“No entendemos inglés. Tienes que hablar español.”
This was the first thing my 7th-grade math class made sure I knew as I introduced myself for the very first time. I took over midyear for a teacher who’d just retired. I’d taken the previous 18 months off to go back to school full-time. So not only was I a bit rusty, I was also working with English-language learners (ELLs) for the first time in my teaching career.
I wish I would have understood this at the time. My old high school had a 99.9 percent African-American student population, and the only language you’d hear there other than English was in the foreign language classrooms.
But I thought to myself, “I speak Spanish, I can relate to these kids, and we’ll figure it out as we go.” I hate to say it, but I was very wrong.
ELLs — also known as Limited-English Proficiency (LEP) or English as a Secondary Language (ESL) — make up nearly 10 percent of the total student population. Of course, depending on where you are, the number is considerably higher. In my south Texas school district, for example, ELLs make up 41 percent of the total student population. And California’s ELL enrollment is greater than the next five states, combined.
In addition, there are states like South Carolina and Indiana who have experienced a boom in their ELL population (400-800 percent growth) in a very short amount of time. Some projections estimate that 1 in 4 students will be ELLs in just 20 years — and doesn’t take a genius to notice this also coincides with the Latino student population boom.
You get the idea. We’re seeing unprecedented growth from ELLs around the nation. But how can we help support them?
First, it’s important to note some of the misconceptions and issues surrounding ELLs.
Though the majority of ELLs are Latino (75 percent to be exact), it’s important to understand that ELL doesn’t necessarily mean “Latino.” ELL also doesn’t necessarily mean that a student is a recent immigrant. Many of the ELL students in our school were born in this country and may have never even been to any other country in their lives.
Aside from the difficulties of learning how to understand, read, write and speak a new language, ELLs often have to deal with the negative effects of the ELL label. Fitting in is hard enough; this is multiplied when you don’t speak English very well. I remember having all my classes write a social contract for my class. A week after we posted them on the wall, I saw the word ghetto written on their poster — apparently that’s what some of their schoolmates thought of them.
Just last week was the start of my first full year as a middle school teacher, and I’ve made sure to follow many of the suggested strategies for helping ELLs. I learned the hard way that my ELL students need much more than just being able to speak to their teacher in their own language.