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First Year as an ELL: English and Math and More English and Math


Blogger the Angry Fish raises a valid concern in contending that some English-language learners may be turned off to school if their curriculum consists only of English and math—and the required physical education class.

So here is this child's day: English class, History/Social Studies/Gov't, then Math class, then Math helper Class, then English helper class, then P.E. Now mind you the only reason this child has PE is because it is mandatory within the curriculum. So this child has no choice in his schedule, he has no shop class, no music, no drama, no art, nothing outside of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Then we wonder why this child drops out of school as soon as he can.

I have visited two high schools already this school year where the curricula for first-year English-language learners were much as the Angry Fish describes—primarily English and math classes all day long. And I also visited a high school this year where new arrivals received math, social studies, English, and science from the get-go, regardless of their English proficiency. I met motivated ELLs at all three high schools, and one of the students who was taking only English and math and physical education classes told me he wasn't bored.

But I do wonder if students who are taking primarily English and math classes all day long are getting the chance to acquire academic English, the language of school, as quickly as possible.

What do you think? What should a curriculum look like for an ELL who first enrolls in U.S. schools as a teenager? I welcome you to weigh in on this, because I generally visit a school for only one or two school days and sizing up a curriculum in that amount of time has lots of limitations.


Hey, I had a student who came from an urban district who spent 5 years in LEAP program for refugee kids. He became really stressed at the end of year because he had never taken Science or Social Studies before! It came out that his school had only Math and English with a Science or Social Studies lesson once a week reading round robin style from textbook. He had been here for years and never given the information needed to be successful in school. He is doing well this year, but his older brothers and sister are dropping out due to lack of reading, math or any other skills. The secondary school for refugees in the city seems not to be successful in anything and they came in at an older age.
Having art, music, science labs and things people can do visually and with their hands are important. These new standardized tests have caused the problems. Math and ELA tests weigh heavily though NYS has Science and Social Studies tests in elementary school too to protect students from schools who might not bother to teach them. When I worked in high schools a few years ago, I often eased kids into more language based courses with abstract language. They were able to do more hands on courses and if they came as an older student, a vocational program. Now this time is not permitted and the kids are left sitting in classes where they understand nothing for long periods of the day.

There are some helpful resources for doing a better job of scaffolding and making content comprehensible for secondary learners, which appears to be your focus here. I have collected links to a few of them for handouts in conference presentations and they are posted on my blog, so that those who attend the sessions won't have to type in URLs from a handout to access the resources. These lists of links to downloadable book chapters and helpful archives of webinars are at
http://maestrostexas.edublogs.org .

None of these resources will immediately make teachers who have little or no preparation as ESL/sheltered content teachers into expert scaffolders of complex content in a second language for newcomers. However, some do a fair job of identifying what is needed and do provide a few strategies that are reasonably appropriate.
One resource that I did not include in the handout is Scarcella's framework for what is important in Academic English, which can be downloaded at

I have found the SchoolsMovingUp webinars helpful, and there are several books that I find helpful in my research although I would hesitate to recommend them for "immediate application" to teachers who were not simultaneously graduate students in ESL/Bilingual education programs.
What is needed is not simple because it requires the deft use of appropriate experience, adequate knowledge about how languages are used in instructional contexts, and skill in making complex content comprehensible to extremely diverse learners. And, of course, in order to effectively support more areas of content at the secondary level, the teacher needs to truly know that content.
Many of these newcomer English learners bring tremendous motivation and desire to learn, but their prior educational experiences are so varied as to either defy useful description or to deserve novel-length treatment. What each deserves, first and foremost is the unconditional respect and kindness of those who welcome them into our schools.

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