Lost in Translation

A message for teachers of immigrant children: You make a difference

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
A panel discussion at the Central Library tonight focused on English language learners. Pictured are moderator Hayleigh Colombo of Chalkbeat; May Oo Mutraw, the founder of the Buremese Community Center for Education; Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Eddie Rangel; and Southport High School student Elly Mawy.

When an Indianapolis school meets new students from Burma, there is a lot the teachers, staff and their new classmates can’t imagine about the students’ life experiences.

May Oo Mutraw, the founder of the Burmese Community Center for Education, said schools often don’t understand what it means for families that come from a country like Burma, which has been embroiled in civil war for decades.

“These people lived literally in the war zones,” she said. “Their villages were burned down. They hid in the forest. If they heard boots of the soldiers, they fled again.”

For some, Indianapolis is the first place they’ve ever learned in an organized way.

“We are talking about a generation of people who did not get to go to school,” Mutraw said.

Mutraw joined Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Eddie Rangel, Southport High School student Elly Mawi and Charlie Geier, who heads the Indiana Department of Education’s English language learning efforts, for a panel discussion tonight to discuss the challenges of teaching children who are still learning to speak English.

The panel, moderated by Chalkbeat Indiana’s Hayleigh Colombo and held at the Central Library, was a follow-up to a series of stories jointly published last month by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Star and WFYI Public Media.

The series, called Lost In Translation, explored the challenges Indiana schools face to serve a fast-growing population of immigrant students. The stories reported funding had fallen behind as the number of English language learners has nearly tripled in Marion County.

Elly Mawi, a senior at Southport High School, came to the United States from a refugee camp after her family fled Burma. She praised Southport for being welcoming to immigrant students, but said she and her Burmese classmates do sometimes hear complaints in the community about the cost of serving them.

“We get a lot of misunderstanding,” she said. “They think we come here because of greed. We come here in the first place because we are at the line of life and death. You either die or escape.”

Last week, proponents of English language learning programs got some good news: the legislature more than doubled a grant program that supports instruction for children learning to speak English. Key lawmakers said the series helped raise awareness of the need for more funding.

Geier said the funding boost was an important step forward. Another recent upgrade was Indiana’s move to higher quality diagnostic tests schools now use to evaluate English language learners called World Class Instructional Design and Assessment.

The next step, he said, was to improve and expand training and license requirements for teachers of English language learners.

Just 900 Indiana teachers have a credential for expertise in teaching children learning to speak English on their teaching licenses, he said. Programs to prepare those teachers range wildly in what they require. Some require much less classwork and student teaching than others.

“We need to think about quality,” he said. “We have to have the right person doing the right work.”

Teachers who are dedicated to helping English language learners make a huge difference, said Mawi. Her teachers went above and beyond to help her. They met with her after school. They helped her fill out her college applications.

Mawi, who will graduate third in her class at Southport and will attend Butler University next year on a full scholarship, had a message for teachers of English language learners from all immigrant children like her:

“We thank you,” she said. “We love you. You make a difference every day in our lives.”

Frequently asked

There are lots of ways schools teach English learners. Here’s how it works.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Lindsey Erisman works with 6-year-old students in an English Language Acquisition class at Denver's Cole Arts & Science Academy.

School district officials in Westminster this year signed an agreement with federal officials to change how they educate students who are learning English as a second language.

Similar agreements have also shaped how districts in Denver, Aurora, Adams 14, and Adams 12 educate their English language learner students. But many people, including parents and district insiders, may still have questions about the various complicated programs and requirements.

Although many of the language-education agreements are years old, most of the issues haven’t been resolved. In Adams 14, for instance, parents and advocates have protested a district decision to stop biliteracy programming, and have questioned the district’s compliance with its agreement to better serve English learners. District officials have pointed out that their obligation is teaching students English, not making them bilingual.

Now at least one charter school, KIPP, is looking to fill in that programming gap. Many other states have had a number of biliteracy and other bilingual programs at various schools for years, but Colorado has only more recently started to follow those trends.

So what’s the difference between the various language programs and services? And what is required by law and what isn’t? The following questions and answers might help clarify some of those questions as you follow the news around these issues.

Which students are designated as English language learners? Do parents get to decide, or do schools decide?

Federal guidance requires school districts have some way to identify English learners. Most commonly, districts survey all parents at school registration about their home language and the student’s first language. If that survey finds there might be an influence of another language at home, the student must be assessed to determine fluency in English. While the district has to identify all students who aren’t fluent in English as language learners, parents in Colorado can choose to waive the federally required services for their children. If so, the district doesn’t have to provide special services, but would still be required to monitor that the student is making progress toward acquiring English.

What educational rights do English language learners have?

English language learners have specific rights under the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court case from 1974 and the subsequent Castañeda standards released in 1981. State laws also outline some requirements for school districts. Specifically, school districts must provide programs for all identified language learners to give them the opportunity to learn English and to access a comprehensive curriculum. The government does not state what that program should be, but provides some standards requiring that any program is theoretically sound and has a research base to support it. The program has to have qualified teachers, and a way to demonstrate that students are making progress in learning English and their academic content. While the civil rights officials consider many details to verify compliance, simply put, school districts have the legal obligation to identify students, serve them in a sound program, and monitor their progress.

What is the difference between bilingual education and “ELL services?”

Bilingual education (which is the program that has the most support for efficacy from the research community) offers students opportunities to learn in their native language while they are learning English. Bilingual programs can vary from short-term, or early-exit programs, to more longer-term developmental programs.

English language learner services do not need to provide opportunities for students to learn in the native language. Most commonly these services only offer English language development classes (generally 45 minutes per day). All other content instruction is offered only in English. ELL services are not bilingual.

What is English language development?

English language development must be a part of any program or model a district or school adopts. It is the class time when students are taught the English language. The government wants to see that English learners are given a dedicated time to learn English, when they are not competing with native English speakers. That means, often, English language development is offered as a time when students are pulled out of class to practice English, or as a special elective period students must take without their English-speaking peers.

The structure of this time period, who has access to it, or who teaches it, are areas commonly cited as problems by the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Do students who are identified as English language learners retain that designation forever? What does it mean to be an “exited ELL?”

They’re not supposed to. Students who are English learners should be tested at least once a year to determine their English proficiency. When a student reaches a high enough level, school staff must determine if the student is now fluent in English. If so, the student becomes an “exited ELL.” The law requires districts to monitor for two years students who have exited and are no longer receiving services. There are, however, students who do not reach English fluency before graduating or leaving school.

What is the difference between being bilingual and being biliterate?

Bilingual generally refers to oral language in that bilingual people can understand and speak two languages but may not be able to read and write in those languages. Biliterate refers to being able to understand, speak, read, and write in two languages. Many people are bilingual but not biliterate. Biliteracy is considered to be a higher form of bilingualism.

What is the difference between dual language and biliteracy models?

Dual language and biliteracy models share many common components. Both models usually have biliteracy as their end goal for students. Dual language models may be “one-way” or “two-way.” One-way programs generally serve students who are designated as English language learners (also sometimes called emerging bilinguals). Two-way dual language programs include students who are native English speakers. The only major difference is that biliteracy models focus on using two languages in the language arts or literacy classes (reading and writing in two languages) whereas dual language focuses on using two languages across the entire school day’s curriculum.

What is an immersion model?

Immersion models traditionally are thought of as referring to programs primarily intended for students from the dominant language population to learn a second language. This is different from programs meant to teach English.

While native English students can choose whether or not to learn a second language, students who are English language learners do not have a choice in learning English.

What is sheltered instruction?

This type of instruction takes place in non-dual language schools, during regular content classes (such as math or science), and it’s one way schools try to make the content understandable to students who aren’t yet fluent in English.

This is especially common in schools where English learners speak a variety of languages. Crawford Elementary in Aurora, for instance, has had up to 35 different languages represented among its approximately 560 students. If there aren’t enough students who speak a common first language and also a teacher who speaks the same language as those students, then schools must teach through English, while making the English as accessible as possible.

In practice, this means an English-speaking teacher would use sheltered instruction techniques to help all children understand the lessons such as, physical props, a focus on building vocabulary, and sentence stems.

Denver designates schools as TNLI schools. What does that mean?

Denver created the TNLI label in 1999 to set the district apart from other bilingual program models. TNLI stands for Transitional Native Language Instruction. The Denver TNLI program is a transitional bilingual education program model with a label created just for Denver. It’s a model where instruction in Spanish is used to help students learn while they’re acquiring English, but still has a goal of making students fluent in English as soon as possible, at which point students move into mainstream English classrooms.

Is one of these models best suited for English learners?

Among researchers, it is commonly accepted that dual language or biliteracy models are the most effective to put English learners on par with their native speaking peers, in the long run.

Why do teachers have to be trained specifically to teach this population of students? What are teachers learning?

Educators and researchers say that teachers need to learn the differences and similarities between learning in one language and learning bilingually. Teachers need to learn about literacy methodology and how teaching literacy in Spanish (for example) is the same and different as teaching literacy in English. They have to learn how to teach English language development to students who are beginning to learn English (it is different than just teaching in English). These trainings also help teachers learn about cultural similarities and differences and about sources of culture conflict. Teachers need to be able to teach children English; how to use English to learn; and how the English language works. In bilingual settings teachers need to learn those three things for two languages. In short, the training needed to be a bilingual teacher is quite different. Colorado will soon require some of this training for all teachers.

What are the challenges districts have in offering these different programs? How do schools decide which type of model to offer?

The demographics of a district’s student population, and district politics play a large part in helping a district decide what model or program to use. Resources can also be a factor in deciding how to structure services or what programs to offer. In Adams 14, when the district leadership decided to pause the roll out of a biliteracy program, the district cited a lack of qualified bilingual teachers, among other things.

In Westminster, the school district’s unique competency-based approach, which removes grade levels and seeks to personalize instruction, was cited as a reason why the district had structured its English language development the way it had before the investigation by the Office for Civil Rights sought to change it.

Does Colorado provide guidance or oversight for how districts are doing this work?

The Colorado Department of Education offers some guidance for districts, but oversight of the districts’ compliance with what is required is limited. In practice, when parents suspect their children aren’t educated well, they have filed complaints with the federal government. In Denver, the complaints went through the Department of Justice. Investigations of most other metro-area districts have been conducted by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

choice words

Colorado’s Spanish spelling bee is growing as more students, from different backgrounds, take on the challenge

File photo from 2012 National Spanish Spelling Bee. (Courtesy of National Spanish Spelling Bee)

Almost 50 Colorado students are getting ready to compete this weekend in a spelling bee where they’ll be spelling words in Spanish.

In addition to breaking down words letter-by-letter, in Spanish, students must include special marks, such as accents or capital letters, in the right places.

“One of the common misconceptions is that it is easier to spell in Spanish than it is in English, but it absolutely is not,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director for the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, the organization hosting the state spelling bee. “They don’t just memorize words. Cognitively, it’s a good exercise for them.”

Most students who participate are native Spanish speakers, but a handful of students are native English speakers who learn Spanish as a second language. Garcia said two years ago, a second-grade girl whose first language was English placed second in the state bee.

“All she did to prepare was read,” Garcia said. “She was just a voracious reader.”

2018 Colorado Spanish Spelling Bee
    When: Starts at 9 a.m. Sat. April 7
    Where: Kepner Legacy Middle School
    911 S. Hazel Court, Denver

    Free for the public to watch

Colorado’s Spanish Spelling Bee is in its third year — and is growing. This Saturday’s competition will be held at a school in Denver, but will include students from 14 schools across the state, including from as far away as Telluride.

“Every year it has been growing,” Garcia said. The first year the state competition included about 34 students from nine or ten schools, he said.

Students from second through eighth grade can participate. The students first participate in a spelling bee at their school to earn a spot at the state competition.

Three top spellers get to go to the National Spanish Spelling Bee in San Antonio.

David Briseño, founder and the coordinator of the National Spanish Spelling Bee, said this year’s national competition is drawing students from about 13 states. Next year, organizers are working to host the national competition in Colorado.

“If we do that, we want to get even more of our kids involved,” said Garcia.

2017 winners of Colorado Spanish Spelling Bee. (Photo provided by Colorado Association for Bilingual Education)

Colorado students were among the first to participate in the national spelling bee when it started in 2011, back before the state competition existed.

David Smith, a librarian at Escuela Bilingue Pioneer in Lafayette, has held a spelling bee for students at the dual language school since he got the job about five years ago.

“Every school should be involved,” Smith said. “The whole idea of a spelling bee is it gets kids interested in spelling, and it just gets them more aware about words and vocabulary. For bilingual students, it’s important to study. There’s a lot of things that are similar in the languages, but it also makes them very aware of the differences so they can be better writers.”

At Escuela Bilingue Pioneer, students have library time as one of their specials (like art and physical education), twice a week. Smith said he has an ability to help students practice spelling and get excited to participate in the competition during that time.

Every second- through fifth-grade student first takes a written spelling test to qualify for the school’s spelling bee. Smith also shares the results of the spelling test with student’s teachers in case it can be used as an extra data point showing how students are learning or give them ideas about what parts of language students might need extra help on.

Smith said that when other educators reach out to him for advice about starting their own spelling bee at their schools, he suggests starting small.

Many of the other participating schools, not all of which have bilingual programs, have students participate in the spelling bee on a volunteer basis.

Smith said many students get excited once they hear about the contest and teachers can encourage more of them to practice and sign up.

Educators say the excitement, and contests, grow as students who get to the spelling bee and don’t win vow to practice more and return the next year.

“If you’re there and you see it,” Garcia said, “it’s really fun.”

Schools participating in 2018:

  • Escuela Bilingue Pioneer
  • Angevine Middle School
  • Ashley Elementary
  • Academia Ana Marie Sandoval
  • Columbine Elementary
  • Valdez Elementary
  • Telluride Intermediate
  • University Hill Elementary
  • Foster Elementary
  • Telluride Middle School
  • Global Village Academy
  • Gust Elementary School
  • Godsman Elementary School
  • Denver Language School