How The English Language Learning System Is Failing in America

The following is adapted from Can You Hear Me Now?

English Language Learners (ELLs) face a plethora of challenges. Some may come from backgrounds where violence is commonplace and education is either inadequate or contrasts sharply with the forms in the US. Some are even entering schools for the first time in their lives. 

Unfortunately, our public schools lack the necessary resources to help them adjust, including qualified ESL teachers, academic resource teachers, translation services, mental health providers, and even sufficient capacity in our school buildings for this rapidly growing population.  

ELLs represent close to 10 percent of the student population, or roughly 5 million students. In the United States, we need a better way to assimilate these children into our public schools and get them the education they need. During my seven years of teaching at Raven Elementary in the Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS), I saw a significant increase in the number of Hispanic students and ELL students, so I know the shortcomings of our system firsthand.

Here’s what I learned.

My Seven Years with ELL

When I began in 2012, Raven had an ELL population of less than 5 percent. By the academic year ending in 2019, Raven’s ELL population represented 16.6 percent of the school.

I taught various ELL students in my tenure from different backgrounds. Three of those years, I was specifically assigned a homeroom/math class with a large concentration of ELL students, ranging from 10 to 33 percent. I truly enjoyed working with ELL students. But as is the case with any classroom, some were more than challenging to deal with.

One of my fourth-grade ELL students lit the school’s bathroom trash can on fire at least once (he didn’t admit to the second lighting), was found in possession of a pocket knife, and was openly recruiting members for a gang to which he and his older brother (enrolled in middle school) allegedly were members.

What I learned from my experience with that student and others, was that, unlike children whose parents are native English speakers, because of the inherent language barrier, it can be more difficult to maintain ongoing, productive communication with the ELL parents. A full-time translator in schools with high ELL populations would help to facilitate communication between teachers and ELL families, both in regards to addressing behavior problems and in the communication of basic assignment deadlines and student responsibilities.

Many of the children coming into the Baltimore County system are natives of El Salvador, Honduras, Nigeria, Guatemala, and Pakistan. Sadly, some are coming from situations where they routinely observed and/or experienced violence. For example, my ELL student who lit the trash can on fire witnessed his father’s murder. Children who have grown up in this culture are bringing some of their fears, aggression, and survival skills into our American school system without the benefit of mental health care. Obviously, this is a big problem. 

As with all students, we need to be prepared to identify early on any social-emotional issues and then to provide immediate intervention to help that child assimilate and to protect themselves and other students in school. Schools could easily alleviate this problem by adding a mental health screening to the proficiency testing that is done after a newly registered student is identified as an ELL. If the mental health screening identifies a problem, then professional resources such as a school counselor or a psychologist should be accessible to support the student. 

The Mainstream Classroom Environment for ELL

I once taught a ten-year-old girl who spoke absolutely no English. She and her family spoke only Spanish. She had no school experience prior to her arrival in the US, so not only was she lacking knowledge in all academic subjects, but she had never experienced being in a school setting for seven hours a day—eating in a large cafeteria, walking in lines in the hallway, taking turns using the bathroom, using a computer, sharing supplies, and maintaining focus and effort for such a long period of time. 

Consequently, she had to learn classroom social structure and behavioral expectations along with English. It was a challenge for her and for me as the instructor. I had to figure out what she knew, which was no more than basic addition of one-digit numbers, and then try to fill in the gaps enough to help her make some sense of the fourth-grade curriculum. I found myself taking time away from planning my fourth-grade instruction to find things for her on a kindergarten/first-grade level in Spanish which served neither her nor the other students as much as they deserved.

This brings up the problem of placing ELL students in our classrooms based on chronological age rather than by academic proficiency or language proficiency. This is how the English as a Second Language (ESL) instructional program works; ELL students are immersed into an English-speaking classroom and pulled out for intense English instruction at a beginner’s level. 

Raven had two part-time ESL instructors. Both were talented and dedicated and used every opportunity possible to pull the ELL students into small groups. Unfortunately, there are too few of these teachers to meet the demands of this growing population. It is not uncommon for one ESL teacher to be split between two elementary schools and provide services to seventy or more students. If an ESL teacher’s schedule gets disrupted due to snow days, early closings, illness, or testing, it’s not always possible to provide make-up services.

A Viable Alternative to ESL

The ELL students whom I taught usually were pulled twice a week for ESL instruction. That meant that they missed part of math and all of science class two out of five days a week. ESL teachers many times ‘push-in’ to the English Language Arts classes to help the ELL students within the context of the class, but there usually isn’t any assistance to the math classes or content classes like science—again, the result of heavy demands with too few ESL teachers.

According to research, ESL instruction is the most widely used program, but it may be the most costly and least effective model of instruction. If schools are going to choose this program, they need to incentivize teachers to earn the ESL credentials to increase the number of qualified ESL teachers and they should add resource teachers to support the academic proficiency needs of the ELL students, particularly for those students who come with very little academic skills.

Districts should also give consideration to other ELL instructional programs that provide at least some level of academic instruction in the student’s native language until their English proficiency can support their academic needs. The transitional bilingual model and the Dual Language Immersion program are two other options that would accomplish this.

The transitional bilingual model presents segregation concerns, but the Dual Language Immersion program does not. Under that program, classes are made up of ELL students and English speaking students and instruction in each subject is taught in both languages. If schools are designated for this purpose, it may help to alleviate some of the current overcrowding issues and academic proficiency concerns, while providing cross-cultural and language immersion benefits to both ELL and English speaking students in an inclusive environment. 

Lessons Learned 

Of course, ELL students are just as bright and capable as any other student. But some not only come to us without a strong academic foundation but also have the disadvantage of learning new academic content in their non-native language. Many of these students have little or no help available at home because their parents don’t speak English. In fact, these parents can look to their children for help navigating through an English-speaking community, which requires these children to take on a lot of adult responsibilities outside of school. 

I had one student who rarely completed her homework. When I asked her why, she told me that she needed to help with her family’s cleaning business after school. As educators, we have to understand the background and home life of all of our students and this is especially true of our ELL students so that we can balance cultural sensitivity with their academic needs.

Support Your ELL in a Flawed System

I realize that some of my observations about ELLs in our schools sound negative because I’m highlighting problems that I see or have experienced. Let me be clear: The problems (obviously) are not with the children themselves; the problems are with an antiquated system that includes facilities, instructors, and curriculums not equipped for the volume and diversity of its current and future occupants.

Our system also has to operate within the confines of laws, such as laws on separation that were written to protect students. However, these laws may have consequences that prohibit cost-effective solutions and deny ELL students opportunities to help maintain or improve their academic proficiency while their English proficiency develops.

The deficiencies in our assistance to ELLs can be seen in the graduation rates. On average, only 67 percent of ELLs graduate high-school within four years compared to an overall rate of 84 percent. Here in Maryland, it is only 45 percent. Lower graduation rates lead to fewer opportunities. We must do better. If you know or teach an ELL student in the public school system, please take this into consideration and support them in any way possible so they get the most from their education and succeed in life.

Note: The school’s actual name was changed to Raven for anonymity purposes.

Suzanne Rupp DeMallie taught for seven years in the Baltimore County Public School system. Research into her own son’s learning difficulties led her to author the Classroom Auditory Learning Issues resolution, adopted by the National PTA in July, 2007. Her work has appeared in Our Children Magazine, T.H.E. Journal, Towson Times, and The Baltimore Sun. She has presented at the National School Boards Association’s Annual Convention; to national, state, and local PTA groups; and to politicians. Suzanne was awarded the National PTA’s Life Achievement Award in May 2007, the highest honor from the nation’s largest child advocacy organization. For more advice on the current English Language Learning System, you can find Can You Hear Me Now? on Amazon. [affiliate]