- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

Area teachers are learning some new lessons themselves, as more non-English- speaking students attend schools in the Washington metropolitan area.

The growing number of immigrants and U.S. citizens who are not fluent in English has teachers trying to figure out how they can teach subjects to children who may be having trouble understanding them. Currently, schools in Maryland and the District teach students who combined speak more than 200 foreign languages.

More than 11,000 of 140,000 students in Montgomery County are enrolled in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. Those students come from more than 160 countries, and they speak more than 120 languages.

Nearly 16,000 of 130,000 students in Prince George’s County schools speak about 130 languages.

In the District, more than 8,000 of the school system’s estimated 67,000 students are enrolled in the city’s bilingual education program. Those students speak 113 different languages.

The task of teaching non-English-speaking students can be frustrating for some teachers, who feel they are losing their students’ attention when they’re not speaking in the students’ native tongues.

“When teachers haven’t worked with English learners before, it can be intimidating for them,” said Lisa Tabaku, director of the D.C. Office of Bilingual Education. “But once they begin to learn and develop the skills, they understand the importance of it and see that it’s working.”

Carolyn Bernache, an instructional coordinator in the ESOL program at Langley Park McCormick Elementary School in Prince George’s County, said general education teachers sometimes are not sure if they could help students who speak languages other than English.

“We had a teacher who was very frustrated because she didn’t think students were coming along,” she said.

However, teachers, with some training and experience, learn that they can teach non-English speaking students by using other methods, she said.

“The bottom line of ESOL instruction is, you facilitate the language with visual or hands-on models,” Mrs. Bernache said. “So a lot of times you don’t speak the language of the child in front of you.”

At the District’s Marie H. Reed Community Learning Center in Adams Morgan, Estella Gonzales, the school’s English as a Second Language (ESL) coordinator, said it may be more difficult to communicate with non-English-speaking students, but they are learning the concepts vital to math, science and other courses.

She said that while students may not appear to be picking up information quickly enough, they are learning the sounds and meanings of the words.

“It’s immersion in skills,” she said, referring to the type of classes that mix students who are just learning English with those who are fluent in English.

Even though she speaks Spanish, like most of the students who are enrolled in the area non-English-proficient programs, Ms. Gonzales barely uses the language in classes. She might speak to a student in Spanish, if the student is struggling with an English word that has a double meaning.

Karen Woodson, director of Montgomery County public schools’ ESOL program, said teachers don’t have to speak the language of the children they are teaching for them to understand the course material.

“ESOL instruction is not translating; it’s not the regurgitation of something in a different language,” Mrs. Woodson said.

One reason for the growing number of students who do not speak English being in classrooms with English speakers is the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act.

Under the act, schools must integrate ESL children into regular classrooms as soon as possible. Students who do not speak English proficiently are also subject to the same standardized testing that fluent students take now.

As a result, teachers now are learning how to present course material in a way that non-English-speaking students will understand, and finding out more about the cultures of these students.

“I think one of the biggest changes has to be a shift in attitude,” Mrs. Woodson said. “There needs to be an understanding that everyone has to be involved.”

However, some critics worry that placing non-English speakers in regular classes will not give students the best education. They argue that placing ESOL students in traditional classrooms is pushing them too hard and, as a result, may slow the pace for those students who already speak English.

But, Mrs. Woodson said putting ESOL students in classes with English speakers doesn’t impede learning for English speakers because the teaching strategies are beneficial to all students.

Schools in the District have received grants to send teachers to courses that include lessons on cultural sensitivity and teaching non-English-speaking students, Ms. Tabaku said.

“One of the key things that general education teachers need to understand when they’re working with English learners is their culture and where they’re coming from,” she said.

Sandra Jimenee, the principal at Prince George’s Langley Park McCormick Elementary, said her school and others are adopting programs that allow students to be in classes with two teachers, one of whom is an ESOL expert, for several periods or for the entire school day.

Before, non-English speaking students had only one class period, or between 45 to 50 minutes, where they could learn English.

School officials in Fairfax County did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment for this story. The number of ESL students in that county were not made available.


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