Thursday, September 20, 2007

Teachers train to help students with English

Sunday, September 16, 2007

New Jersey is preparing a corps of educators with a new specialty: helping immigrant students master English during regular academic classes.

Non-native speakers have reached a critical mass. Districts focused on boosting their test scores are including more students in mainstream classes. So the state Education Department is aiming to prepare 200 regular classroom teachers for the challenge, by expanding teacher training at three state universities this fall.

"The students are in regular classes with regular kids," said Raquel Sinai, coordinator of bilingual and English as a Second Language instruction at the state Department of Education. "All teachers should have the training, the knowledge and the skills to work effectively with them."

One in five New Jersey students does not speak English at home. These students no longer are concentrated in large cities: non-native speakers were enrolled at two-thirds of school districts during the 2006-07 school year. Although the state has embraced bilingual education and offers plenty of programs in Spanish and Korean, New Jersey students account for 167 languages, a significant barrier to offering bilingual classes in every academic subject.

The state has turned to "sheltered instruction" to prepare teachers for their evermore inclusive classrooms. New Jersey has trained 400 teachers so far, in districts such as Glen Rock, Wallington, Passaic and Bergenfield, during summer sessions at Rowan, Kean and New Jersey City universities.

By following a structured method called Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol, or SIOP, teachers learn to incorporate language-learning goals in subjects such as math, science or social studies, often by writing them on the blackboard. They measure whether students have achieved both the academic and language objectives, and incorporate visual cues, hands-on activities and group discussion to promote language development.

"It is a structured approach to help people who aren't really able to draw on a deep understanding of second language acquisition," said Carolyn Adger, director of the language education and academic development division at the Center for Applied Linguistics, which helped develop the program a decade ago.

The techniques benefit mainstream students as well, because they promote sophisticated language development and communication skills, educators say.

A national focus on improving academics for traditionally low-performing students has spotlighted English language learners' performance on annual tests. Schools are forced to report their scores separately, and many have responded to low scores by including more students in regular academic classes led by teachers with subject expertise.

"There is a strong push for English language learners to perform at the level of native speakers, because of No Child Left Behind," said Janina Kusielewicz, supervisor of bilingual education and basic skills instruction in Clifton, among the state's most linguistically diverse communities.

More than half of Clifton's 11,000 students are non-native speakers, representing 68 primary languages. About 10 percent of Clifton teachers are trained in SIOP, particularly those working with older students. In middle and high school, students are more likely to have graduated from English as a Second Language classes but are still working at language mastery, said Kusielewicz.

The program is also popular in Ridgefield Park, where 2,000 students account for 36 different languages, such as Spanish, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Albanian, Turkish and Arabic.

"Our population is distributed so unevenly," said Louise Chaker, supervisor of bilingual, ESL and basic-skills programs. "We have so many ethnicities ... I felt there was a tremendous need for having teachers be a little more sensitive to the needs of the English as a Second Language student."

During an eighth-grade science class there last week, about two dozen students were assigned a short project on identifying physical properties. Students were required to discuss the properties they found in a bag of everyday items in small-group discussion and a short writing assignment.

In the center of the room, four students -- three mainstream, one ESL -- rifled through their bag, which was filled with standard office supplies. Teacher Melody Go prompted them to use descriptive language to explain the contents to someone who couldn't see them.

"And what do they all have in common?" she asked.

"Work," said Arianna Meza, a 13-year-old ESL student.

She caught herself, and repeated more robustly: "That they are all used for work."

Later, when the groups were sharing their findings with the class, Arianna repeated her finding in the more complex phrase. A bright, motivated student, she spoke only scattered English when she moved to New Jersey from Ecuador last year.

After the lesson, she ably described Go's class as fun and a comfortable challenge. She had already mastered every English word she wanted, except one.

"She explains so easily that I can understand what she says," she said. "She gives me confianza that I can ask whatever I want. What does that mean? Oh right. Confidence."

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