SmartBlog on Education this month is exploring the science of learning. Join us for original content in which experts explore trends in learning research and highlight teaching strategies that can help improve student performance. In this Q&A, Kathleen Gallagher, principal of Baker Elementary, a Title 1 school in the San Diego Unified School District, highlights best practices for teaching English learners and using digital supplements to accelerate progress
Q: What is LTEL and how do English-language learners fall into the category?
Schools countrywide are working to help long-term English learners who are struggling to learn the language. LTEL is a newer term pinpointing a problem that has become common among English learners. LTEL refers to a student who does not make adequate yearly progress in the acquisition of English.
Under normal circumstances, students typically transition from a beginning English learner to a reclassified English learner within 5 years. This means, if a kindergartner begins school as a beginning English learner, by the time they reach fifth-grade they should be reclassified as a fluent English speaker. Unfortunately, many English learners who were beginners in kindergarten leave elementary school unprepared for reclassification. This puts them at a disadvantage as they prepare for college readiness in middle school.
Q: Are some students more prone to becoming LTELs than others?
At Baker Elementary, we believe all of our English learners are capable of achieving reclassification if they receive intentional and strategic instruction beginning in kindergarten. Typically, English learners tend to fly under the radar because they are generally known to be quiet and well-behaved. I once did an experiment where I observed English learners during their entire school day to see how they were engaged in the learning that was offered to them. The students demonstrated excellent behavior, tried hard to complete their assignments, and from a distance looked like very good students. What I noticed, however, was that many of them were able to get through the whole day without ever saying anything.
As I reflected, I thought, “How common is this, and how can we allow students who need the most help and support to become essentially invisible? Also, how is someone supposed to learn a new language without frequent opportunities to practice speaking and applying it in an academic environment? How will they get feedback on ways to improve and enhance their communication?” Developmentally, there is often a “silent period” of learning a language, but this should not extend into the intermediate and early advanced levels. Because of the traditional views of what a classroom should look and sound like, ELs aren’t getting enough practice speaking the language, and using it in contexts that make sense to them.
Q: How is Baker Elementary working to prevent students from becoming LTELs?
We believe that if a student leaves our school still classified as an ELL, it means we didn’t do our jobs as educators. It’s our goal to reclassify students before they reach fifth-grade so they have access to advanced classes through middle school, high school and beyond.
To reach our reclassification goals, we can no longer allow ELLs to sit passively in classrooms. We are working to transform the way we engage and involve students in learning. Instead of worksheets and teacher-dominated instruction, Baker Elementary teachers are serving as facilitators who get students talking about their learning. Teachers actively integrate language development into everyday instruction. We have discovered that allowing students time to practice academic language and receive immediate feedback has substantially improved our students’ language development, thus reducing the number of LTELs.
As a one-to-one school, we often use differentiated digital curriculum supplements, which allow students to learn at their own pace. Engaging digital curriculum includes songs and games that motivate students to reach their goals and make learning much more engaging than simply filling in the blanks on a worksheet.
We also use results from the California English Language Development Test to gauge where our students fall in the language learning process toward reclassification. We analyze the data together so teachers are able to understand their students’ language needs and better plan for engaging academic learning. We also ask teachers and students to set meaningful goals and make plans to achieve them. This ensures everyone is doing their best to ensure ongoing learning.
Q: Are there any long-term risks if ELLs are not reclassified?
As mentioned above, our goal is to reclassify every ELL well before they enter middle school. If they’re not reclassified before then, they will not have access to enrichment electives and/or advanced placement classes.
Studies show ELLs have a 25% dropout rate, compared to 15% for non-ELLs. The study also found that the dropout rate for ELLs was dramatically lessened if students were reclassified before second-grade. We believe that reclassification is an essential component of effective elementary instruction for English learners and that anything less would be a denial of their rights to a high-quality education.
Q: Why is it important to encourage students to continue speaking their native language while they’re learning English?
At Baker, we truly cherish our bilingual students, parents and staff members. We believe they serve as bridges of understanding and that they make our community stronger. Students help other students, parents help other parents, staff members help everyone, and we are all better and smarter because of it. When students translate for other students, everyone benefits. The translator has to understand the concept or idea on a deep level so they can translate it correctly. Other English learners hear the translation and are immediately pulled back into the instructional experience. Often, these exchanges result in even deeper discussion about meaning, which pushes the whole group to clarify and extend their thinking even further.
Studies show that about 43% of students in California don’t speak English at home. This means they are only getting academic practice with English for the time they are in the school. We know many of our students serve as translators for their families, so it’s important for students to practice academic English to set them up for success in their everyday lives.
As we integrate technology into every aspect of learning and living, language becomes even more essential. At Baker, we encourage all of our students to continually access web-based resources and to take individual ownership of their learning and their progress. We provide fun and challenging curriculum supplements that our students can access with their families. The more our students and families feel empowered to direct and monitor their own progress, the more likely we are to achieve our dream of quality education for all.
Kathleen Gallagher is the principal of Baker Elementary School in the San Diego Unified School District. She has put a large focus on reclassification, and is researching the use of Learning Upgrade and other resources to encourage and motivate ELLs to accelerate their language development and avoid LTEL status.