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Jump-starting English language instruction in RE-1

Locations: News Published

By Debbie Bruell

Sopris Sun Correspondent

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“It’s like we’re at the starting line and we’re ready to floor it.” That’s how Amy Galicia describes the RE-1 school district’s readiness to address the needs of English language learners. Galicia was hired this past summer as the new coordinator of the district’s English Language Development program (ELD).

Galicia has worked in education for the past 21 years as a teacher, program developer and coordinator of bilingual programs in Mexico, Iowa and Colorado. She also has served as president of the Colorado Association of Bilingual Education.

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This year the district is moving full swing into a new approach to teaching English as a Second Language with the goal of engaging English Language Learner (ELL) students at higher levels as well as enriching the learning experience for all students. Language instruction will now be integrated into all classrooms (in contrast to limiting language instruction to ELD classes only). All teachers will be responsible for teaching English language development within the context of their specific content area. Teachers also will be responsible for teaching in a way that makes the content comprehensible for students at all levels of English language development.

In previous years, ELD teachers were the only ones who were fully trained to teach English as a Second Language. One of Galicia’s jobs is to train all teachers on how to embed English language instruction into the instruction of their content area and how to provide the supports that ELL students need.

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Galicia told The Sopris Sun that this approach (which is being adopted across the state) will enable ELL students to learn the same concepts and skills as their English-speaking peers. Previously, teachers tended to “water down” the learning goals for ELL students due to their limited English skills. Now, teachers can expect ELL students to engage in high levels of thinking — analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating information — while they’re still in the process of learning English.

ELL students will also be given more flexibility in terms of how they demonstrate that they have learned the content. For example, if first graders are learning to differentiate between living and non-living things, Galicia explained, native English speaking students may be able to demonstrate their understanding by writing a list of living vs. non-living things, while beginning ELL students could draw pictures or point to images.

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With this approach, ELL students can be assessed on how well they understand a concept, not simply whether they know enough English to express how well they understand a concept.

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Will this new approach detract from the instruction of native English speaking students? To the contrary, Galicia states that “any supports for ELL students enhance learning for all students.” For example, teachers could incorporate more visual learning aids and hands-on experiences to support the ELL students in a classroom. Such varied approaches to teaching provide a richer learning experience for native English speaking students as well.

Galicia also notes that fully integrated classrooms provide all students with valuable cross-cultural learning experiences that don’t exist when ELL students and native English-speaking students are in separate classrooms.

Galicia said that extensive research over the past 50 years supports this new approach and debunks some common myths about learning a second language:

• Myth #1: Students learn English best if they stop using their Spanish in school and receive instruction in English only.

According to Galicia, research finds that kids who spend some time learning academic content in their first language learn English better than kids who are in English-only programs.

“Many factors affect how quickly and how well you learn a second language,” Galicia said. “The number one factor is how well you know your first language.”

“At age 5 kids are still learning their first language,” Galicia explained. “If they’re in a place where they’re not allowed to continue learning their first language it stunts their learning in the second language.” In contrast, if children have the opportunity to develop an advanced understanding of their native language either before or at the same time that they are learning a second language, they will be much more successful at learning that second language.

Of course, instructing a child in Spanish requires a Spanish-speaking teacher. While many RE-1 schools do not have a sufficient number of bilingual teachers to provide instruction in Spanish, Crystal River Elementary School does provide reading and writing instruction in Spanish and English to native Spanish speakers in kindergarten through second grade. Basalt Elementary School also includes instruction in both English and Spanish for some children (both native English speakers and native Spanish speakers).  

• Myth #2: It’s best for kids learning English to spend their days in classrooms focused entirely on learning English as quickly as possible.

According to Galicia, research indicates that ELL students learn English best when they are surrounded by their native English-speaking peers (as opposed to grouping all ELL students into one classroom). Also, kids are more successful in the long run academically if they are given opportunities to advance their knowledge in content areas while their English skills are still progressing.

• Myth #3: It only takes kids a couple years to learn English as a second language if they start learning at a young age.

Indeed, young children, after being in school for just a couple years, may be speaking English very well. However, Galicia explains, what these children have gained is conversational English. Conversational English requires just a rudimentary understanding of the language. (Also, young children are very good at imitating accents, so they may sound like they have a much deeper understanding of a language than they actually have).

Research has found that students need a more advanced, academic understanding of English in order to excel in school. According to Galicia, research demonstrates that it takes an ELL child an average of 5-10 years to reach academic grade level proficiency in English equivalent to a native English-speaking peer.

When ELL students in the RE-1 district are placed into regular classrooms, they continue to get the language support they need to thrive in these classrooms (rather than just expecting them to thrive since they can speak conversational English).

Blending cultures

Galicia’s perspective on ELD programs as a whole is that they should aim to blend cultures together and take the best of both cultures. She said that she does not believe in forcing children to assimilate or “to give up one thing and replace it with another.”

Galicia points out that nationwide about 70 percent of ELL students are already U.S. citizens. Many of them are from families that want both English and Spanish language and traditions in their home.

“I’ve taught the children of people who were physically beaten for speaking Spanish in school,” Galicia said. Many of these parents chose not to teach their children Spanish. As a result, those children are unable to communicate with their grandparents. “That won’t happen if we accept the best of both cultures,” Galicia said.

Galicia lives in Carbondale with her two daughters who attend Crystal River Elementary School.

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