According to the California Department of Education, approximately 1.4 English language learners (ELL) were enrolled in California public schools in the 2010-2011 academic year. Regardless of proficiency level, ELLs face large hurdles for overcoming discrimination and their sense of not belonging. I am at a school where the student population is mostly Caucasian. Of the 2295 students enrolled this year, only 129 students are ELLs. In addition, most of the teachers at this school are Caucasian and teach a Eurocentric curriculum. Because this school has a low percentage of ELLs, resources to help these students are low. I'm not implying that the school doesn't care about ELLs. I just don't think that differentiating instruction and implementing support systems for ELLs is a top priority.
When these students first enter the academic environment as freshmen, they undergo a condition called "language shock" when they are trying to acculturate to the new school setting. Similar to culture shock, language shock causes the student to feel anxiety because they are not proficient in the dominant language, English. Moreover, students feel higher levels of stress because they are mocked by their peers about the way that they speak English. This further exacerbates their already low sense of school belonging and self esteem. Previous studies have found a direct correlation between stress and reduced student academic achievement (1).
What action can I take to alleviate some of the stress and anxiety ELLs face in school and ensure that they achieve language proficiency as well as success in the classroom? For starters, organizing a school support network to help ELLs adjust to their new environment may reduce some of the anxiety. For example, at the beginning of the school year students could meet with a counselor to discuss the various options in the support network. Students are given a choice to receive help from a bilingual peer tutor or AVID tutor. Students could receive worksheets ahead of time to read before class. Any uncertainty in vocabulary or terms can be looked up before the lesson. Teachers can meet with parents to discuss ways that they can support their child at home. Counselors and teachers can also teach ELLs how to cope with stress. Peers can be educated on the negative effects of mocking and teasing ELLs about their language proficiency. Teachers can be educated on how to differentiate their instruction for ELLs. Knowing a student's academic history can help teachers to understand where their ELL students are coming from. A teacher can choose activities that allow students to draw on prior knowledge and experiences. They can create lessons to fulfill the needs of ELLs as well as the rest of the class.
There are many good options for creating a positive learning environment for ELLs. I would like to explore ways that I can make adjustments to current policies regarding support for ELLs at our school.
(1) Schrami, K., Perski, A., Grossi, G. ad Makower, I (2011) Chronic stress and it's consequences on subsequent academic achievement among adolescents. Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology 2 (1) 69-79.