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Florida Teachers Disagree on Amount of Preparation for Reading Teachers


Some teachers of English as a second language and professors in the field are trying to convince Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to veto a bill that some other teachers have worked very hard to get introduced and passed. The bill, passed earlier this month by both the Florida House and Senate, would decrease to 60 from 300 the number of in-service hours of English-as-a-second-language training required of reading teachers who want to work with English-language learners.

The idea for the bill came from the Clay County Education Association, which represents 2,500 teachers and is affiliated with the Florida Education Association and the National Education Association.

Constance Higginbotham, the president of the Clay County Education Association, told me in an interview last week that because of a state consent decree signed in 1990, English-language learners are assured of having an English-language arts teacher who is required to have had 300 hours of specialized training to work with such students. It's "unnecessary," she contended, to require that same level of specialized training for reading teachers who work with English-language learners as well.

But Rosa Castro Feinberg, who is retired as an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at Florida International University, said that teachers and professors participating in a listserv she manages that was set up by the Sunshine State TESOL of Florida have organized to try to convince Gov. Crist to veto the bill. (Their organization and the Bilingual Association of Florida, which is affiliated with the National Association for Bilingual Education, are in the process of writing a position statement on the bill.) They argue that English-language learners need reading teachers who are trained extensively in their special needs. Ms. Castro Feinberg said the 300 hours now required include courses in applied linguistics, cross-cultural communication, curriculum development, testing, and methods.

"You can't do all of that in one 60-hour course," Ms. Castro Feinberg said in a phone interview.

Ms. Feinberg and others who oppose the bill interpret Florida's consent decree as requiring the 300 hours for reading teachers, while Ms. Higginbotham and the Clay County Education Association disagree with that interpretation.

I gather from my conversations with both of these women that there's no shortage of passion on both sides of the debate.

(Read the Florida Senate's bill, S2512, here.)


As a former English teacher in Florida, I applaud this idea! I was supposed to take 300 hours of ESOL hours to maintain my certification. Even though I had a master's degree in English and a BA in English/English Ed, I was classififed publicly as "not credientialed" until I did.

The courses, which were on my own time and for which I was not compensated, were a joke. They rarely focused on any second langauge learners/issues other than those from Spanish speaking countries. That didn't help me too much with my students from "other" countries.

They were a complete waste of time. I did not even learn one useful idea to use during my teaching career.

In one course our final projects were reports on countries--some even brought "native" foods as their projects!! Please, how did that help me teach ELLs??? The most unfair thing is that if I had taught another subject, my required training hours could have ranged from 60-180.

If Florida is going to continue to require these hours, I hope the courses are not as inane now as they were then.

There's much more behind this bill than the huge reduction of in-service TESOL training. It's basically part of a statewide effort to reduce the number of ESOL-certified teachers and "make" pseudo-ESOL teachers out of reading teachers(who'd take only one 3-sem. hr. TESOL course to gain what is essentially "certification" (dubbed "endorsement":) in ESOL.
How did this happen? First, the Florida politicos decided (in 2003) to re-define "reading" as a subject matter field and not as language arts or as a language skill. By doing so, the ESOL training required would only be similar to that required of non-language subject matter teachers (math, science). Yet, the longstanding META-LULAC Consent Decree defines reading as a language arts area. Thus, the bill challenges a 17-year-old Consent Decree signed by Florida's Dept' of Education.
Second, poor ESOL in-service instruction dominated the State! Why? Because each district was allowed to select its in-service instructors. Who did they choose? Whoever was cheap and handy. No wonder reading teachers find the instruction lacking! In a county that borders mine, it was offered by the school nurse since "she was in the Peace Corps twenty years earlier".
Nobody wants to waste teachers' precious time. Yet, the same mentality that selects under-qualified in-service instructors is the same mentality that underfunds (and cheats) ESOL students, who are failing to meet minimal English standards statewide.
Given good in-service leadership, the 300-hr. requirement (equal to 15 sem. hrs. of coursework) should yield dually-certified reading/ESOL teachers. Is 15-semester hours a rather minimum requirement for doubling one's areas of certification? I think so. Is ONE course ample for granting certification and for preparing reading teachers to actually TEACH LITERACY? I think not.

Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages is a professional field more akin to foreign language teaching than teaching English to native speakers. It is very disappointing to read that poor quality ESOL teacher training programs are being conducted in Florida. All professional training, no matter what field, requires nurturing, refreshing,support, and plans to maintain qualified trainers.

I was privileged to provide teacher training in two Florida counties for 10 years serving 2000 teachers. I was part of a hard-working training team focused on providing relevant training while honoring teacher time. I have a folder of letters, notes, and cards of appreciation for the courses. We asked for input from teachers and incorporated suggestions for improvement. It is the school district's responsibility to maintain quality inservice programs; but perhaps with all the things on the plate ESOL training has taken a back seat.

The issue at hand is not how many hours of training. This issue is what is required to be able to provide quality reading instruction to ELLs. Nevertheless, an honest look at the condition of ESOL training in Florida is needed to ensure that the quarter of a million ELLs in Florida public schools receive equal educational opportunity.

I thought I would share with you a statement jointly written by leadership in two Florida language education professional organizations: Sunshine State TESOL and the Bilingual Association of Florida.

As you peruse these lines, I hope you’ll take with you the clear notion that to equate reading instruction for native speakers with teaching entire language to new English learners is ridiculous. There are well over a quarter million English learners in the Florida public schools. Hence, these two organizations feel (and rightfully so, I suggest) that legislating a cut in appropriate attention to the training necessary for these students can result in disaster—not only for the students and their families, but also for the schools who assist great numbers of these students.

As a result, we’re emphatic in our desire to see Florida’s bills HB 1219 and SB 2512 vetoed by Governor Crist.

Here is the policy statement:

The importance of reading in this information age has increased for all students, including English Language Learners (ELLs). Not only do ELLs need to be able to read to learn, they also are now required to be able to read well enough to demonstrate their learning on standardized tests in English, and their progress is evaluated using grade level norms set for native speakers of English.

Teachers of ELLs must be prepared to work with learners who come to school in the U.S. from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Professional development that is specific to ELLs' unique needs is key to teacher effectiveness; however, this body of complex knowledge and specialized skills is not typically addressed in general teacher preparation or in reading teacher preparation at preservice or at inservice levels.

First, learning to read in a second language is NOT THE SAME as learning to read in a first language. Effective teachers of reading to ELLs must consider their students' oral proficiency in English, their literacy level in the native language, and specific aspects of the native language that can influence reading processes in English, including discourse, grammar and word structures, and print characteristics. Teachers must also understand the important roles that a student's cultural background, identity, and previous experiences can play in reading.

Second, the knowledge base required to choose appropriate curriculum, materials, and instructional strategies for ELLs is NOT THE SAME as that needed for fluent English speakers. The "scientifically based research" supporting Reading First instruction requirements that have been endorsed by No Child Left Behind DID NOT INCLUDE a representative sample of research on literacy interventions for ELLs. Reading instruction that is grounded in a strong oral language foundation will not be as effective for students who do not have good oral language skills in English. One size does not fit all, and reading programs, texts, and instructional methods developed for fluent English speakers do not necessarily meet the learning needs of ELLs.

Third, assessing ELLs' reading ability is NOT THE SAME as assessing the reading ability of fluent English speakers. The selection of assessment instruments and the interpretation of assessment results must be based on a firm understanding of first and second language acquisition processes and patterns and must take into consideration students' linguistic and cultural differences. Such targeted ESL instruction requires that teachers understand the ways in which language and language learning are both systematic and variable. Therefore, ESL/bilingual teachers' expertise with L2 language & literacy development should be consulted in school and district decision-making related to the assessment, teaching and learning of ELLs.

Fourth, ELLs also bring a wealth of background knowledge and related skills that can be used as strengths for learning and as resources for scaffolding and engaging their development of English language literacy. Native language literacy skills can contribute to students' English literacy development, and ELLs can and should be able to develop oral language and literacy in BOTH the native language and in English. Teachers should have the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to help ELLs exploit the advantages their first language and culture afford them.

Learning to read is a complex process; it is even more complex when it occurs in a second language. Teachers of reading to ELLs must be well prepared for (and not minimally exposed to) principles and practices of effective literacy instruction that incorporate the resources as well as the challenges that L2 literacy instruction bring. This understanding of language and culture and an awareness of cross-linguistic influences are typically developed in ESL and bilingual professional development, but should also be included in professional development for all reading teachers and general educators who work with English language learners.

I would like to make three points that are indirectly related yet relevant to the controversy over the proposed legislation (SB 2512) to reduce the ESOL preparation required for reading teachers in Florida schools. At the beginning of her piece in Education Week, “Florida Teachers Disagree . . . “ Ms. Zehr wrote that the teachers affected by the proposed reduction in ESOL professional development are “reading teachers who want to work with English language learners.” At first I wasn’t sure exactly what bothered me about that sentence. I later realized that I felt it somehow misrepresented the issue--or rather it failed to address the context in which the issue is being played out in Florida. My concern over reduced ESOL teacher preparation relates both to teachers who WANT to work with English language learners and to teachers who MUST work with them.

The unfortunate reality is that many Florida teachers do NOT want to work with ESOL students. For some, this reluctance may be associated with anti-immigration sentiments; for others it may be a response to the professional development requirements for teaching ESOL students. For others, it reflects their concern over a practice that many could see coming from a long way off. This school year many Florida districts announced plans to evaluate teacher performance and allocate merit pay on the basis of their students’ scores on the FCAT (state achievement test administered primarily in English). If federal (NCLB) guidelines for accountability fail to acknowledge the important confounding role played by language difference in measuring student achievement (and they do), we can hardly expect local school districts to take this into account when planning their own outcome-based systems for teacher incentives. I wonder how long it will be before lawsuits are filed on behalf of both ESOL students and their teachers over inequities resulting from failure to recognize the language bias inherent in high stakes testing in English for ESOL students. Like the proposal to reduce reading teachers’ preparation to work with ESOL learners, the plan to evaluate teacher performance using measures that are invalid and discriminatory for a large sector of the student population reflects a basic lack of understanding of the language and learning characteristics of ESOL students.

Ms. Zehr also cited a Florida educator who argued that because English language arts teachers are required to have 300 hours of ESOL professional development in Florida, an equivalent requirement is “unnecessary” for reading teachers. However, it is important to realize that being prepared to teach ESOL students is only the first step. Because ESOL students make up a large proportion of the K-12 student population in many school districts in Florida, and because the full-time inclusion of ELLs in general education classes is increasingly the norm, even in districts with relatively small numbers of ELLs, fewer and fewer teachers are able to actually work as ESOL teachers, despite their professional preparation to do so.

Indeed, specialized ESOL, such as intensive oral language and literacy development or sheltered content area instruction, is increasingly rare as ELLs are mainstreamed for all subjects, including English language arts, and especially for reading. For example, in the context of a high school (inclusion) English class in which students are supposed to be reading Hamlet, even a well prepared and committed teacher must be exceptionally skilled and deliberate in order to provide targeted language instruction for ELLs with low English language and literacy skills. Therefore, we can NOT assume that another teacher is providing appropriate instruction for ELLs. More likely than not, the same ESOL students who are “included” in English language arts classrooms where they fail to receive appropriate instruction for English language development will also be “included” in reading intervention classes with native English speakers who failed to meet FCAT Reading benchmarks for their grade levels. In spite of the fact that ESOL students’ reading instruction needs often have more to do with English language (especially vocabulary) development than with decoding skills, they will receive the same inappropriate texts and remedial reading instruction as the English-proficient students in these classes. Reading teachers need to be prepared to make decisions that are appropriate for ESOL students, and the ESOL professional development they pursue must prepare them to do this. Any amount of ESOL “training” that fails to do so is counterproductive.

A third and more general point is that substantive, high quality professional development in ESOL (addressing students’ second language and literacy development and cultural diversity, as well as issues related to curriculum, instruction, and assessment) is important and necessary for teachers (and for administrators). But the best and most extensive professional development is ultimately insufficient if the school context does not recognize ESOL students’ needs and respect ESOL teachers’ expertise. ESOL is not “just good teaching” and ESOL teachers should be acknowledged as professional educators with specialized knowledge and skill who are able to make informed decisions about student groupings, instructional materials, classroom practices, and assessments that are meaningful and supportive of ESOL learners’ success in school.

I would like to take this opportunity (my first blog entry) to remember a friend and colleague Cheryl Benz, who lost her long battle with ovarian cancer yesterday afternoon. Cheryl’s energy and commitment as a teacher and advocate for English language learners were inspiring and “awe-some” to her students and peers. Her passing is a tremendous loss to the ESOL profession and to her friends, who miss her already.

What will Reading teachers miss out on if they only take 60 hours of ESOL?

I'm being asked this question more and more. It's an appropriate question, but I think I have an answer. Are you ready?

First, we need to understand that learning a foreign language is not only reading. To suggest so is absolute folly. It also entails at least speaking, listening, and writing. Hence, in the most simplistic sense, three of the four skills aren’t addressed if reading equals foreign language learning.

Reading pedagogy outlines several aspects of the task, namely phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, fluency, and comprehension, and in that order (as named by the National Reading Panel). Well, that’s for native speakers. Such is based on the fact that native speakers already have comprehension of speech and then connect their given language to anything written down. For any of the phonics stuff to work for ESOLers, one has to have comprehensible language available to build on. Hence, phonics and word-by-word development without respect to any comprehension is simply not going to work. Hence, in appropriate professional development, one is going to need 60 hours in order to understand how to flip the order such that comprehensible non-print language then links to the stuff you want folks to read. Notice here the particular emphasis on developing native language and developing second language in all realms rather than just diving into decoding.

Let’s look at phonics for a moment. It’s based, as I said, on one’s ability to connect with language already known—namely the sounds of the language. If teaching English reading is the same, then one assumes that the sounds and even their written forms in other languages work the same way in all languages. Well, if you watched the Spelling Bee last night, noting that three quarters of the words posed were import words from other languages, you’d have to realize that the rules we learned in school didn’t apply to these words; however, rules from other languages such as French, German, Latin, and Greek did. In order to help students work through the interference of their first language and English, one will take great steps in doing so by learning how other languages work linguistically. One needs much more than 60 hours of professional development to get that. And such is not part of the reading pedagogy. In sum, phonics simply won’t work until students get really good at English—namely spoken English. But what does work is a transfer of skills from one’s first language to the new one. Hence, if we work to develop both languages simultaneously, we can help students move forward much more effectively than if we cut off the native language. There are many effective means for doing so, but they’re not part of the reading endorsement training. Furthermore, one needs substantially more than just 60 hours in order to get good at promoting such.

Next, let’s look at the positive role attention to a student’s first culture and first language can play. We have seen dynamic progress in students who are allowed to continue working in their first language. Doing so connects them to their friends and family around the world. Doing so then permits these students to share with their peers in a realm of diversity. At present, Reading teachers do acknowledge culture and do things like have a cook-off where students bring their foods from around the world. But that’s really superficial. A full-fledged professional development would entail teachers’ understanding of students experience with displacement—for example, the Bosnian student who shuttered and cried at the otherwise encouraging words of “Hang in there!” when they inadvertently reminded her of seeing her family hanged from trees. There are frightfully few short stories detailing displacement and immigration experiences; however, the students themselves have them to offer.

Some differences are just tinges of difference that all teachers need to understand. For example, that the frets of the colors of the rainbow are spliced differently from language to language, thereby seemingly clear distinctions between blue and green are blurred and confused. An effective set of 300 hours can assert that teachers experience these new world views on a personal level. A reading endorsement plus 60 hours couldn’t appropriately address such.

Assessment is a huge deal in this realm. In this FCAT world which is bubble-filling ABCD, we have to work with ESOL students who have never seen such a sheet. Furthermore, to learn how to follow the directions of such tests is absolutely culturally based, entailing the learning of vocabulary and rhetoric at a complicated abstract level. And teachers need to understand that even if they give students accommodations on these tests such as a dictionary or extra time, for students with lower proficiency, these accommodations are simply not going to work. We can all imagine how it would be to take a math test in Chinese. No amount of extra time nor a dictionary is going to help us pass it, even if we know how to do math in our own language.

At its most basic stage, all teachers will need to understand and perform appropriate linguistic accommodations such as paraphrasing, repeating, and slowing down when giving such direction. This may seem fundamental in its description, but enacting is actually something we rarely see from teachers. They don’t slow down. In fact, they speed up if the sentence they need to utter—usually a set of directions—has more words in it. Hence, if a direction has 20 words in it, the teacher usually says it faster. Teachers need to be trained to make these directions accessible for all students. And since most of these words are abstract rather than concrete, they need to understand that the acquisition of such vocabulary takes substantially longer than any drawable vocabulary such as cat or circle.

I have seen student teachers working with their Reading-based teachers recently make all sorts of errors. The processes are boring, and they have little or no base in what we know about helping folks learn English or any new language. To then suggest that we cut the training for these teachers by 80 percent almost ensures that English learners will fall even further behind. Such condemns innocent children to staying behind feeling themselves inadequate, condemns the teachers to the blame for not helping their students even though their credentials will say that they’re able to (which won’t really be accurate), and condemns the schools, whose funds are connected to test scores, will then face having to explain why their scores aren’t going up when they’ve followed all the rules.

Urge a veto of HB 1219 and SB 2512 from Florida Governor Charlie Crist

Hence, it's time to ask Governor Charlie Crist to veto House Bill 1219 and Senate Bill 2512. You can do so by doing the following: You can email the governor by writing to [email protected]. You can also phone his office at 850-488-7146 or 850-488-4441. Finally, you send messages by regular mail at this address:

Office of Florida Governor Charlie Crist
PL-05 The Capitol
Tallahassee, FL 32399-0001

Hey...I just want to know when they are going to start paying us for all of this inservice.

It is not offered during the day. It is offered after school.

I don't want anyone to bring dumb cookies as compensation...I want money!

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