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Long Tradition of English Language Learning May Need a Jolt

New issues may require new approaches

English language learners (ELL) have always presented a unique challenge for schools and teachers, going back to the initial settlements in this country when colonists taught native Americans English, and during several periods of mass migration. The first ELL class was started in 1963. 

But their issues are even more prominent now with their growing numbers, increasing efforts to include them in general education classes and rising sensitivity about their status in the U.S.

School administrators, counselors and general education teachers may have to pay even closer attention to their needs, according to Rebecca Lowenhaupt, a Boston College education leadership professor who specializes in how immigrant children adapt to school.

Lowehaupt says that schools today perhaps should more closely evaluate English language learners more often and for other issues beyond simply determining their ESL levels and schedules. Issues they face with emotional or physical health or learning are sometimes difficult to spot.

Some schools are evaluating ELL students with efforts resembling those made for special needs students in developing IEPs, and, she says, counselors should perhaps be more focused on them, and their families should should sensitively be included more often in the school community (some may be wary of any sort of requests for information or to appear somewhere).

Colleen Miller, an experienced ELL teacher in Howard County, MD, between Baltimore and Washington, has written about the culture shock that these students face, noting that they often go through five stages:

  • Honeymoon – marked by enthusiasm and euphoria as students are stimulated by the novelty of their new situation.
  • Hostility – characterized by irritability and negativism as the excitement wears off, difficulties become realized, and self-confidence slips.
  • Crisis – typified by a deep sense of homesickness and/or hostility. Students may feel a sense of isolation and loss of control.
  • Humor – enthusiasm begins to return, especially if new language skills are acquired. Students will see the humor in their mistakes and stop being critical of themselves and of their adopted country.
  • Adjustment – characterized by gained biculturalism, and by a willingness to mentor new ELL students. Culture shock subsides as students gain proficiency in the new language, become more familiar with their environment, and achieve greater success in their intercultural interactions.

“Students who are here with questionable legal status will often have an extremely short honeymoon stage,” she said in an interview.  “Many will go almost immediately to the crisis stage because they have such little control over their environment, and they have real fears and stresses at home.” She notes those students are often counseled against disclosing personal concerns, which creates a stressful conflict beyond the issues they would face anyway.

“Remember, if students are not doing something that they have been asked to do, this is rarely a sign of belligerence,” she says. “Students overwhelmed by negative feelings such as anxiety, embarrassment and isolation lose their ability to learn, which leads to a form of paralysis. They just not know where to start.”

Lowehaupt notes that schools should more often rely on experts – from their own ELL departments or from outside services who work with the immigrant population. Some experts note that often in schools the ELL departments operate somewhat in isolation.

In the classroom, she notes that ESL students are often reserved – and therefore may not seek attention or be very visible, so teachers may have to pay close attention.

In teaching she recommends that teachers be conscious of not making assumptions about these students – either that they should know certain material or don’t understand simply because they don’t speak English.

Other experts recommend using visuals and group work and enlisting other students to help, particularly if a bi-lingual student is capable of helping an English language learner (for some it is a burden – for others is supports their learning). It can build bonds for the new student.

Often, experts say, ELL students are embarrassed to make a mistake, so the teacher might point out their own errors with the student’s language or those of others who don’t mind the humor. Include them in the joke, some recommend, because it is a universal language and creates bonds.

A good source for specific information about teaching ESL students is teacher Larry Ferlazzo, who has a new book on classroom techniques. Education World also has a variety of other information on the topic.

Learn more about how to meaningfully support ELLs during classroom instruction with our online PD course!


Written by Jim Paterson

Jim Paterson has been a newspaper and magazine editor and an award-winning writer for The Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, the Christian Science Monitor, Parents magazine, and a number of national and regional publications. During a break from writing he worked as a school counselor for seven years and quickly became head of a counseling department and "Counselor of the Year" in Montgomery County, Md.