Examining SEL for Emerging Bilinguals

By Diallo Brown

Public school districts in many counties in Illinois are experiencing demographic changes to student populations, including English Language Learners (ELLs/ELs), increasingly known as Emergent Bilinguals (EBs). These students may experience learning deficits when English is the students’ second language, particularly when they rarely hear or speak English outside of the school setting. According to research by educator Claude Goldenberg, the primary reasons for the existing learning gap for EBs is the struggle to master basic English language skills while matriculating from grade to grade, as well as the lack of opportunity to converse in English outside of school. This poses social and emotional trauma on these students, which can be addressed with social and emotional learning supports. 

According to the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment Consortium Standards Framework and Its Theoretical Foundations, five components contribute to ELL/EB students’ ability to acquire the English language:
  • A can-do philosophy;
  • Guiding principles of language development;
  • Age-appropriate academic language in sociocultural contexts;
  • Performance definitions; and
  • Strands of model performance indicators.
The gap for ELL/EB students without social and emotional, learning, or behavioral disabilities is seen more as a state funding issue than a federal funding issue, according to a position paper by Maria de Lourdes B. Serpa of the Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy Publications. When ELL/EB students are identified with disabilities, they become eligible for special education funding through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law. 

Heterogeneous People Sharing the Same Language
Research by Valentin Ekiaka Nzai and Norma A. Guzmán includes a common experience of many Latino immigrants educated in the United States. It posits that schools tend to reduce the definition of “culture” to a single, blanket description of a group of people whose backgrounds actually can be quite diverse. Therefore, “cultural awareness” should be more than a semantic phrase and should include the multifaceted aspects of the group’s collective experience of identity. When Latino ELL/EB students are grouped in classrooms, they are often considered to be homogenous, a gross generality that can stunt the progress of students who may not share the same understanding of their native language due to their varied backgrounds and experiences. Failure to distinguish the individuality of ELL/EB students within their classrooms is a barrier to the academic success of students who are unfamiliar with the English language, with American culture, and with the cultures of their fellow students as well. A feeling of social rejection, along with their continued commitment to their native culture, can contribute to some Latino ELL/EB students not fully immersing themselves in the English language. As a result, the offspring of native non-English speaking Latino families within the American education system often do not always fully appreciate or comprehend the value of English language immersion as a tool to improve their academic success. 

In the essay “Empowering the Surrounding Community,” Ann K. Brooks and Paul C. Kavanaugh explain that successful schools are able to integrate the different traditional cultural values and community relationships that exist in the various nations from which their students’ families have migrated. Brooks and Kavanaugh explain that the act of learning the norms and values of their students’ cultures can enhance how the school — and American education itself — is interpreted, implemented, and accepted by the families and community it serves. Thus, as a school explicitly aligns itself with its students’ families, it moves from being simply a school in the community to the community’s school, resulting in improved academic achievement for its immigrant students. 

Community Involvement and Power
Paulo Freire, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, contends that the American political and educational system has traditionally suppressed the understanding of the oppressed by creating dialogue that is “not attuned to the concrete situations of the people they address.” Freire urges educators to acknowledge the system of dominance of the American education system over ELL/EB students, which has been established simply because a common dialogue between schools and the immigrant communities they serve is often never established.

Freire refers to this suppression of two-way communication as “antidialogical philosophy” of which there are four principles. First, the conquest of a group of people implies the existence of a conqueror — or oppressor — as well as the existence of the conquered group, which becomes the possession of the oppressor. Secondly, the oppressor acts as the elite class, dividing and ruling the oppressed to remain in power. Third, the elite group manipulates the oppressed in an attempt to get them to conform to the oppressor’s objectives. Finally, the oppressor imposes a worldview on the oppressed in a cultural invasion that inhibits the creativity and development of the conquered group. Thus, American schools must not act as oppressive conquerors, but rather as inclusive partners that engage in true dialogue with groups that have been traditionally oppressed in order to expand individual students’ capacity to learn, develop, and positively contribute to both their own communities and society at large.

Against All Odds
So what do most American schools expect of students learning both the language and culture in a system that is unfamiliar to them, their community, and perhaps their personal understanding of education itself? Stacey Lee, author of Up Against Whiteness: Race, School, and Immigrant Youth, asserts that American schools tend to measure all students — regardless of their backgrounds — against the yardstick of the dominant white culture, while often ignoring the issues that minority English language learners inevitably bring with them to school. Lee submits that even ELL/EB students who spend thousands of hours soaking up American culture via television, the internet, and their own personal experiences come to understand that they are often viewed as inadequate by the culture into which they are trying to assimilate. 

Lee’s study of Hmong students in a predominantly white Wisconsin high school found that these English language learners were often treated with less dignity than their white peers, and often were not seen by their teachers as valid participants in the learning process. In fact, even Hmong students whose English was relatively proficient were generally characterized as less than adequate by instructors. Such discrimination against, and oppression of, ELL/EB students is unacceptable. In order for them to master the English language and successfully matriculate into American society, they must not be viewed as inadequate simply because they are not native English speakers. Changing such attitudes, however, will require a great shift of the American education system — from measuring all English language learners against the yardstick of dominant white culture to measuring them in respect to their native cultures and individual backgrounds.

Shifting the Strategy of ELL Practices
In her 2010 book Learning and Not Learning English, author and researcher Guadalupe Valdes pushes for the American education system to gain a new understanding of English language learners and ELL pedagogy. In particular, Valdes asserts that the goal of ELL/EB education must shift from teachers simply preparing students to survive, to teachers expanding students’ futures by providing them the social and emotional supports that include challenging and rewarding educational experiences. 

Although many use the instructional terms “English as a Second Language” (ESL) and “bilingual education” interchangeably, these terms refer to two very different types of ELL/EB instruction. As outlined in “Bilingual vs. ESL,” Students in an ESL classroom usually speak a variety of languages, but they only receive instruction in English from a teacher who does not necessarily speak any of the students’ languages. In contrast, students in bilingual programs are grouped in classrooms with other students who share their native language, and are taught by teachers in both their native language and in English. According to “Bilingual vs. ESL,” “Bilingual classes…are geared more toward having the students eventually speak both languages fluently and to hold on to their culture.”

Research by Angela Carrasquillo and Vivian Rodríguez supports providing ELL/EB students with grade-level content simultaneously with English language instruction through such methods as sheltered instruction, where teachers, speaking in direct, simple English, employ a wide range of scaffolding strategies to help students connect new content with their prior knowledge. Another ELL/EB teaching method supported by Carrasquillo and Rodriquez is dual enrollment through which students develop their language proficiency in both English and their native language as they receive instruction in both languages within classrooms that contain a mixture of ELL/EB and native English speakers. 

There is an overwhelming need to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers who are willing to meet the demands of working in low income, immigrant communities. The work of Patricia Gándara and Frances Contreras particularly emphasizes the importance of recruiting ELL/EB teachers from the communities they serve. The resulting commonality of culture and experience between teachers and their students can help the students better understand the positive impact of gaining English language proficiency to both themselves and their communities. For example, as Pat Quinn points out in Helping Hispanic Students Succeed (2012), Hispanic teachers are more likely to recognize their ELL/EB students’ cultural proclivity to collaborate and, thus, are more likely to provide time for the students to interact with and learn from one another. In addition to recruiting more highly qualified ELL/EB teachers, Gándara and Contreras advocate for smaller class sizes to enable teachers to provide more individualized attention to their English language learners. Overall, according to Goldenberg, teachers exposing their students to rich content, taught at an appropriate pace to achieve clear, well-defined learning objectives is essential to ELL/EB students’ academic success.

A major impediment to ESL and bilingual programs is funding. Although ESL programs are often set up similarly to special education programs, they do not directly receive federal funds as special education programs do. As a result, school districts across the United States struggle to adequately meet the needs of ever-expanding ELL/EB populations. 

Assessing the Needs of ELL Students
Educator and researcher Margo Gottlieb suggests that standard language assessment tools should not be the only methods used to measure English language learners’ English proficiency and further, that the assessment of ELL/EB students is far more complex than the evaluation of their English language skills alone. In particular, Gottlieb asserts that ELL/EB students should be assessed in regards to their understanding of the academic vocabulary of their native language because the more literate students are in their native languages, the easier it is for them to acquire English language literacy. Conversely, students with limited native academic vocabularies need greater supports when learning the academic vocabulary of English. Gottlieb advocates using background and home surveys of students to gather information regarding their mobility, continuity of education, support services received, and overall English language learner history.

The Link between Special Education and ELL Programs
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) recognizes that students with diagnosed physical, intellectual, emotional, and behavioral disabilities require intervention services and accommodations, which are documented in their Individual Education Plans. Although a growing number of students are in need of both special education and ELL/EB services, schools often do not adequately address the language deficiencies of these students. Serpa calls for a comprehensive look at the ways we assess and support ELL/EB learners who also have been identified as having learning disabilities. 

Understanding the context of how ELL and EB students matriculate through public schools while acquiring the English language, their struggle to find continuity in practicing the language outside of the school setting, as well as the importance of identity in the public school setting is an important foundation in determining what methodology is best used to evaluate ELL/EB programs, making sure that that social and emotional competence is included at the forefront of the program’s intent.
Diallo Brown, Ed.D., is a high school administrator in northern Lake County, Illinois, program founder of the F.R.A.M.E. Program for At-Risk students, and educational consultant.