Over the last several years of teaching ELL students, I’ve often struggled with the definition of what makes an English language learner. Obviously we can qualify those first generation students who have just arrived to our country as ELLs. However, what about those students who are second or even third generation citizens? Sources from my last post estimate that more than half of the U.S. ELL population in public schools is composed of these later generation learners who presumably should be able to speak English well enough not to be in an ESL program.
Let me illustrate this with a fictional student. Jessica was born in the United States. Her parents were brought to the United States at a very young age when her grandparents immigrated here. This means that Jessica’s mother and father attended public school in this country starting in kindergarten. While Jessica’s grandparents still speak mostly Spanish, her parents are bilingual. Before Jessica started school, she would often spend time at her grandparents’ house while her parents were at work. Jessica can understand some Spanish but speaks very few words because her parents have always spoken to her in English. What this means for Jessica is that technically her home language is English. However, she was exposed to Spanish at a young age, and her parents’ first language is not English.
Should Jessica be tested for the ESL program? Her parents will likely fill out the home language survey with some percentage of both Spanish and English exposure in her background. This would mean that she would be flagged for language testing. If Jessica scores low on the language proficiency test, then she can be enrolled in the ESL program even though her first language is technically English. This is the fuzzy gray area of identifying ELL students that I’ve always struggled with. Classroom teachers and secretaries will tell you “Oh, that family speaks English. They don’t qualify for ESL.” I’ve even had an ESL program director tell me before that a student like Jessica should be considered Title 1, not ELL. I disagree.
As a dedicated ESL teacher, I believe that students who have such a mixed language background may be at a disadvantage in our school system and should be eligible for ESL services if necessary. This scenario also applies to some Native American students who don’t speak their heritage language, but still struggle with academic English as well as the difference in culture between home and school. I would love to hear from others on this topic. What has your experience been with this? How do you or your school deal with this fuzzy gray area of ELL students? What do you think should be done for these students? Thanks for the input!