Last month, Texas got a taste of “real winter,” and we were woefully unprepared. My family was one of the more than 4 million households that lost power and water for days on end. Like many, we woke up to a dark and chilly house on Monday morning, February 15. At first we weren’t too concerned, since we’d been told the blackouts would be “rolling” and likely to last for just 45 minutes or so. But it quickly became apparent that something had gone terribly wrong.
In the year 2025, 25% of the students in the United States will be English learners (Suarez-Orozco, & Todorova, 2008). Even now, ELs make up about 10% of our nation’s public school student population, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Though if you live in California, Texas, or Nevada, you know that the percentage of ELs is much greater in your state.
English learners in our classrooms are acquiring a new language while also learning the content we teach. This poses challenges in and of itself, but it’s especially difficult if the demands of the instruction are not accommodated to support language acquisition.
The COVID-19 pandemic during the 2020-2021 school year has brought disruptions and frustrations to the lives of teachers, students, and parents like nothing we have experienced before. But along with the many changes that virtual, hybrid, and socially distanced learning have brought, this pandemic has shed new light on the most essential practices for students’ academic and socioemotional well-being. Working with teachers over the past ten months as they adjust to their new challenges, I am convinced more than ever that randomly calling on students is one of these essential practices.
Learning to read is one of the first things that comes to mind when we think of school and education. Reading is critical and necessary for all content areas and remains critical for success after the school years. Reading allows us to continue to grow our knowledge base, increase our vocabulary, become stronger writers, speak more eloquently, and so much more. But how exactly do we build the foundations for our students to become strong readers?
Andrea was a new immigrant. Her family had just arrived from Venezuela in January, and she was enrolled in third grade right away. She was a fluent Spanish speaker, completely capable of doing third-grade level work in Spanish. Back home, she excelled in school. On the other hand, this was her first experience with English in a classroom setting, and she was not in a bilingual program. Although Andrea’s teacher was ESL certified, he did not speak Spanish.
During the first few weeks of school, Andrea’s teacher found it difficult to figure out what Andrea understood during instruction. She seemed lost and unsure. Andrea’s teacher often went through lessons and watched Andrea in hopes that he could see if she was following along. But it only became clear when she began to do independent work that Andrea did not understand the lesson. Through all of this, Andrea herself felt defeated, sad, and as if she lacked the ability to learn.
As the demographics of the nation’s students become increasingly more diverse, we often find ourselves in front of beautiful children who do not look or sound like us. Many in education compensate for this difference by adopting the perspective of color-blindness, acting as though cultural differences are insignificant or do not matter. When looking at the cultural proficiency continuum (see Figure 1), which describes how an entity responds to diversity, one can see that being color-blind is certainly a better option than being culturally destructive or culturally incapacitated. And often, when educators embrace a color-blind philosophy, they do so with the best of intentions, misguided as they may sometimes be. Claims such as, “I don’t see race,” or, “I treat all my kids the same,” are often the banner responses of a color-blind individual. Truthfully, I probably uttered similar phrases when I was a new teacher. But the reality is that culture does matter, and to be effective and engaging with an increasingly diverse student body, we educators must strive to move along the continuum into cultural competence and cultural proficiency.
“The assumption has been that if students read enough, they’ll simply pick up writing skills, through a kind of osmosis. But writing is the hardest thing we ask students to do, and the evidence is clear that very few students become good writers on their own” (Hochman, 2017).
During this time of uncertainty, we are faced with many challenges that detrimentally affect and change how we are teaching. Whether we are teaching in a traditional face-to-face setting, completely virtually, or a hybrid of the two, it remains true that, as educators, we will continue to create, find, or purchase a variety of resources for the students we serve. Unfortunately, it is also true that the Lexile level of the grade level resources we have access to is not always appropriate for the various students in our classrooms. It is often difficult to find resources that are authentic and challenging and address grade-appropriate concepts, but are also at the students’ reading level. As educators we find ourselves adapting, changing, or supplementing the resources we have in order to teach our state-mandated curriculum.
When I decided to pursue a degree in Linguistics several years ago, one of the hot topics of research was contrastive analysis, a linguistic instructional tool that compares and contrasts two language systems. Even though comparisons of language features and language interference became part of my literature review and lexicon, instructional strategies to support language and content development became my passion.