Diane Kerr

Diane Kerr, a consultant, was assistant principal at Mason Crest Elementary School, Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia. She has supervised and led multiple teams, providing services to schools, parents, and students.

'But They Don't Speak English!'

When our daughters were 7 and 9 years old, being a military family (my husband was a naval officer), we received orders to move to Bahrain in the Middle East. This would be our next “new home.” 

As a mom and teacher, I worried about a lot of different aspects of moving to a new country and culture. One thing I wondered about was the school our daughters would attend, as I had little knowledge of the educational options for American military families living in Bahrain.

As an English as a second language (ESL) teacher—this was what we were called in my district—I thought about the opportunities for my children to learn Arabic and to learn about a very different culture from the one in which they had been a part of their entire lives. Although we were excited about this opportunity, none of us spoke Bahrain’s native language of Arabic. It being a non-romance language, we realized this would be quite a challenge for us all. 

I thought about the things my children loved, their strengths and what they could do. My youngest daughter adored animals and horseback riding. She loved learning about history. She was an avid reader. Our oldest daughter also loved to read, was a swimmer, enjoyed acting, and excelled in most academic areas. Would they be able to continue to grow in these areas and be challenged in a school where they were not literate in the language of instruction? 

If they were immersed in a school where Arabic is the primary language, how would that change or impact their academic journey and love for learning? Would they enter school in the beginning stages of language acquisition where they would be watching, listening, but not yet producing anything in Arabic? Would this lead their teachers to make assumptions about their cognitive ability, about their interest in school, about their home life? What we know they “can do” might be masked by their inability to understand, use and communicate in this new language. 

Over the years, as I looked into the eyes of hundreds of students on their road to becoming bilingual, I saw the faces of my daughters excited to learn about and become a part of a new culture. I wondered how to best help teams discuss and plan for the needs of these students, English learners (ELs), through a strengths-based approach, viewing them as individuals with interests, strengths across content areas and talent in extracurricular areas. What I’ve experienced working with schools across the country, is that teacher teams are eager to meet the needs of their English learners, but often lack the experience, strategies, tools, and background to begin to uncover and identify those specific strengths and needs. Teacher teams typically just didn’t know where to start. 

My recommendation for these teams is to first ask the question, “What can these students do?” To find the answer to this question, begin with the student’s most recent English Language Proficiency (ELP) score. Every state has a federally required ELP assessment that assesses the four domains of English: reading, writing, speaking and listening. Each student receives an overall score which is a summary of the combined individual scores of each language domain. 

I urge teams to avoid falling into the trap of assuming that their student needs will be met based on their overall English language proficiency score. Very often I hear teams say, “Oh, he’s a level 3, this is what he needs,” etc. Instead, consider the following example. Two students, both Spanish speakers with an overall ELP level of 3, however, their scores in each domain are different, with the exception of speaking: 

Student

Overall ELP Level

Listening

Speaking

Reading

Writing

#1

3.3

5.0

4.2

2.8

2.8

#2

3.8

3.2

4.2

4.8

2.1


Both students are likely to present as having very similar needs due to their speaking similarities. However, when we dig deeper, we discover distinct differences which will guide instructional decisions. What each of these ELs can do in listening and reading are very different. One student has a reading score of 2.8, and the other 4.8. If teams assume that these two students require the same instruction in reading, they will not be targeting the appropriate language needs for the student to move forward in both their language acquisition and content learning. (A useful tool for teams in learning more about these differences are the WIDA Can-Do Descriptors.)

In addition to understanding students’ ELP levels, teams need to learn as much as they can about the EL as an individual, including their academic experiences, interests and strengths. Learn together about how to support ELs in your classrooms. A few of the myriad resources available to help with your team’s learning include the following:

  • Finding someone who speaks the family’s primary language (who, incidentally, need not be a trained interpreter or translator). They can ask questions of the family and student and help interpret academic records. 
  • Inviting an expert in teaching language acquisition, either school-based teachers or central office staff members with a background in working with ELs to join your team meetings. Access your state’s English language proficiency standards which are aligned to the state academic standards. 
  • Joining a state or national professional organization such as National Association for Bilingual Educators or TESOL International Association for articles and resources for your team to explore and learn from. 
  • Joining a social media organization that shares ideas and resources with other teachers like Colorín Colorado’s ELL Educator Group on Facebook. 
  • And most importantly, welcoming every child into your classroom community, one where they will feel valued and safe.  

When a team of committed educators joins forces and embraces collective responsibility, every child’s needs will be met. Imagine your child entering school not proficient in the language of instruction and entering an environment with different cultural practices and routines. What would you want for him or her to be successful? 

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