Tuesday, April 13, 2010

ESL…ELL…ELA…TESOL…TOEFL…… Just let them learn!

When we feel alone, we will do whatever it takes to remedy that; for an immigrant that feeling never fully fades - be they from a land of poverty, war and discrimination, it doesn't matter: a transplanted tree's roots will forever wind towards familiar soil.

ESL…ELL…ELA…TESOL…TOEFL…… Just let them learn!

Though I have only spent the last few months teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), I have been fortunate enough, through research, experience, observation and conversations with fellow teachers, to gain a certain inside-outsider perspective on our attempt to educate our immigrant students.

There are certain areas in which we are committing great crimes against the most vulnerable of our citizens; I was surprised to discover that some of these areas are in “progressive” New York City. Because of zoning and cultural/racial clustering there is a number of schools that find themselves pretty homogenous in their immigrant/native language constituency. This fosters and environment where kids are free to communicate in their native tongue thus integrating socially yet falling behind academically. For most adolescents the former is significantly more important than the latter, particularly when they do not come from a background of education (themselves or their family). We see this in schools all over New York, however in other areas with immigrant populations schools are oft not equipped to provide a meaningful learning environment – yet they do not give the students the opportunity to naturally, and by necessity, acquire the language but instead shove them into quasi ESL programs which function more as ineffective special-ed classes.
Though the rate of acquisition varies and is dependent on a number of factors, the reality for most human beings is: if you are put in a place where no one speaks your language – you will learn that language! You will have to in order to survive. The more immigrants cluster and create self-sustaining communities the harder it is for them and their kids to acquire English, particularly if their local school are similarly populated.

I am a fan of bi-lingual education, like I am a fan of communism: it’s a really good idea, but its execution rarely holds true to its ideals -- making it a false hybrid – ineffective and detrimental. True bi-lingual education occurs when half the class speaks one language, the other half speaks another and the classes are taught in both at a ratio of 50/50. However most programs either do not have the heterogeneous population necessary and/or are not staffed with fluent, competent professionals who truly spend 50% of their time on one language. The result is another crutch for the English Language Learner (ELL), a crutch that more often than not holds them back as opposed to supporting their academic rise.

These are but some of the issues prevalent in the ESL community; the question of course becomes: how do we adapt our teaching to accommodate this type of grouping, or, how do we change zoning policy to restore a balance and allow for effective, dynamic learning experiences?

For my school the answer is obvious, it addresses the only question over which we have control; but what about the rest of the schools?


  1. This is definitely an important topic to be addressed. Being a part of the same immigrant community at my ESL school, and having taken a dual enrollment class with native students; I have come to realize a behemoth difference in the English aptitudes of the native and the immigrant students graduating from high schools. Which points fingers at the vigor of the ESL curriculum, specifically at ESL schools.

  2. Hi Muhammad,
    The finger points and justly so! The amount of remediation that ELL's need once they enter college is appalling! They are being shoveled out of the high school before they are ready and having completed a "less than rigorous" program, are forced to pay thousands of dollars for English remediation (which doesn't even count toward college credit).