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Equity and Academic-Language Access for ELLs and SELs

Today's guest blog is written by Dr. Ivannia Soto, Associate Professor of Education at Whittier College.

Our job is to teach the students we have. Not the ones we would like to have. Not the ones we used to have. Those we have right now. All of them." - Dr. Kevin Maxwell

In 2014, 60 years after the landmark Brown versus Board of Education Decision and 40 years after Lau versus Nichols, the National Center for Educational Statistics reported that students of color now form more than half of our total school population. The following year, the Southern Education Foundation announced that more than half of our nation's public school students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

Together with these demographic shifts, the language development needs of our students have become increasingly urgent. According to the Migration Policy Institute (2013), close to 5 million U.S. students, or 9 percent of public school enrollment, are English Language Learners (ELLs). Three-quarters of these 5 million students were born in the U.S. and are either the children or the grandchildren of immigrants. In some large urban school districts such as Los Angeles, ELLs already comprise around 30% of the student population.

These trends, along with the rigorous content expectations of new content and language development standards (e.g., CCSS, WIDA, ELPA21, etc.), require that educators at all levels of the system become skilled at simultaneously scaffolding academic language  and content for this growing group of students.  For ELLs, academic language mastery is the key to accessing rigorous content and, by extension, college and career readiness. Now is a pivotal time in educational history to address both academic language and content simultaneously, so that ELLs do not fall further behind in both areas, while also becoming disengaged by methods that are cognitively banal.    

Another group of students who have academic language needs, but are not formally identified as such, are Standard English Learners (SELs).  SELs are students who speak languages that do not correspond to Standard American English language structure and grammar but incorporate English vocabulary. They include African American students who speak African American Language (AAL), sometimes referred to as African American English, and Mexican American-non-new-immigrant- students who speak Mexican American Language (MxAL) or what is commonly referred to as "Chicano English."

ELLs and SELS also need instructional assistance in the academic language necessary to be successful in school, college, and beyond. For both groups of students, academic language represents the pathway to full access in meeting the rigorous demands of the new standards. ELLs and SELs also must be provided with scaffolded access to cognitively and linguistically demanding content, which allows them to cultivate their complex thinking and argumentation.

All students can benefit from academic language development modeling, scaffolding, and practice, but ELLs and SELs need it to survive and thrive in school. ELLs and SELs have plenty of language assets in their primary language that we can leverage to grow their academic English.

Yet, all too often, educators undervalue the inherent assets or funds of knowledge that that culturally and linguistically diverse students bring to the classroom.  The need to replace such deficit thinking with assets-based mind frames has been well-documented by researchers. Similarly, school leaders who critically examine and replace institutional policies and practices that decrease the odds of success for marginalized learners have been most effective in closing opportunity and instructional gaps.      

On August 19th and 20th, Ivannia Soto is presenting at the Equity and Academic Language Institute co-sponsored by Corwin Press and the Institute for Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching (ICLRT) at Whittier College. The organizers of this conference believe that promoting academic language development of ELs and SELs is a key component of culturally responsive teaching and, ultimately, a bridge to educational equity. 

* Peter DeWitt writes books for Corwin Press but is not affiliated with this conference. 

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