Connecticut’s ELL problems are complex, urgent

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I have been pleased to read your recent series on English Language Learners (ELLs) in our schools and the challenges that they face. As a professor of linguistics who often supervises student teachers seeking certification in working with this population, I have seen a broad range of successes and challenges across many school districts. The series has covered this complexity well, but it has also focused largely on the lack of dual language programs in our state.

While I enthusiastically support the idea of more dual immersion schools, I also believe that the problems facing ELLs in Connecticut are so complex and urgent that they require a broad set of solutions and initiatives. In this letter, I will touch on a few of the challenges.

There is no silver bullet, no once-and-done solution when it comes to learning a new language. For ELLs in our schools, systematic exposure and interactive opportunities over time, guided by a well-trained teacher, are the most efficient path to communicative proficiency in English. But this path requires carefully designed and delivered curricula. Access to understandable input and opportunities for interaction are crucial. Currently, there is a shortage of teachers who are well prepared to provide this guidance and uneven availability of resources in the state for making sure our ELLs have teachers who understand their long-term needs.

Related to this, there is a shortfall in understanding among educators about the differences between spoken and written language, particularly for bilingual children. In a society where most people are literate and well educated, we develop a cultural bias toward formal, written varieties of language, dismissing local spoken dialects as imperfect or broken versions of the ideal standard form of the language.

From a scientific perspective, linguists understand that this perspective is inverted. Languages rest upon a bedrock of spoken varieties called dialects. Each one of us acquires one or more of these innately in early childhood, just as a spider knows how to weave a web. It is the written, standard form of the language that we must put effort into learning and developing.

For ELLs, the tendency to elevate this ideal makes literate, educated English seem even more inaccessible than for those who have a foundation in spoken English. Dual immersion programs can help bridge this gap by providing support in literacy development in a language that they do speak natively. But other successful models that help develop spoken proficiency and literacy at the same time also exist.

In many parts of the country, including Connecticut, there is often a great emphasis on English language development that fails to distinguish well enough the equally important skills of informal spoken use and formal written features. Many approaches to teaching ELLs also fail to take advantage, even minimally, of the considerable linguistic and literacy skills in other languages that children bring with them into the schools.

Particularly, if there are reading and writing skills in the home language, these can provide opportunities for rapid transfer into English. Too often, highly complex literate forms of English are pushed on ELLs too quickly and too strictly, with no use of or respect for their home language skills, effectively alienating this population from the schools and programs that are meant to serve them. This is a cultural problem, but also an administrative one.

So, could more dual immersion schools be a solution to the widening achievement gap between ELLs and native English speaking kids? In part, yes, if those programs were well designed and implemented. But a broader range of solutions would also be needed, for example for smaller groups of non-English speakers and for those who don’t get into what would certainly be an elite set of immersion bilingual programs. More funding would certainly help this population, but it would not be sufficient.

Connecticut would also need to address the extreme segregation (both in wealth and racial/ethnic distribution) across school districts and to figure out a way to leave education spending, truly the most important social investment that we make, out of the seemingly perennial cries for austerity that political leaders across this wealthy state engage in. Additionally, some aspects of the bureaucracy that governs teacher certification and school assessment could be adjusted, for example to allow talented teachers from Puerto Rico or other origins of ELLs, to be enticed to our state to improve the pool of teachers trained in bilingualism and language acquisition.

Connecticut should invest more talent and funding into realizing its potential to be a leader in educating ELLs as bilingual citizens who help build the high-tech globalized economy of the future. Currently, we have some quality programs for these children and their teachers, but not enough and often too unfocused or poorly resourced. A full solution will require a well-informed and complex approach, including many more dual immersion schools.

Matt Ciscel, Ph.D., is an English professor at Central Connecticut State University.

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