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Embracing Diversity with English Learners

by Rosetta Stone
early elementary students participate in classroom learning with raised hands

There is no doubt about it: English Learners (ELs) are a diverse group of students. Nearly ten percent of all K-12 students in the United States qualify for English language services at school, and they speak a multitude of native languages.

Sources such as the Pew Research Center point out that Spanish is the most common home language for ELs, followed by a wide range of additional languages, including Somali, Vietnamese, and Chinese dialects.

What might be even more surprising is the fact that most ELs are born in the United States. This is especially true for younger students, as the vast majority—around eighty-five percent, in fact—are American citizens, while a smaller number are refugees or immigrants.

This level of diversity, linguistically and in terms of background and experience, likely represents both a challenge and an opportunity for school-based staff.

First, the challenging part. Despite the growing numbers of ELs, who are expected to account for up to twenty-five percent of all students by 2025, there is a shortage of qualified EL teachers available—especially those who are not just English language instructors, but who are also bilingual.

This often means that the job of working with ELs falls to traditionally trained classroom teachers. While there are efforts underway to provide better training and support for EL teachers, as a way to grow and diversify their ranks, for now, this remains a significant issue for districts with higher numbers of ELs.

But in this challenge lies a notable opportunity as well. ELs constitute not only a rising percentage of K-12 students, their presence also offers a way for teachers and school communities to adopt a more global, dynamic, and multicultural approach to education.

Here are some suggestions for how to embrace the diversity ELs bring to K-12 schools.

Asset Mindset

An article in the EL resource magazine, Language, gets off to a powerful start. Imagine you are a first grade teacher, and a new student from Ethiopia has just been placed in your classroom. He doesn’t know any English, he’s already getting into fights, and his family support appears minimal.

What do you do? Well, the article advises, try shifting your perspective to see the boy–and his skills–in a different light.

He already speaks two languages (just not English, yet), after all, and his parents actually value education so much that they are doing all they can, under difficult circumstances, to ensure he shows up on time, each day.

He is also an excellent soccer player. Could that be a way to foster positive relationships with his peers?

The boy is actually a real student, Mawi Asgedom, and he eventually made his way to Harvard and to a future as an education-focused entrepreneur and bestselling author.

Asgedom wrote the article in Language along with Johannah Even, and both authors offer practical advice for districts interested in implementing an asset-based environment for ELs. Read on for more insight into their suggestions.

Whole-District Approach

Asgedom and Even note that they have seen the “tremendous impact of an asset-based approach to English-learner education,” provided it is put into practice by everyone, from district leadership to classroom teachers.

Teachers immersed in the asset framework will likely be able to influence one another, and help their peers shift their thinking away from the difficulty working with ELs can bring and towards the benefits and rewards of having such students at school.

District administrators can help with this shift in thinking as well, by embracing and praising the diversity ELs represent. As demographic changes take hold across the country and school districts become increasingly less white and less monolingual, district staff can be at the forefront by celebrating, acknowledging, and welcoming these trends, Asgedom and Even state.

Differentiate and Diversify Instruction

Praising the diversity ELs bring to a class or school is a good first step, but it is also important to think critically about how and what these students are being taught.
A post on the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) website documents how the public school district in Albuquerque, New Mexico, not only adopted an asset-based mindset, but also implemented instructional strategies designed to boost ELs literacy skills through a culturally responsive lens.

Written by Albuquerque EL teacher (and former EL student) Jessica Villalobos, the post demonstrates the importance of putting EL students’ needs and their potential on everyone’s radar.

Rather than letting such students languish in poorly staffed or resourced EL classrooms, Villalobos writes about the importance of using data to monitor their progress while also using materials and strategies that acknowledge and celebrate the unique experiences of ELs.

This can be accomplished through texts written by and about non-English speakers, for example, or those who have been ELs at some point, too, and by encouraging ELs to directly express their questions and concerns.

When you see students are engaged, Villalobos advises, you will know “you’re doing it right.” 

Limitless Potential

All of this adds up to an opportunity to help ELs feel seen, heard, and valued. Instead of viewing their needs and experiences as simply a challenge, school districts and teachers can practice seeing the wonder and potential of ELs.

Or, as Villalobos put it, “Our English language learners are filled with potential. Educators have the awesome opportunity to help them reach it. With a dedicated plan and a commitment to action, we can change outcomes for every student in our schools.”

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