As she conducted classroom observations on preschool language and literacy instruction, Brook Sawyer often noticed that the students who did not speak English proficiently would sit alone, uninvolved and often ignored. Their monolingual English-speaking teachers didn't know how to engage them in learning, she says, and the young students themselves didn't know what they were supposed to do.
Sometimes, the students would get into trouble for not following directives, even though they had apparently misunderstood what the teacher was saying.
"This is so hard for kids," says Sawyer, assistant professor of Teaching, Learning and Technology at Lehigh.
But Sawyer doesn't fault teachers. Most have not been trained well in reaching students who are culturally and linguistically diverse. "It's very challenging for teachers. They're in classrooms of 25, 30 kids," she says, and how do they provide individualized instruction for all of these children?
As the number of dual language learners—those learning two languages at the same time—and English language learners (also known as English learners) grows, teachers and schools are increasingly faced with the challenge of providing them with an effective education. Though they have the potential to excel in a diverse society, these learners often lag behind in academic achievement compared with students whose only home language is English, according to the non-profit research group Child Trends.
Along with Tom Hammond, associate dean of the College of Education at Lehigh, and colleagues from Cedar Crest College, DeSales University, Muhlenberg College and the Hispanic Center of the Lehigh Valley, Sawyer sought to promote awareness of the issue and better equip teachers by organizing a "Speaking My Language" seminar at Lehigh earlier this year. "I wanted teachers to know how hard it is for children to learn English. There is a myth that children learn so much more easily than adults, but this is often not true. It is also important for teachers to learn about the strengths of families as well as the challenges that parents face," she states.
Sawyer also wanted to give teachers more tools and strategies that can be implemented in their classrooms.
As part of their research into teachers' multicultural educational practices, Sawyer and Lehigh doctoral student Emily Aragona-Young surveyed dozens of teachers at elementary schools in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, area to assess how they define culture, what cultural factors they consider when planning instruction and the range of multicultural practices they endorse.
In evaluating the survey results, Sawyer noted that "teachers do a really great job of developing community in their classrooms." She further noted, "They want all of their students to get along. They want everybody to respect each other. And sometimes they feel, at least as it was reported in this survey, and I've seen it many times, that talking about how someone is different might make the student feel singled out or embarrassed.
"They think they're doing a good thing, but they're really not allowing the students to develop their own identity," she says. "So I think, as teachers, it's a hard balance to strike. You want students to feel comfortable and safe and part of a community, but you also want to honor their culture and their language and make them feel good about that."
That's part of the reason Sawyer refers to the students who are learning English as dual-language learners: to show an appreciation for the students' home language, to put equal emphasis on both their home language and English.
At Lehigh's "Speaking My Language" seminar, Annette Zito, an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher in the Bethlehem Area School District (BASD), shared strategies for helping the learners adjust to their new surroundings, whether they are relocating from Puerto Rico and speak only Spanish or are fleeing Iraq and speak only Arabic. Ideas ranged from assigning classroom buddies to making a "survival" ring for students to communicate basic needs.
"You have to understand the child and their culture," says Zito, who works with kindergartners to fifth graders at BASD's Farmersville Elementary School. "No matter who the student is, they have something to contribute to your classroom. It's important for the teacher to get other students to understand that."
Zito recalled an instance when some students had been reluctant to have a young child from Croatia join their group, until she pointed out that he knew the material but was still learning English. In another instance, a teacher had been surprised that a fifth-grader, a Liberian refugee, did not know his birth date. Zito expressed the likelihood he hadn't marked the occasion with a cake while in a refugee camp.
In school year 2013-14, 9.3 percent of public school students in the United States, or an estimated 4.5 million students, were English language learners, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The states with the highest percentages were in the western part of the country.
But schools on the East Coast feel the pressures, too. The Bethlehem Area School District, for example, identified 1,103 students, or 7 percent of its student population, as English language learners in the beginning of the 2015-16 school year, states Doris Correll, the district's supervisor of ESOL. The students spoke 43 different languages, with the overwhelming majority speaking Spanish as their first, or home, language. Other top languages were Chinese, Punjabi, Portuguese, Arabic and Gujarati.
Correll tries to empower the district's specialists to lead discussions and convey to classroom teachers that just because ESOL students cannot produce English language yet "does not mean that they cannot think at a higher level, that they cannot perform at a higher level." They can process pictures, bars and charts, she says, for example. "They can do a lot, especially with the technology we have now."
English language learners can't just be the responsibility of specialists, says Sara Kangas, assistant professor of Teaching, Learning and Technology at Lehigh. In most of the models used in Pennsylvania, she says, they spend much of their time with classroom teachers learning science, math and other content. They receive support from ESOL teachers in the classroom, or they receive one to two hours of support in a separate location with other English language learners.
She recognizes the challenges that presents. "General education teachers already have so much on their plate and then they need to also be thinking about how their instruction can meet the needs of these kids." Are the teachers modeling different tasks for the students? Are they using visuals? Does their instruction have any cultural bias? "They need to tend to all those things."
When school models incorporate students' first languages, Kangas says, those students have better academic outcomes. Also influencing learners, she says, are teachers' perceptions of family members and their understanding of different cultural values. Teachers might perceive parents as being apathetic when in fact those parents may have a different understanding of their role in their child's education.
Among the 19 students in fourth-grade teacher Luke Kukuvka's class at BASD's Marvine Elementary School in the 2015-16 academic year were five English language learners, including a girl born in the Dominican Republic and a boy from Puerto Rico who spoke virtually no English.
"The hardest part is differentiating the instruction," says Mr. K, as he's known to students. He works closely with ESOL teacher Anastasia Wrobel, who offers strategies he can use in his classroom and provides direct instruction to the English language learners in a separate location throughout the school day.
"We work together," he says. "It's a collaboration."
Mr. K assigned a "classroom buddy" to help translate for the young boy from Puerto Rico. He asked his students to teach him words in Spanish, which he used in class. He tried to boost their cultural and linguistic pride, particularly that of a girl who shied away from speaking Spanish in front of him.
"I make an effort to make the kids feel comfortable," he says. "They feel being Hispanic is a negative thing. 'No,' I say. 'It's awesome you can speak two languages.'"
Wrobel, who is fluent in Spanish, also communicates with parents who can't speak English about their children's progress. She is mindful that some parents might be intimidated to come to the school because of the language barriers. When a mother lamented she could not read to her child because she didn't know English, Wrobel encouraged her to read to her child in Spanish.
One way to support the development of dual-language learners is to cultivate parent-teacher collaborations. Sawyer and Patricia Manz, associate professor and program director of School Psychology at Lehigh, created Project TAPP (Teachers and Parents as Partners), which was the subject of one of the "Speaking My Language" sessions. The project aimed to bring together the cultural and linguistic expertise of Spanish-speaking parents and the pedagogical experience of monolingual English teachers to provide culturally and linguistically responsive instruction for dual language learners. Another goal was to cultivate strong and trusting relationships between parents and teachers and to break down stereotypes that might exist between teachers who speak only English and parents who are Spanish-speaking and whose children are learning both languages.
Sawyer and Manz, along with graduate student Kristin Martin, brought parents and teachers together so that they could learn from each other how to better educate the children. The project had immediate impact: Parents felt more comfortable talking with teachers about their children's education, teachers recognized and valued parents' knowledge and that, in turn, changed teachers' assumptions about the families. Several teachers commented that participating in TAPP helped them.
Sawyer says she tries to impart the importance of respecting families when advising her own graduate students who are training to be teachers. "Honor these families," she says, "and like their kids."
Photos by Christa Neu