ELL isn’t Language Instruction

I’ve only taught English once in a public school (a humanities class), but I’ve been teaching private instruction English for a decade. Language instruction it’s not. I took French for a few years, and vaguely remember having to study verbs, and verb forms. Something about subjunctives. Unlike my father, I’m terrible at all new languages that don’t tell computers what to do.

I thought teaching English as a language was more structured.  Start with common verbs, the “persons”–I eat, you eat, he/she eats, they eat. Then common nouns. Then put things together? Isn’t that how it works? In other languages?

But then, French teachers speak English. Or Russian. Or whatever their students’ native language is–and a French teacher’s students only have one native language. You don’t see French teachers in American classrooms playing to a class of Punjab, Chinese, Spanish, and English students. Nor is the French teacher expected to be utterly ignorant of Punjabi, Mandarin, Spanish and English–yet still teach the students French.

Yet here I am with six students, only two of whom have even minimal conversational English, with four native languages. I’m not supposed to teach them English like a French teacher teaches French. Nor am I supposed to teach them English or anything else in Spanish, Punjabi, Chinese, or French as it’s spoken in the Congo.

American schools have never taught the English language.  Many education reform folk–and most non-experts–glorify immersion, our original method of handling language learners. Dump kids in, let them learn the language. That worked, right? Well, maybe not. Lots didn’t learn.  They just dropped out. As Ravitch the historian (not the advocate) observed, America’s past success educating immigrants has been dramatically overrated. (The immigrants’ children did well, but why we can’t expect that today is a tad Voldemortean for this essay.)

Giving additional services to non-English speaking students  became a public education mandate with Lau vs. Nichols.  But after the Chinese Lau, the case history shows that all major bilingual court cases involved Hispanics.

First, the Aspira case built on Lau, as  New York City signed a consent degree to provide bilingual education to limited English Puerto Rican students until they could function in regular classes. This led to a de facto mandate for nationwise bilingual education, and created the infrastructure of support. Not the curriculum, of course. (Ha, ha! Heaven forfend!)

One of those court cases was also one of the heads of the hydra known as US vs. Texas , which has a long, controversial history much of it not involving bilingual education. But at one point presiding judge  observed that the “experts” were appalled that Hispanic ELL students had only to reach the 23rd percentile in order to be reclassified as fluent.  The kids would only be doing better than 1 in 4 kids, wrote the judge, which simply wasn’t enough to perform adequately in mainstream classrooms. The judge never considered that black students aren’t given all this additional support, despite similar or worse test scores. We still don’t.

Anyway, as a result of that court case,  many if not all of states require ELL students to be proficient on achievement tests before they can be reclassified.  Proficient.  Often above average. Not basic. Different states have different procedures, different standards, but “proficient” is usually mentioned. And remember that ELL is only nominally concerned with teaching non-English speakers, since ELL students are primarily citizens.   Kids are asked  if  English is the only language spoken at home. Those who say “no” get tested, and if they don’t test proficient, they get tagged ELL and stay ELL until they do.  Schools don’t care–arent’ allowed to care–if the student came to America yesterday, a decade ago, or through a womb.

As I’ve written before, in math as it is in English, elementary school “proficiency” is much easier to acquire than the skill required for high school. It is thus much easier to test out of  ELL elementary school, regardless of original language, than high school. Most elementary ELL students test out after two or three years. Those who don’t make it out are categorized “long-term ELL”, meaning they’ve been ELL for over five years and never made proficient. Left unsaid is that kids need a certain cognitive ability to hit those test scores.

Thus by high school, over half the long-term ELL students are US citizens, split evenly among second and 3rd generation Americans who consider English their native language but have  lower than average cognitive ability or some specifically verbal processing issues. These are the kids who weren’t able to meet the relatively low elementary school proficiency standards. The other 44% are foreign born kids who couldn’t test out in the first five years.  It’s unlikely that either group is going to escape ELL in high school.

Consider: the primary reason for sheltering ELL learners once they’ve achieved functional fluency is to avoid kids being stuck in long term ELL. But there’s no solution to the “problem” of long-term ELLS, save accepting it as an artifact of an entirely different attribute.

If you’re following my dispirited trail of musings, you might be wondering if the elementary school proficiency levels are so low, then shouldn’t some of the kids who escape ELL status early run into trouble in high school?”   And to quote Tommy Lee Jones: Oh wow. Gee whiz. Looky here! Many Reclassified ELLs Still Need English-Language Support, Study Finds and points out that this finding is consistent with past research.

If you aren’t following my dispirited traill of musings, you’re thinking this has nothing to do with my assigned task of teaching English to one African, two Chinese, two Mexican, and one Punjabi student.

Sorry, I’m just explaining why I don’t teach English language instruction in an English class of kids who don’t speak English.

ESL and bilingual education from its earliest days was never intended to instruct students in the English language. It was actually a means of directing funding to close the Hispanic achievement gap for English speaking Hispanics which–it was believed–was due to inadequate academic instruction in English.   ELL’s purported objective is to provide support to non-English speaking students until they are proficient. Its actual  purpose is, first, to define a category that reports the academic achievement of  primarily Hispanic US citizens of lower than average cognitive ability–the better to beat our schools up with. Second, the classes gives the kids something to do until immersion gives them enough English to be mainstreamed, or at least into a higher ELL class.

So just as before, ELL teachers don’t provide English language instruction. Kids don’t come to America with a six word vocabulary and take English 1, followed by English 2, then English 3, and then AP English because hey, now they’re fluent.

When I express the concern   that I’m not teaching the kids English, I’m just giving them vocabulary and grammar enrichment in a sheltered English class, other ELL teachers and the admins nod their heads approvingly and say “You’re doing a great job!” Because ELL is not about teaching the English language.

Then I look at these six kids–and really, they’re terrific. In an ideal world, I’d never question my assignment. They’re a joy to teach and I’ll do my best for them. But only one of them is a citizen. Collectively, they are consuming one third of three English teachers’ schedule–that is, one full-time position at our school is dedicated to giving language enrichment to five non-citizens. All across America you’ll find thousands of these sheltered classes, for kids who just got here and instantly given free and guaranteed access to small classrooms and support in lessons that may or may not teach them the language, but gives them something to do in school until their English gets good enough for academic instruction. Which will–again–happen outside these classes, because lord knows, we’re not involved in language instruction.

I think of the millions of citizen kids. Of the bright high schoolers who could use challenging enrichment, maybe digging in deep to a Milton sonnet because they have the ability to do something more than fake their way through interpretation in carefully modeled  Schaffer chunks.  Of the many citizen students from the bottom half of the cognitive scale who didn’t check the “another language spoken at home” box and thus are not given additional time and money….not to get higher test scores, but just spend time with a teacher reading them a story and talking about vocabulary and context at a level they can enjoy. Every day. Of the many citizens from the bottom half of the cognitive scale who are told for their entire k-12 education that their native language isn’t, in fact, their native language.

Of course, whether or not we should be spending this kind of money on non-citizens never comes up. All we ever debate is whether we should use immersion or follow Krashen’s dictates and instruct every 1 in 20 kids in their native language. See, dedicating one full English position to six kids is the cheap version, the one favored by conservatives and most taxpayers. Bilingual advocates want native language instruction, which would further reduce class size from six to one or two, in every language we run into in our public schools.  Of course, we don’t have enough qualified teachers in each language, but since we can’t have perfection, at least  it’s a great way to boost employment in immigrant communities. So not only do we spend more resources on the kids, but the schools often provide more employment to the communities. As for citizens, well, you know, being bilingual is important. You should have studied more.

The entire debate about bilingual education vs. immersion is a canard. Of all the many education debates that aren’t as they seem, none wastes as much time,  money, and resources as that of the ludicrously named English Language Learner.

No one is asking whether we should be doing this at all. Well. I am. But then, I’m no one.

Someone, somewhere, will furiously argue that I’m “pitting brown students against each other”.  No. That’s what ELL does. And not just to kids of color, either.

Cynical? Scratch the surface of any ELL program and see how far off I am. Don’t listen to what they say. Go look at what they do.

Not sure if this piece has a point.  In math, I don’t have to think of this too often.

At the end of the day, I remind myself that I like the job, the boss folks like what I’m doing, and regardless of what you call it, this is a hell of a lesson.

 

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3 responses to “ELL isn’t Language Instruction

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