Program and School Considerations for English Learners: Look Inward Before Looking Out.

As ESSA plans are submitted by states and districts, it is interesting to see what provisions are included.  One thing is for sure, there is a new and much needed focus on the achievement and language acquisition levels of English Learners.  This new spotlight is causing many districts to reflect on their program models and linguistic supports.  There are many new models, theories, resources, books, and experts ready to tell us the direction in which we should shift.  But as we begin to explore changes in programs and approaches, we must remember to exercise caution in looking out before looking in.   Students learning English are as diverse as the countries and cities from which they’ve moved.  From their native language, age, school experiences, country of origin, family dynamics, and everything in between, there are a range of “things” that make each one of our ELLs unique – that makes them each special.  Teaching culturally and linguistically diverse students, that means, is unique from and different than teaching monolingual students.  It is not bad, just different.   In order to be effective in teaching ELLs, therefor, a range of considerations must be thought out in order to match the right program models and instructional supports to their needs.  There are few that disagree that teaching ELLs to read and write in the majority language (which in the U.S. is English) is important with both political and social implications that add to the pressure.  In addition, ESSA has raised the stakes on the increasing achievement gap and the stalling progress of language acquisition of these students, leaving many wanting to reach for the newest buzz in language acquisition.  But the answer is more involved than that.   While the challenge and its solution is quite complex, I think it starts with one simple concept.  It is not what program model is best, but which model and supports best meet the needs of the students you have for they don’t all serve all students equally well.  Yet, to make that decision, you must ask yourself, do you know your students?  Most people would answer that question with a quick, “yes, of course,” before sharing a range of data points.  But looking through the points below, how well could you answer the following questions about your language learners: What is your students’ native language? What are your students’ literacy levels in their native language? What are the developmental differences (interferences) between your students first language and the language they are working to acquire? What are the previous educational experiences of your language learners? What cultural factors will impact your language learners’ success in the classroom?   This list of questions is by no means meant to be exhaustive. Rather, it does begin to help educators and program administrators develop an idea of what it means to truly know the students they serve.  It is only by understanding your students at this level, that we can begin to determine what program model, instructional resources and supports, and yes intensive professional development is needed to ensure success.  So I ask, has your district looked inward before looking out?  If not, know that it’s never too late.