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Sharpening their tongues

The English as a Second Language Program helps shorten the long road to proficiency for non-native speakers
Friday, August 22, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:11 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Lee family is from Korea and has been in Columbia for the past two years. Hyoshin Lee is the mother of four children and cares for a niece and a nephew who are all enrolled in the English as a Second Language program.

These six children are just a few of the 400 students who do not speak English fluently. Of the 400, administrators expect 100 Koreans, 100 Latinos, 50 Bosnians, 30 Chinese and a host of other nationalities including Rwandans, Malaysians, Mongolians and a few students who speak Arabic.

“Once students get to this country, we will educate them,” said Lynn Barnett, executive assistant superintendent of the Columbia Public Schools.

Lee, who has her master’s in education from MU, is happy with the ESL program, but “from an academic standpoint, I’m not that satisfied.”

Children in kindergarten spend 30 minutes a day in an ESL class, while first through fifth grades spend 50 minutes. For the 12 elementary and secondary schools where ESL classes are taught, there are 12 full-time and two part-time instructors. Seven of these teachers assist middle, junior and high school students. This leaves five teachers to cover eight elementary schools.

“We’d always like more time (with the students),” ESL instructor Judy Lewis said.

Three years ago, 290 ESL students were taught by a staff of 11 full-time teachers and one part-timer. There has been a 25 percent increase in ESL students since then, and only one full-time and two part-time staff people have been added.

Budgetary allocations to the program have been decreasing on a per student basis. In the 2000-01 school year, $1,799 was spent on each student per year. This year, with over 100 more students expected, the anticipated per student amount is $100 less than three years ago.

“The funding to the program is adequate, not optimal,” said Patty Wayland, coordinator of the ESL program.

Activities in the elementary ESL program include art projects, singing and dancing, poetry and assistance with regular school work. Activities are hands-on.

“We did a lot of art projects,” Joanne Lee, 9, said of her ESL class at Russell Elementary. “We also did the Monkey Dance.”

Dancing and singing are important activities because music and rhythm are helpful in learning language, Wayland said. Lewis said the classes provide a sense of community where children can take risks that they don’t in their regular classes.

Akbaret Hailu, mother of two elementary school sons, said the program has been beneficial for her sons. They moved to Columbia six months ago from Eritrea, which is near Ethiopia. Noah Hailu, 6, did not speak English when they arrived. After two months of ESL classes he speaks without using a translator.

Working with ESL students can be a challenge for regular classroom teachers. Wayland would like to see more training for the teachers who spend a majority of the day with the student.

It’s not so bad for young children to spend most of their time in a regular classroom, Wayland said, but it can be more of a problem when fifth-graders are trying to read English textbooks and only receiving 50 minutes of ESL time a day.

Often teachers will give ESL students easier or less homework, Lee said.

“As an example, if the kids are getting 20 vocabulary words, they will give only five to 10 to the ESL student,” she said.

Most Korean families hire an outside tutor, Lee said. Starting at young ages, students will work with a tutor at home to improve their English and help with academic subjects.

Family members and volunteers from these communities are welcome to get involved in regular classroom education, Wayland said.

Even with community volunteers, the 2003 Missouri aptitude test results, released Wednesday, revealed that students with limited English proficiency in Missouri did not meet adequate yearly progress goals toward the guidelines of the No Child Left Behind Act. Although significant strides were made in mathematics, little improvement was seen in communication arts.

“Hopefully, this will cause us to do something different and pay more attention to certain groups of kids,” Kent King, Missouri’s education commissioner, said in a release.

The recently enacted No Child Left Behind Act requires that 100 percent of students in American schools — including those with limited English proficiency — perform at grade level by 2014, according to Jim Morris, director of Public Information for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“Students can be fluent speakers; when it comes to an academic setting, things can be more difficult,” Lewis said.

The goal of the ESL program is to get ESL students to fluency — both oral and written, said Skip Deming, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

ESL instructors are not required to have a background in teaching English to non-native speakers or speak a second language, although they must have a bachelor’s degree, according to Deming.

Many families leave the district within two years, Wayland said, adding that most students do not complete ESL classes in that time period.

If the family does stay, it is not uncommon for students to spend five to seven years in the ESL program. Research has shown that it takes that amount of time to master a language, Wayland said.

Lewis said ESL classes provide extra academic support that students need.


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