A major challenge is on its way to American education. Over the next couple of decades, there will be a growing number of students whose first language is not English, and many teachers feel ill equipped to help them.
A new program at UConn’s Neag School of Education aims to prepare the next generation of teachers to help English Language Learners (ELLs) succeed in the classroom.
Figures from the Census Bureau show that by 2030, 40 percent of U.S. students will be raised in homes where English is not the first language. That number becomes even more of a concern when taken together with a 1999 National Center for Education Statistics report that showed a vast majority of the teachers surveyed felt inadequately prepared to work with English language learners.
Project PREPARE-ELLs (Preparing Responsive Educators to Promote Access and Realize Excellence with English Language Learners) grew out of a book club led by faculty members in the Neag School’s Bilingual and Multicultural Education Program. Participation in the book club from 2006 to 2008 helped five professors gain a better understanding of the needs that English language learners bring to their learning of academic content.
This year, the project expanded to include 16 faculty members and, with funding from the Neag Teachers for a New Era program, was able to bring nationally recognized ELL experts to the Storrs campus for an intensive week of professional development. Those faculty members are now infusing the new materials, objectives, and readings from the training into their own teacher preparation courses for students at the Neag School.
Elizabeth Howard, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, says the problems that English language learners face vary by age and educational experience, but, she adds, “ELLs also come with a host of interests, experiences, and skills in their home languages that can be used to promote learning here.”
Too often, though, pre-service teachers have received limited guidance in the instruction of English language learners, and that guidance often comes too late in their training, well after their involvement in both methods courses and student teaching.
Project PREPARE-ELLs is working with faculty in the Neag School’s teacher preparation programs (the Integrated Bachelor’s/Master’s Teacher Education Program and the Teacher Certification Program for College Graduates) to explore the possibility of introducing diversity- and ELL-related course work earlier in those programs. The initiative will be guided, in part, by the Sheltered Instructional Observational Protocol, a research-based approach that provides English language learners with both language and content instruction simultaneously.
“It uses a lot of visual aids and manipulatives,” Howard says. “Another important component is comprehensible input; that is, slower, simplified speech that is frequently accompanied by graphic organizers and other teaching aids.”
Thomas Levine, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, says the project’s goals and outcomes are designed “to achieve lasting, systemic change in the way individual instructors and our wider teacher preparation programs prepare teachers for culturally and linguistically diverse students.”
During the current academic year, Project-ELLs is continuing to collect multiple forms of data to explore how revised curriculum and instruction are affecting both the Neag School’s teacher preparation courses and Neag students’ knowledge, dispositions, and teaching practices.