Realistic expectations are key to ELs' academic success

By Glenda Cohen

Published in Education Week October 2020


“I’m trying to do my best to meet the needs of all kids in my class. But I just don’t know if I’m reaching the ELs. They never do their assignments and they don’t seem to care about their grades. What can I do?”


In my role as a high school ESL teacher, I’ve heard this lament from countless colleagues who teach general education content classes about their EL students. Teachers in my state (Massachusetts) are required to take a course in sheltered English instruction, Yet, many gen ed teachers still feel at a loss as to how best to engage these students. And when they ask administrators for help, they’re often told, “Good teaching is good teaching. If you’re a good teacher, you should be able to reach all students.”


I say, it’s not that simple.


From what I’ve observed, it’s not that gen ed teachers aren’t good teachers. The overwhelming majority are. It isn’t that they aren’t working hard enough. They’re working plenty hard. And it isn’t that they don’t care about our immigrant students. They do, and want them to be as successful as mainstream students.


So what, exactly, is the problem?


I think it can be summed up in two words: unrealistic expectations. We expect our teachers to get results in students that the students themselves are just not ready to produce. And that’s not the fault of the teachers; it’s the fault of our current assessment techniques.


First, some background. Language development occurs most rapidly in ELs at the beginning level when students go from a silent period to the basic ability to communicate. Referred to as BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills), this period emerges at about 6 months and may last for as long as two years. It’s during this period that it may appear that students have far more ability in English than they actually do. Just because the student may be able to express her basic ideas, she may be unable to write anything but simple phrases with limited vocabulary


Far more difficult is for students to jump from BICS to the next level of proficiency called CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency ). This level requires students to use language in tasks that are cognitively demanding in an academic setting. Students need CALP in order to write an essay, understand a science book or read challenging literature. Studies show that it takes a significant amount of time - usually four to six years - to develop the academic language needed to perform such rigorous thinking tasks.


Most EL programs for middle and high school students in the U.S. do not provide adequate time for them to develop CALP before transitioning to gen ed classes. Schools such as mine place students who may have been in the U.S. for a short time and have beginning English proficiency along side their mainstream peers in subjects like history, math, and science. Most program models require students to learn academic communications skills simultaneously with learning grade level content, often in standard curriculum content classrooms.


This is not to say that EL students shouldn’t be placed alongside their grade level peers in gen ed classes. Rather, teachers who are not ESL specialists must shift their expectations of EL students to meet them where they are in their language development and use evaluations that encourage - not discourage - academic growth.


It’s important for gen ed teachers to modify assessments and use different rubrics to evaluate their ELs. It is not fair or realistic to expect that immigrant students who have had a year or two of English instruction will be able to produce the same caliber of work as their native English speaking peers. Rather than focusing on grammatical or spelling errors, or MLA format, observe such things as: Does EL students get the gist of the reading? Are they able to demonstrate higher order thinking skills such as analyzing, evaluating and organizing or creating a product? Are they showing effort in trying to meet deadlines and follow directions?


Sufficient time and realistic expectations are the key to fostering language development in immigrant learners. Although ELs may be limited in their ability to express themselves in English, that does not reflect their ability to use higher order thinking skills. By providing rich content instruction along with supportive evaluation feedback, gen ed teachers can help ELs acquire the language skills they need for academic success.


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