Situated just outside of Washington, D.C., in Northern Virginia, our school district serves about 92,000 students, roughly one-third of whom are English learners. As someone who was born and raised in Puerto Rico and moved to the mainland US when I was 10, I’m an English learner myself. I remember registering for school and instantly hearing that I should be retained because I didn’t speak the language.
Reflecting on that experience, all I can say is that I wish teachers, school counselors and support staff could see the child’s potential before they see his or her language proficiency level. This would help remove some of the bias associated with English learners and also enable a success path for these individuals in school, the workplace and life as a whole.
Unfortunately, recommendations to hold English learners back are still prevalent today in a world where the accountability system is the priority for schools. Language development supports the end goal, which is generally ensuring that the student passes the state’s assessment.
Don’t let fear of a test stand in the way
When you allow the fear of a test to determine how you deliver instruction to an English learner, you’re going to get it wrong. At most schools, language is viewed as an element that threatens the accountability process. And where it’s fine to have high expectations, you also have to be careful not to rush those expectations. Why is this important? Simple: Because both research and experience show that language takes time to learn and master.
Here are four ways we work to ensure high levels of success for our English learners.
Think outside of the box
I can sit in front of a panel in an interview, and I’ll use the asset of being bilingual as a reason why someone should hire me. However, when kids are in school, that same factor is seen as a reason to place them in a lower-level class or to remove access to advanced academics or specialty classes.
Overcoming this challenge requires different people with various backgrounds at the planning table. It’s why we have to be very careful with the tools that we select and invest in for our English learners; more of the same does not necessarily mean that it’s enough. Sometimes our students need something different. Success is about transforming their experience and really involving the community in the postsecondary opportunities (e.g., as language translators in government or other positions) that our English learners can leverage.
Keep feet on the ground
A core challenge is that much of this work is led by principals, district leaders or other individuals who don’t have their own classrooms. You can’t lead from the office. You have to be out there planning with the people who are actually in front of the kids on a daily basis.
I would argue that the schools become our classrooms, with us sitting with teachers during planning and observing how kids respond to different strategies and different tools. We have to understand the heart of the matter and also explore some of the fears that individuals may have when it comes to teaching students they don’t necessarily relate to.
Understand the cultural impacts on learning
Things come naturally to me with Hispanic-English learners due to my background and how easy it is for me to relate to them. However, for other groups of students (i.e., families of refugees moving to the US), I’ve been taking the time to interact with and understand how trauma impacts language. I also want to know how culture impacts access to instruction.
For example, we have some students who pray in school. If I’m providing an intervention or English language development that’s important, then I need to know how to incorporate elements that also matter to our families and learn more about the dynamics. In my culture, we watch novelas, so a teacher who tells me to watch “Sesame Street” to acquire language doesn’t understand that at 6 p.m., my family is eating dinner and watching a novela. These types of considerations matter when you’re planning to get to the core of what kids do at home as an extension to what they do in school.
Adopt a program that supports literacy initiatives
We use Lexia English because the literacy platform aligns with everything else that we’re trying to do at our district. This helps ensure that we’re not just giving kids another test; we’re engaging them in an experience that’s going to generate enough information for them and resources that meet them where they’re at.
In the process, we’re also gathering evidence that will help us predict how our English learners are going to perform on state-required tests. This not only helps us meet our accountability requirement, but it also ensures that our students have the resources that they need for success.
Building relationships with students
Teachers play an important role in the success of English learners, and I challenge them to assess whether they’re creating a language-rich experience, where every kid has access to the curriculum. Or are they teaching language through worksheets or recycling instruction that was designed for a specific level of student?
We talk a lot in education about building relationships, and in this case it’s important to focus on those relationships that align very closely with planning. In other words, we should be planning with the kids that are in front of us — and that only happens when we take the time to build relationships with those current and aspiring English learners.
Lynmara Colón, Ph.D., is director of student opportunity and multilingual services at Prince William County Schools in Virginia. The district uses Lexia English.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.
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