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Tue, Nov. 12

Community View | Non-English speaking students need intense instruction to graduate ‘on time’

I taught high school Spanish for 12 years and was the department chairman for many of those years. I also earned a Masters’ Degree in Second Language Acquisition. The May 20, 2019 article on new laws for English Language Learners points out the ridiculous Catch-22 that ensnares our public schools.

About four different goals for the public schools are referenced, and apparently the schools are supposed to accomplish all of those goals with mostly uneducated, illiterate children who enter the high schools speaking almost no English.

(1) Schools are supposed to provide a pathway for them to graduate with their classmates, by enabling them to take all the other courses like math, history, and science, as well as learning to speak, read and write English.

(2) Schools are also supposed to be providing time to interact with other students in regular classes because they (supposedly) will advance more quickly in English if they spend more time speaking or hearing English (which is true to an extent, especially for conversational English.

(3) Apparently schools are also supposed to be providing “social time” because a concern is raised that non-English speaking students are missing time to participate in school clubs during an activity hour at this one school in Mesa, on Wednesdays, because they are busy in their four-hour block of English Language Learning.

Finally, another accusation is that (4) the English Language Learning course unfairly segregates non-English speaking students away from other students. Of course it separates them, they need to learn eight years of English quickly, and the other students do not. Students who want to play an instrument in the school’s orchestra are also “separated” from those who want to take an elective in art, woodshop or debate. Mastering English must be their primary focus and priority, and it is not unfair to be “separated.” There is no magic wand to learn how to read, write and speak English.

OK, which is it? Are our public schools supposed to graduate students “on time” who have met all the requirements to graduate, which obviously means they are proficient in speaking, reading and writing English, and have taken all the other state-required classes, or is an Arizona high school diploma just a “wink-wink” for thousands of students every year who may not understand what was said in most of their classes?

Is the high school expected to provide social time, other than lunch time, for students to socialize? Is our goal to place non-English speakers in a classroom where they cannot follow the teacher’s instructions, cannot understand the discussion, cannot read the textbook, nor complete the assignments – just so they will “feel like” a part of the student body? That is idiocy and a recipe for more school drop-outs.

Educational studies have found that the best method to formally teach non-English speakers who, by the way, also may not read or spell in their native language, is to place non-English speakers in a class with others at similar beginning English levels and present English in an immersion program, where English is used almost exclusively with the aid of teacher modeling, flashcards, realia (props) to provide context, tapes for pronunciation, tons of repetition, role-playing, and movies. Once the students have a foundation of English vocabulary and skills, then they can move into low-level classes in social studies, science, classes where vocabulary and reading are key. But it is unrealistic to expect non-English speakers to learn much of anything in most regular classes any more than we ourselves would gain much from classes taught in an avalanche of Russian or Chinese. Furthermore, another consideration must be what happens to the classroom they are sitting in. Are they sitting quietly, trying to absorb whatever, or are they constantly raising their hands, wanting clarifications, asking for help, and generally acting as a drag on the instructional pace.

I do not see how anyone can talk about many English Language Learners “graduating with their class.” The high school curriculum already requires four years’ worth of classes. Learning English adequately probably should occupy half, or more, of another two years ... and that English immersion program must come first. So, yes, they must be “segregated” and grouped, even among themselves based on their level of English acquisition. And yes, they should miss out on an optional activity day to remain in their complete four-hour block of English instruction. The article mentions “re-classification” rates as if Arizona is too slow getting non-English speaking students to master English.

Typically, students who arrive in the U.S. as late as high school will remain classified as “English Learners” for their entire time in high school.

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