a math teacher. In fact um I’ll be talking at this conference with some people who are doing this. Um and it enables you to have the best of of the content area teachers reperotoire and also the ESL teacher to be able to to make sure that everybody is really learning the information. So it just it’s really critical that that everybody have cognitively challenging, interesting, meaningful, relevant, content. And when and when you think about it as a as a language teacher most of us in the past looked around to find some thing to design our units around, our lessons around, and we ended up often thinking what are we gonna teach tomorrow. You know we have to teach a particular structure, what to teach a function. What are we gonna use when of course there’s of course this huge body of information that students have to learn anyway, which would give us an opportunity to to design those lessons. So there’s lots of reasons for using uh academic content, but uh from the student’s persepective, but also from the teacher’s perspective.

Simplifying uh instructions is really much more complex I think than any of us know. And we all have some ideas about what this involves and actually I’ve been studying sheltered instruction and trying to get at what that looks like. Not necessarily yet reaching the point of what works, cause I’m not sure that we know that. But we do know certain things. One we know that that a conscious attention to to one’s vocabulary is critical. Um we know that it’s better to repeat a word and explain it 2 or 3 times than it is to keep giving synonyms because all that does is introduce new words that have to be learned. We know that you need to to consider pace, um that eve that and and we’ve all been through this in a in learning other languages we know it’s easy to follow somebody who speaks a little bit more slowly, who stops and paraphrases, who checks for clarification, who makes sure everybody is sort of with us. Those are all adapt adaptations of work. Um um another simple adaptation is simply reducing length, uh the length of the text, the length of the explanation, um the length of the sentence, um all of those are things that make instruction um less complex. It’s if you look at the ways in which people write children’s books that’s probably not the right model. And because I think often we have a very false notion of what makes something simple. Sometimes what happens is people take away the words that link ideas and so the becauses are no longer there or they uh thens are no longer there and so you have a lot of simple sentences following each other. Those are not easy to process. Um so in some cases we really have to help teachers understand that what is on the surface, simple is not necessarily cognatively simple. Um and that sometimes they have to put that stuff back in that they thought they should be taking out. Um but I am amazed at how well teachers can just monitor themselves. Especially those who’ve had any experience learning another language. Have a sense of at least some of the things that they can do to make themselves understood and to make instruction accessible.

Um it’s interesting to consider the differences between or the challenges that the elementary school ESL teacher faces and the secondary school ESL teacher faces. And they are really quite different. Um I think that if you are elementary trained, if you are already an elementary school teacher and you know something about teaching children, you know something about children’s cognitive development, you know something about first language development and most elementary school teachers are pretty good at that, the challenge for the for that teacher is simply to map on what she knows or and it’s usually she about first language to what is the challenges for a child that it’s it’s second language. And I think that given the the increased amount of time that children have in elementary school to learn English, the increased amount of time they have with the same teacher the fact that there are in most good elementary classrooms a lot of thematic uh um ties or links. So that what a child is learning in one portion of the day does have some relevance to what’s going on in the other portion. A good ESL teacher in that situation simply needs to make sure that she and again I’m using that purposefully cause most elemen a lot of elementary school ESL teachers are women, although I’m proud to say a lot of our graduates who are men are choosing elementary school which I find wonderful. Um that they they then really have the task of now making clear how all of those linkages fit into to English. Um children in elementary school pick up cultural language very quickly and all the only thing they are going to need is some time some clarification um they’re going to need to know that some of the things they’re learning are not suppose to be said in school(laugh) they’re gonna in fact there are lots of cases of that. They are gonna be so proud when they learn that word that’s being used on the on the school play playground only to later find out that it isn’t used when they come inside the classroom. But that sort of thing is a fairly sort of easy thing for and ESL te teacher to kind of smooth out. The challenge for the for the elementary school ESL teacher is first the cognative la the academic language development, but perhaps even more challenging is the fact that she or the ESL teacher gets the kids for such a short period of time. Most elementary schools students pull out instruction, they still they ESL teacher walks to the regular classroom, has to sometimes extract children from things that they want to be doing, from a teacher who really doesn’t want them to have to leave because they’re in the middle of an important lesson, has to take them all the way back down the hall, wasting at least five minutes, then has maybe 25 minutes of instructional time or or half hour only to have to end it and take them back to the classroom. The challenges there are trying to do something that’s coherent that links to what’s going on in the classroom and to do it in a short period of time. Um I’ll come back to that cause there’s some really nice inclusion models that are being used which I think counter a lot of the problems. In secondary school challenges are how do you help somebody to acquire the language which is also the medium of instruction unless you happen to be lucky enough to have a bilingual program. And and I mean there’s just incredible evidence that a good bilingual program is still the best option for students. And it’s clearly the best option for an older student who’s had any prior education in that language and who has all this other cognative development if you can build on that and continue the the the cognitive learning in with the first language while you also teach them English that’s ideal. Unfortunately there are very few secondary schools with bilingual programs across the country. Uh most, if they exist at all, they tend to be of course K though 3 or in some cases K through 6 and and they end in sixth grade. So in in secondary school you have the the incredible challenge of in some cases even having to develop literacy in a second language. We’re we’re getting in the United States a large number of students coming from particularly the Carribean, uh Central America and West Africa, who have because of the incredible political and economic realities of their lives have had almost no schooling or if they’ve had any schooling it’s been interrupted for 3 years at a time and we get them in our schools at 12, 13 they have an enormous challenge to to make up for first just a lot of other things that are going on because of the the kinds of lives they’ve lived but they also now are trying to develop basic literacy, all of the basic academic skills that kids learn in their first 6 years in issues like measurement and map reading and all those sorts of things. All that generally falls to the ESL teacher. Everybody says that’s your job. And so the secondary school ESL teacher really is in many cases providing that basis, that academic basis um curriculum that that the student has missed or that trying to fill in the gaps for interruptions or trying to in some cases false hope. Trying to fill in the gap for students who maybe have had 6 years of prior education but they haven’t had the same course work that that are students get. And so particularly when it comes to social skills or social studies there’s huge differences in social studies curriculum around the world. So it’s it’s a lot more complex I think frankly it’s harder being the secondary school ESL teacher. I think the challenges are much greater um but you do get tons of more time in a good program you’re getting at least an hour a day, in some you get two hours a day, in some really good ones you have sheltered instruction the rest of the day. I mean it can be done, but it is more of a challenge.

I spend a lot of my time telling, talking to teachers and actually even testifying on issues of of equitable assessment for language minority students. And I think it’s very hard if if you think that everybody has to demonstrate and understand in the exact same way then it’s going to be very hard to teach language minority students and to assess them because of course you can’t do that. There there are going to be differences I their oral language proficiency, their written English proficiency, some are going to be um much more articulate um because they’re they are much more confident than others, or all sorts of issues. So it seems that there are a whole lot of things we need to do. First I think teachers need to be doing on going assessment and if in itself like it’s so hard to do, but as soon as you put in front of teachers this check list and one of the things is demonstrates and understands the principle of dividing fractions, as soon as a student has demonstrated that that can be checked off and if in fact you get an essay or an examination of questions which is inbedded in natural language and that student has a lot of difficulty with it, if the student can’t do that but has already shown you that he or she can do then it ought to tell you that maybe there’s something wrong with the assessment that you’re doing not with the student. Um it’s possible to allow students to have more time. Clearly if you’re having to function to learn a second language we know the process is going to take longer until you are more proficient. So you can take a lot more time. Second you can give directions in the native language. Um if if there’s if you can’t do it cause you’re teacher doesn’t speak the child’s language I bet there’s somebody in the school who does, who can actually explain in the first language. Um you can allow a student to demonstrate understanding instead of having to write an essay or exam. Um it requires a little more time to think through how somebody might demonstrate but in the science curriculum it ought to be pretty easy, in the math curriculum it shouldn’t be too hard, I agree social studies is more of a challenge, and that’s why we usually don’t uh mainstream kids into history or government until the last course, it’s the hardest one to teach, through a second language it’s hardest one to evaluate. But there are all sorts of accommodations. Um and we’ve we’ve as a country uh become quite comfortable with the notion that children with learning disabilities, children with special needs, that a whole group of people need to have modifications of accommodations. I don’t know why we should have such difficulty with students who are learning a second language. I don’t want anybody to think what I mean by that is these kids are dis deficient in anyway, but they are special needs, they do have special needs, they have the need to have access to to techniques to be able to show you that they really have learned. And and they can do it, I mean we know they can do it. We’ve got all sort of states that have put these things into place, um unfortunately not very much on the standardized testing, but at least the beginning recognition that ultimately the teacher ought to be the one who decides and if a teacher has enough ways of evaluating the child, enough means of assessing at enough pur points in a semester or a year then it ought to be able to be done without relying totally upon the end of year exams or on um exams which use English and either oral or written. And by the way that’s also an accommodation in that a student who is better in reading ought to be given an option to read the questions instead and and write them, a student who is better in oral language ought to be given the opportunity to have the question read to him or her orally and to be able to respond. And and again there’s nothing sacred about being able to to necessarily talk the answer verses write the answer.