ABSTRACT of teachers of ELLs – the problems

 

ABSTRACT

English
Language Learners (ELLs) in mainstream educational areas are faced with the
challenge of mastering English Language along with the curriculum of the
subject areas they hope to improve themselves in. This comes at a disadvantage
to them when a standardized test is involved. In this respect, students are
usually graded along with their English-proficient counterparts. This
experiential study compiled the experiences of teachers of ELLs – the problems
they face, how they cope, and most importantly, how they help their ELLs
surmount the hurdles of taking standardized test. This study reached the
following conclusions: As a solution to ELLs fears, in class and in taking
standardized tests, students should be provided with (i) understandable
instructions – either simple enough to understand or translated to their native
Arabic language; (ii) test practices before the standardized test; (iii)
highlighted sections to point out possibly difficult words or concepts. (iv)
word-to-word translators to help students understand words in their native
Arabic language; (v) as a supplement, students should be allowed to provide
answers using descriptive diagrams and images. On the other hand, teachers
should be trained on how to handle such non-mainstream students. All these will
build Arab ELLs’ confidence allowing them to perform better in standardized
tests. Hence, incorporating the objectives of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB)
Act. This study is however limited to detailing the experiences of ELL
teachers. A further study should document the perception of ELL students.
Further studies should also take into consideration the possibility of varying
number of students with different first languages in a single class.

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Keywords: ELLs,  ESL, ELL teachers, Arab
ELLs, Assessment, ELL Accommodations

 

INTRODUCTION

English
as a Second Language (ESL) is a necessary course for non-native speakers of
English Language. It assists them in all their other courses of interest. Being
proficient in spoken English is considered to be weightier than reading and
writing English Language. But taking standardized tests in English Language and
other subjects of interest makes proficiency in reading and writing English a
must. As the author of this research paper, having taught English Language for
a number of decades, I have gathered enough experience, thus, making this
documentation of problems facing teachers of ELL precise and accurate.
Proffered solutions are also documented. 
Foremost, the following terms are explained to ensure a better understanding
of this research paper.

English
Language Learners (ELLs): ELLs are students
who are unable to learn effectively in English, they often come from
non-English speaking backgrounds. They require specialized instructions for
English language use in their academic courses.

ELL
Assessment strategies: These strategies
include direct and indirect linguistic support for ELLs in test-taking in order
to facilitate greater success. Such test taking strategies include: providing
simplified versions of the tests, providing an interpreter or making bilingual
dictionaries available.

Test-wiseness:
Test-wiseness is the capacity of an ELL to utilize the
characteristics and formats of the test /test-taking situation to arrive at the
right answer. It comprises s a variety of strategies, including reading
questions before the passages upon which they are based, and ruling out
alternatives in multiple-choice questions.

ELL Accommodations: These
are strategies adopted to provide ELLs with equitable access to the curriculum.
To enable them be at par with other students. 
These strategies include:  extra
response time, dedicating a support staff to work with ELLs, and using
bilingual dictionaries to clarify meanings when possible.

NCLB:
The
No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is a U.S. aP2 Act
that includes provisions allowing disadvantaged or minority students to be
carried along with more privileged students (in terms of proficiency as well as
racially), as is the case with ELLs. It aims to achieve accountability,
flexibility and choice so that no child is left behind.

 

Arab
English Language Learners

Although
Arab students have always had English Language as part of their curriculum from
the first grade all through to the 10th grade, proficiency in
English Language is still not ensured. This problem ensues because students,
teachers, as well as governing bodies do not see English Language as a subject
that should be mastered, but rather as a course that should be passed (Ali,
2012). Hence, they memorize the questions, and many pass with flying colours.
But in reality, they have not mastered the language. Another challenge is ELLs’
socio-cultural background. Arab ELLs come from a cultural background different
from the background of the language they are expected to learn. A different
method of writing is used in their own mothers’ language. Pronunciations are
different, figures of speech are a problem, and unfamiliarity with most
concepts also makes the new language overwhelming. 

Problem
arises when Arab students face admission-into-college exams. English Language
is a requirement because their course materials are written in English. In most
of these settings, accommodations are not made for ELLs. Hence, they have to
put in extra effort to master the language as well as their courses of study.
Not doing this affects them tremendously, in English Language itself, in their
courses of study, as well as their environment. The burden thus falls on
English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers to help ELLs master the language as
well as to improve test scores in standardized test – English language test as
well as their course of study. A number of strategies can be put in place in
classroom as well as during test-taking to improve ELL chances.

 

ELL
Testing Strategies

How
should ELLs be tested to give them a better chance of performing as well as
English-proficient students? Willner et al. (2007) outlined two models:

·        
Designing a
direct linguistic support which assist ELLs with language in which the test is
written (English).

·        
Providing an
indirect support system which considers the circumstances in which the tests
take place.

However,
care should be taken that these approaches should not be a one-size-fit-all.
ELL support should be administered on an individual basis. All ELLs vary in background,
language-proficiency and linguistic needs. All the above would only work during
test-taking if ELLs have had a practice-test before the actual test. An example
of this is a bilingual dictionary to help students translate words to their
native Arabic language. This would only work if students have had a go at it
beforehand.

Still,
the most important preparation remains actual teaching. ELLs should have been
taught the actual content of the curriculum in certain circumstances and with
certain assistance that makes them understand the content. Else, all other
linguistic support would be of no use. As Willner et al. (2007) put it, “If
students have not been taught the content, accommodations are meaningless”.

 

Test-wiseness
strategies

Test-wiseness
strategies are a set of cognitive ability which test-takers use to improve test
scores no matter the content of the test (Benson, 1988; Rogers and Bateson,
1991). Understanding ELLs’ cognitive processes is essential for ELL teachers
(Anderson, 2001; Bachman, 2000). Test-wiseness strategies are only partially
dependent on the ELLs’ respondent knowledge. Much is dependent on how ELLs
learn to respond to questions. It is pertinent that ELL teachers and curriculum
designers understand this cognitive process. It would help the teachers
understand how better to compile test for ELLs’ understanding. It would help
curriculum designers to appropriately put the conditions of ELLs in mind; for
example, using images to explain concepts where appropriate.

Rogers
and Bateson (ibid : 333) described the
cognition skills of test-takers to include:

       
i.           
Congnitive
monitor that controls which abilities and skills are going to be engaged to
answer the item under consideration;

      ii.           
Knowledge
facilities and skills relevant to the content or trait being measured;

    iii.           
Knowledge of
test-wieness principles; and

    iv.           
The response
(selection and record of choice).

Test-wiseness
is independent of content as well as language knowledge. While test-wiseness is
important, an understanding of the content of the curriculum to be tested is
pertinent. Rogers and Bateson (1991 p.348) opined that, for an effective
test-wiseness strategy,  knowledge of the
content is important. Test-wiseness will only be successful if it is combined
with knowledge of the test to be taken. The following are test-wiseness
strategies taught by ELL teachers; these have proven useful for many ELL
students:

i.                   
Read all
instructions more than once.

ii.                 
Attempt all
questions, starting with the easy ones.

iii.               
Outline key
words in the question, this will point ELLs’ attention to it.

iv.               
Form a mental
image of questions.

v.                 
Write out the
first answers that come to mind.

vi.               
Revise answers
to correct spellings and grammatical mistakes.

vii.             
Allocate time
to questions (try to work within budget time).

viii.           
Avoid
last-minute changes

ix.               
In a passage
requiring answers, read questions before reading the passage.

The
following can also be implemented:

       
i.           
Identify the
tasks.

      ii.           
Decide what
should be done.

    iii.           
Determine what
vocabulary and concepts are needed for the task.

    iv.           
Figure out how
to use topic and language knowledge most effectively.

      v.           
ELLs should
evaluate their own performance on the test.

Starting
out without setting a clear goal or detailed plan can put the ELL test-taker at
a disadvantage.

 

The
significance of test-wiseness

It
is important for teachers to teach test-wiseness and test-taking strategies.
However, teachers should also draw experiences from former students to better
improve the prospect of current ELLs. An example of this experiential contribution by … aP3 draws
practical conclusions that would help to better understand ELLs and improve
their test scores.

 

How
does the NCLB Act help ELLs?

NCLB
requires that ELLs receive the same high quality content that mainstream
students learn (Gottlieb, 2006). Accomplishing these goals is a challenge for
teachers who have little or no knowledge on how to accommodate ELLs. On most
occasions, ELLs are groomed into mainstream classrooms. This poses a problem
for mainstream teachers. According to NCLB guidelines, these teachers are
responsible for all learning requirements of ELLs – the curricula as well as
improving language skills. This burden becomes difficult for the teacher who
has little or no preparation for this job title. They can neither accommodate
ELLs as they should or prepare ELLs for tests accordingly.

On
the part of the ELL, taking a test can be frustrating. In situations where ELLs
do understand the content, they are still unable to perform up to the mark
because of language challenges. This experiential contribution by … aP4 discusses
teachers’ account of the frustration they see ELLs face. Practical conclusions
are drawn from these experiences. These conclusions will equip ELL teachers on
how to better improve themselves under the NCLB programme. The best
solution to ELL language learning improvement programme, in classroom as well
as in taking standardized test, still remains accommodation. A number of
experts also recommend practice-tests before the actual tests.

 

Implementing
practice-tests

Many
ELL teachers and even ELLs look to commercial test preparation materials to
achieve better test scores. Obviously, test preparation materials of this type
can be beneficial under certain circumstances. But the concern remains a lack
of good academic background in other courses. These practice-tests are helpful
but a lot cannot be said of ELL language proficiency. Teaching ELLs to improve
test scores should not be at the expense of acquiring civic knowledge to be
good citizens, scientific knowledge to do well in a technological society, or
reading, language arts and mathematical knowledge. Fillmore (2000) emphasized
the disadvantage of “teaching for the test”. Test is important but language
should be developed through constant attention to the way language is used
(Fillmore, 2000). Teachers should incorporate vocabulary by using words,
practically. Opportunities will arrive at such activities as games or during
discussions in class. The teacher can use the following pointers:

       
i.           
Creating word
families;

      ii.           
Playing with
synonyms and antonyms; and

    iii.           
Commenting on multiple
meanings.

Students
would thus have a better grasp of the language. Such activities would deepen
student’s comprehension of how language works by pointing out the vocabulary
and structures that signal relations, such as cause and effect, comparison and
construct or generalization and examples.

 

ELL
Accommodations

In
the end, all leads to ELL accommodations in the classroom as well as in
test-taking. So one of the effective strategies for improving ELL test scores
is professional development. Training teachers to effectively cater for ELLs
will result in a lot of improvements. Implementing the following accommodations
will help teachers to groom ELLs into mainstream classes effectively:

ELL
accommodations for classroom

Accommodations
for ELLs in classroom is necessary in order to help them achieve the following:

i.                   
Understand the
content of the curriculum.

ii.                 
Complete tasks
and assignments successfully.

iii.               
Improve their
English.

iv.               
Make ELLs feel
included and comfortable in their environment.

ELL
accommodation includes using strategies and learning resources that makes
content comprehensible. It is the key to engaging students in the
classroom.  The teachers should implement
the following ELL Accommodations in the classroom:

       
i.                       
Seat the
student near the teacher.

      ii.                       
Write
instructions clearly on the board as well as give instructions orally.

    iii.                       
Point out key
words, page numbers, homework and deadlines on the board.

    iv.                       
Incorporate
visual gestures, props, graphic organizers and charts.

      v.                       
Avoid slang,
colloquial expressions and complex structures.

    vi.                       
Speak clearly,
using a normal tone and rate of speed, or slightly slower.

  vii.                       
Check for
comprehension – use questions that require one-word answers, props and gestures

viii.                       
Allow for
discovery learning but be ready to give direct instructions on how to complete
certain difficult tasks, for example, how to use a calculator.

    ix.                       
Determine the
students’ reading and writing ability. (Consult with the ELL if in doubt).

     
x.                       
Whenever
possible, modify assignments so that ELL students write less and answer simpler
questions.

As
for equipment, accommodations should be considered in this line: provide tapes
of books or CD where possible; provide wall charts of key concepts (for
example, alphabets, number tables, spelling of words, multiplication tables,
periodic tables, maps, and so on).

 

ELL Accommodations for test-taking

The following are simple accommodations busy mainstream
teachers can employ to help ELLs achieve better test scores.

i.                   
Practise:
prepare students to take the test.

ii.                 
Highlight
important key terms and phrases. This will draw ELL’s attention to these terms
and phrases.

iii.               
Point out to
ELLs that they should translate these terms first. This will help them to
understand the concept better.

iv.               
Read the
instructions aloud to ELLs – check to see that ELLs understand the
instructions.

v.                 
Make the
directions a step-by-step one. This way ELLs won’t get confused. (Curtin,
2005).

vi.               
Have students
look up vocabulary ahead of tests. This will save a lot of time.

vii.             
Provide student
alternative definitions: For example, use: “gasoline” instead of “gas”, “test”
instead of “assessment”, “tissue” instead of “kleenex”, “rotate” instead of
“turn” and “way to think” instead of “perspective” (Fregeau et al., 2008).

viii.           
Explain the
vocabularies used in test-taking: define, mention, describe, briefly, except.
Give them examples from other students from previous tests or from last year’s
test.

ix.               
 Allow the use of an electronic word-to-word
translator.

x.                 
Allow the use
of a picture dictionary for vocabulary check – to check nouns and verbs..

To
provide direct help with the questions, teachers can implement the following:
For multiple-choice questions, eliminate one or more choices; for true/false
questions, avoid the use of ambiguous words; for fill-in-the-blanks, provide
two or three options.

Further
help can be rendered by allowing accommodations during grading. Such
accommodations include: Accept a description instead of a specific-word answer;
grade the process rather than the product alone; include homework and lab
activities as part of the final grade; adjust the weightings of marking guide
to reflect student achievements (Gonzalez et al., 2005).

If
all these are implemented, a better grade for ELLs in standardized tests can be
assured.

 

Conclusion

Teaching
ELLs can be a daunting task. But this is surmountable by a number of
strategies. Assessing ELLs is paramount. But teaching them is an even greater
task. If ELLs are taught what they should be taught and the way they should be
taught, several researchers showed that assessing them becomes easy. Also, many
experts lay emphasis on not “teaching for the test” as commercial test-practice
materials encourage. Rather, an all-encompassing approach should be used. This
means accommodating ELLs in classrooms as well as in test-taking. The two
experiential contributions above draw conclusions on further accommodations
that can be made for ELLs during test taking – … aP5 With
these, ultimately, Arab ELLs can aim to achieve better scores in standardized
test – both linguistic and in their academic courses of interest.