By Barbara Suter
I remember it well. I was attending a LIWP workshop approximately 15 years ago on the subject of strategies for teaching English Language Learners. The workshop leader had assigned the participants a writing task. The task was to write about a close friend and the qualities that made that person a close friend in A FOREIGN LANGUAGE! No matter what level of second language proficiency we had (in some cases none), we were to write a paragraph. Objective: To experience what it is like to attempt a writing assignment in a language in which you have very limited proficiency in order to better understand the challenges English Language Learners face every day in school.
The results were hilarious. As a group we shared the strategies we resorted to in order to fulfill the assignment. Some participants wrote a blended english/second language response to the assignment. Others, like myself, who are more fluent in a second language (in my case French), strategized what to say depending on how much vocabulary and grammar we knew in the second language. Had I attempted to write in Spanish, a language I know only conversationally, I would have given up. I don't recall anyone writing a perfect paragraph in their second language and these were all teachers!
The message of the activity was clear. We all knew we were incompetent or limited in our second language abilities; nonetheless, we attempted to fulfill the assignment. We were all semi-embarrassed about our results, realizing that our fulfillment of the assignment did not reflect our true abilities. We were able to giggle and squirm afterward because we knew the results did not have any real consequences. After all, we weren't being graded or judged, but the experience did force us to think about the student in our classroom who is.
Writing even in one's native language can be a daunting experience. Writing is considered a higher-order language task; it is the culmination of the sequence of the acquisition of language which begins with listening, followed by speaking, followed by reading and, finally, writing. With excellent writing instruction throughout grade school and middle school, a native English-speaking high-school student ought to be able to complete an organized and meaningful essay on a given topic. The Common Core has placed the bar even higher by requiring students to address even more complex tasks in writing, such as comparing two works of literature primarily using text-based references This level of writing proficiency assumes complete familiarity with the language, reading proficiency at grade level, and facility and experience with writing skills in our culture.
This is a tall, if not impossible order for many English Language Learners. The challenges for a student just beginning to learn English are overwhelming. The good news is that there are things that a teacher can do for an English Language Learner to help ease the transition to speaking and writing in English.
The bad news is that with the introduction of the new CR Part 154 regulations from the NYS Education Department this past year, the ESL teacher and English Language Learners are being given even less time than ever before to work on these academic challenges. Half of their former dedicated ESL time must now be provided in an integrated setting, with both an ESL teacher and a content-area or grade-school certified teacher working together to meet everyone's needs in that mainstream classroom.
It gets even more complicated. Co-teaching, which is what is optimal in an integrated setting, is a learned skill and can take several years of practice before achieving optimal results. To really make it work, school administrators must invest in the state mandate of integrated teaching by giving collaborating teachers shared time in which to plan and reflect upon their practice. During my final years of teaching, I co-taught with a colleague for three years in a third-grade classroom. Although we both loved working with our shared students, planning and reflecting time took place during our lunch hours and any moments we could steal during the day which eventually made us give up on the idea.
Believing in the power of writing for all students, for many years I tried various approaches to scaffolding my ESL students' writing efforts...often with great success. But as a "pull-out" teacher, I always had the luxury of meeting with beginners and intermediate students in my classroom to impart the knowledge they needed to slowly learn to write fluently in their new language. This is hard work...the hardest I've ever done. But it is rewarding work for both the teacher and the students. All of my students loved writing about their families, their lives and their dreams. And they loved nothing more than creating their own books to tell their stories. They needed the gift of time devoted to them to accomplish this.
In future columns I will offer strategies for helping English Language Learners learn to write and/or improve their writing. In time these strategies can become part of your classroom toolbox and you won't have to think twice about using them. I will provide examples of successful writing projects to encourage you to attempt what may now seem impossible. You may be thinking, "But there's not enough time...I haven't been properly trained...he/she doesn't speak a word of English." These are all legitimate complaints, but the beast has been unleashed in our classrooms and we must learn to cope with the new mandates as best we can. Help is on the way!
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Long Island Writing Project