‘They’re not broken’
Teaching English learners is tough, but for those involved it’s worth it
When Ellen Hamilton was in grade school, she was plucked from her classroom a couple times each week to work on her English. Having grown up speaking Hmong, she needed more attention than native English speakers when dealing with vocabulary and verbs and all the nuances of the language.
Last year, Hamilton began teaching ELD—English Language Development—at Pleasant Valley High School.
“I tell my students that I have a degree in English, but I’m still an English learner,” said Hamilton, seated at her desk a week before classes were set to start. “I think they like me because I use my life experience as an example.”
Last year, besides being new to the school, Hamilton’s biggest challenge was teaching multiple levels, rather than one at a time, during the same class period.
“When you’re teaching two different levels, for some kids it’s going to be too easy,” she said. “And for others, it’ll be way too advanced.”
So, in a year when budget cuts are keeping class sizes at around 35, Hamilton pushed hard for each level—A, B and C—to meet during different periods. And she won. So her students, mostly Spanish speakers, with some Hmong, Punjabi and Arabic speakers as well, won’t have to compete for Hamilton’s time, which is precious since she lost her ELD aide to layoffs.
At the high school level, ELD is mostly about scores, Hamilton said. Students can test out of the class by passing a series of standardized tests. The first is relatively simple, with questions like “point to an apple,” she said. But things that sound simple to us may not be as simple to non-natives.
“In one of the tests, there will be a three-story house with a bunk bed, table and chairs,” said Janet Brinson, director of categorical programs for the Chico Unified School District. “But often we’re teaching kids who came from a refugee camp in Thailand. They have no idea what they’re looking at.”
Students who pass this exam take a second test, STAR, or Standardized Testing and Reporting. This one is more difficult, but if students get above a certain score, they can pass out of ELD.
“My class may be called ELD, but we’re all ELD teachers,” Hamilton said. That’s because students take her class, but they also have to take classes alongside the rest of their grade level in subjects like science and math.
The same is true in the young-er grades. At Chapman Elementary, for example, where there are a lot of English learners, there is an ELD course offered for every student who needs it. Until this school year, in fact, Chapman had its own ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher. Budget cuts came and she went. Teachers at the school aren’t too worried about the void she’ll leave, however.
“For the last 10 years, they’ve really been pushing to get everyone trained in ESL/ELD strategies,” said Chapman teacher Glenn Pulliam, who has taught at the school for two decades. “In the classroom is where it’s the most effective. At this point, most if not all of the teachers have that training. So with budget constraints it’s harder to justify [having a teacher designated solely to ESL].”
The recent push by the state Department of Education has been on math and language arts, Pulliam said, so teachers have focused on those areas, and sometimes ELD takes a back seat. But, he said, “I think it’s working. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. But we’re taking steps in the right direction.”
Brinson also expressed frustration with the state’s interference in local education.
“What the state says is, you’re supposed to teach kids to learn English as fast as possible—hopefully in a year,” Brinson said. “But you can’t do that. All research in language learning says it can take seven to 10 years to become totally fluent in a second language.”
Hence the ELD classes offered all the way through high school.
Beyond that, schools offer additional support—reading classes, instructional aids and sometimes just a little extra tutoring to make sure the biology vocabulary isn’t beyond a student’s grasp.
“There’s so much we need the kids to learn,” Brinson said. “It’s a challenge for teachers. The kids aren’t broken—they just speak a different language.”
According to statistics gathered in February, there are 1,522 English learners in the district. Of those, 53 percent speak Spanish; 26 percent Hmong; 2 percent Arabic; and 1 percent each Punjabi, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Lao.
“I let them speak their language until the bell rings, then they speak English,” Hamilton said. “Their primary language is also very important.”
Hamilton, having been an ESL student herself, not only identifies with her students, but also loves teaching them, finding each challenge overcome very rewarding.
“These students need someone— a teacher—who really cares.”