Columbia's English Language Learners program grows with demand

Thursday, January 2, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:54 p.m. CST, Tuesday, January 7, 2014
Becca Stock’s classroom is in a trailer at Smithton Middle School. The room is covered with posters, some of which tell about the students and where they come from: Mexico, South Korea, Brazil, Iraq, Kazakhstan, China, Thailand, Rwanda and more.

COLUMBIA — Sixth-graders at Smithton Middle School are required to take a test to identify all the parts of a sewing machine so they know how the machine works when they use it. For English language learner Bohang, who comes from China, the task was daunting.

Words such as "spool" and "thread" and other sewing jargon are about as useful to a second language as "fishing lure" or "rolling pin." Bohang's home economics teacher emailed Becca Stock — Bohang’s English Language Learners, or ELL, instructor — and told her Bohang would likely fail the quiz.

Stock did not accept that. She knew Bohang was smart enough to pass the  quiz. She knew she just needed to find a way to present the information to him.

Stock made him flash cards. She took pictures of the pieces of the sewing machine. She identified the jargon words that a non-native speaker wouldn’t know. She cut out the pictures, highlighted the sewing terms and gave the stack of cards to Bohang.

"Thank you, so thank you," Bohang told her.

He passed the quiz.

"You could see it click, and he was so happy," Stock recalled.

Stock's efforts and the efforts of the English Language Learners department faculty at Columbia Public Schools are helping the district’s 927 students in kindergarten through 12th grade in need of English assistance.

The district's 28 full-time ELL faculty members — teachers and instructional assistants — work with students who collectively speak 60 languages.

"As the population grows, we must face the challenges it brings us," said Shelly Fair, the ELL department coordinator.

Defining ELL 

ELL students nationwide are classified as "active" or "monitored," based on six levels of English comprehension.

Levels are assigned to students based on their placement on the Access Test, a standardized test required for any public school student whose primary language at home is not English. Level one is for first-time learners; level six signifies the students have no problem with English.

Active students need day-to-day assistance, which varies based on their proficiency. Monitored students have passed the test with a level five or six score, and they are deemed fit to learn unassisted.

There is no average time frame for a student to reach a monitored status. Factors such as age of arrival and frequency of English use outside the home are the most predictable ways to determine how long a student will need help.

The district’s elementary schools house the majority of ELL students. There are 638 active ELL students in the district’s elementary schools, though the number is ever changing, with an additional 65 on monitor. Blue Ridge Elementary has the largest proportion, with 15 percent ELL students.

This year, there are 150 more students in the ELL program than last year. Two more full-time ELL teachers were added, as well as one more part-time teacher and two new full-time instructional assistants to help them, Fair said.

Fair is one of the new hires. The Missouri native and MU alumna moved back to Columbia in July after teaching and leading an ELL department in Southern California for 14 years.

In California, English language learning is so commonplace that all classroom teachers in the public schools had to have an ELL certificate.

Fair said she would like to work with non-ELL teachers here about cultural differences and understanding their ELL students. She said that she gets a lot of questions from teachers about how to help ELL students and that she hopes to hold workshops for classroom teachers to help them better reach these students.

In the classroom

In Columbia, ELL staff members are doing all they can to aid the students in their classes.

Stock’s classroom is in a trailer at Smithton. The room is covered with posters explaining English grammar and a smorgasbord of English-to-any-language-you- can-imagine dictionaries. Other posters tell about the students and where they come from: Mexico, South Korea, Brazil, Iraq, Kazakhstan, China, Thailand, Rwanda and more.

ELL students in the district come from not only a variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds but also a variety of educational levels. A refugee from Cambodia might have had little formal schooling, while the child of South Korean researchers at MU might have gone to school six days a week.

This increases the challenge for ELL instructors, as they might be the first formal teachers some students have ever had.

Stock is flexible with her lesson plans, and she needs to be.

"I always have something planned, but you have to be ready to do whatever is needed," Stock said.

On a Monday this fall, the day starts with the students filling out a goal sheet of what they hope to accomplish in this class period. The children go to the table that corresponds with the subject they most need assistance with today.

ELL teachers are often forced to be comprehensive educators. Today, Stock is not going with a single lesson plan for all; she is instead allowing students to work on assignments from the weekend when she can help them.

Stock is not a science teacher, but today she has brushed up on cell walls so that she can help explain the material to the sixth-graders. She switches from the science table to the electives table, where she helps a boy from South Korea with a paper on Beethoven.

She moves with purpose to the math table, the subject where most ELL students find success. Today, however, the sixth-graders are working on word problems. All that English, on top of all those numbers, makes it hard for ELL students.

At the reading station, two students page through a reading on the Wonders of the World. They highlight the words they do not understand. When they leave, Stock looks through their readings and adds the highlighted words to a list of vocabulary for the students to master.

Connecting the dots

Stock began her education career as a special-education teacher. Eight years ago, she got her ELL certificate and fell in love with teaching it. She got her master's degree in teaching English as a second language. She was the only ELL instructor at Smithton for three years, but this year, a second teacher was added to share the load of 80 students.

Stock said demographics at Smithton have changed. A third of her ELL students were Spanish speakers when she started; there is just one in the sixth-grade class today. Smithton now has a majority of Korean students in its ELL program.

Stock works to connect the dots for her students to get them to understand concepts that might easily go over the head of non-native speakers. She said that when the children were having a tough time understanding the ritual of animal scent marking, she got on all fours and acted out the ritual.

Charades and gestures are one way to explain words to foreigners, though oftentimes Stock relies on newer technologies.

"Google Translate and Images are my best friends," she said, fondly holding the class’s most valuable tool — an iPad with translation apps and every keyboard imaginable. "They know what things are when you show them; they just might not have all the English."

The high point for Stock is when she can make a concept click. The low point is when she sees a student who has zoned out, overrun by all the English.

Fair said that ELL teachers also help students understand American culture and that cultural understanding is a major part of the training for ELL teachers. But students learn about the culture of their new home mainly through American children.

This is the reason the district uses strategies of "push in" — placing ELL teachers with students in their normal classes — and "pull out" — bringing students to a classroom like Stock's. ELL students at Smithton, for instance, have three hours a day with ELL support and four hours a day without it.

Fair thinks time without fully supervised ELL instruction is critical for students. This time can be intimidating. Most people go through a silent phase while learning another language because they might be afraid to speak and make a mistake. But Fair thinks they will benefit from more time integrated with native speakers. She said research shows ELL students learn the language fastest when they integrate with native English speakers in content-based classrooms. 

Connecting to families

Both she and Stock can empathize with their students' experiences. Stock spent a summer teaching English in China. Fair lived and worked in Germany, where she began teaching English to non-native speakers. Both felt the anxiety that comes with not knowing exactly what to say or how to say it.

Many parents of ELL students face a similar struggle: sending students to a school in a different language and culture and not being able to communicate directly with the teachers who will be in charge of their children.

Fair said the district has a long list of interpreters they can call upon to help. Refugee and Immigration Services in Columbia and Asian student associations at MU help provide translation services.

Stock has been invited into homes of foreign students. Often families invite the teacher and ask questions through the help of a parent or community member with English skills.

The schools have extended their invitations to the immigrant communities, too. They invite family members of students to come in most Thursday evenings to use the school’s Rosetta Stone programs and practice their English.

"We want the families to understand how important their role is," Stock said, "and make them feel welcome."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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