“The foreigner living among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34).
I am a pre-service elementary teacher. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the complexity of the profession I hope to get into post-graduation. It seems like all experienced teachers describe their first year with that same look on their face—the one that tells you how awful it is going to be. I am supposed to plan lessons, manage classrooms, contact parents, meet standards, assess progress, head committees, coach teams, tie shoes, wash hands, and wipe snotty noses? And now I have to make sure “no child is left behind” and “meet the needs of all diverse learners in the classroom”? Diverse learners? What do I know about teaching diverse learners? I grew up in a white, Dutch, Christian Reformed community; I went to college in a white, Dutch, Christian Reformed community. Will I really be prepared to address all types of diversity in my classroom, no matter where I find a job?
Maybe other teachers out there—experienced or not—have the same fears as I do when it comes to addressing diversity, specifically mainstreamed English language learners. Maybe they are also asking, “Am I really prepared for this? Do I have what it takes?” This article not only addresses the fears and challenges that teachers have concerning mainstreaming English language learners, but also offers encouragement and practical writing strategies to use in the general education classroom.
All schools, including Christian schools, are becoming more diverse. English language learners represent the fastest-growing part of the student population. Between 1979 and 2003, the number of children attending school grew by 19 percent. At the same time, the number of children who spoke a native language besides English grew by 124 percent (Flynn and Hill 2005). Dr. Alan Seaman, a professor of intercultural studies and teaching English as a second language at Wheaton College, also says that many of these English language learners are in families that want their children to attend Christian schools (Seaman 2003).
More and more teachers in Christian schools find themselves with English language learners (ELLs) mainstreamed into their classroom. Moreover, teachers find themselves with little idea of how to support them. “The majority of teachers from large towns (67 percent), central cities (58 percent), and rural locales (82 percent) report that they have never participated in professional development for addressing the needs of ELL students” (Flynn and Hill 2005). Simply put, most teachers are unprepared. They have not been trained to deal with this kind of diversity in their classroom.
In addition, this type of diverse classroom comes with extra responsibility. Teachers are required to understand second language development, language proficiency, the role of culture in learning, and the stress that mainstream education places on culturally diverse students. They must also make content understandable for students, integrate language learning with content instruction, respect and incorporate students’ first languages, and understand the needs of students with different levels of formal schooling (Flynn and Hill 2005).
Some of a teacher’s stress can be shared with English language learners as they try to teach and learn the most complex language in the world. As Doug Larson says, “If the English language made any sense, lackadaisical would have something to do with a shortage of flowers.” English has a very intricate sound and spelling system, where the phonetic alphabet alone has forty-four speech sounds and over five hundred ways to spell the sounds. There is no egg in eggplant or ham in hamburger. There are synonyms, homonyms, and other “-nyms.” There is a complex system regarding irregular verbs and plural forms. All of these language rules are learned naturally over time by native English speakers, but have to be memorized by ELLs.
Can teachers be blamed for feeling a little overwhelmed by this challenge—a challenge that is placed on top of an already complex job? Teachers are being asked to climb mountains and achieve goals with their students that at times may feel miles out of reach.
But there is hope. There is an opportunity here when we face this challenge and then ask ourselves, what are we as Christian teachers going to do about it?
Whenever one is faced with challenging situations such as these, it is good to start in scripture. Leviticus 19:34 lays out a simple command to the Israelites: “The foreigner living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love them as yourself.” Deuteronomy 10:18–19 relays a similar message: “[God] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” What does this mean for the responsibilities of Christian teachers? What does the Lord require of us?
In his article, “The ESL Student in the Regular Classroom: Burden or Blessing,” Dr. Seaman answers these questions and explains one of the benefits of facing this challenge: “Teachers in Christian schools have the opportunity to apply this scriptural command as they face classrooms that include learners of English as a second language” (Seaman 2003). The task may not be easy, but it is a chance to show our obedience to God by showing love to every type of student in our classrooms.
Moreover, mainstreaming ELLs can be beneficial to the classroom as a whole. First, having English language learners in the classroom promotes rich diversity in cultures and languages, which reflects upon the rich diversity in the body of Christ. No matter how little English students know, they still have unique gifts and qualities they can contribute to the classroom community. Both ELLs and their peers are given the opportunity to learn about cultures and languages different from their own. Second, ELLs are given the opportunity to learn English in an authentic environment, rather than in the isolation of a pull-out ESL program. Their social fluency of English quickly progresses as they work closely with their peers. Finally, teachers are given the chance to make sure that all children, not just the majority group, have their culture reflected in the curriculum and instruction of the classroom. The curriculum becomes stronger when the content comes from different cultures and perspectives.
There are also many resources available to help teachers support mainstreamed ELLs in their classrooms. Teachers are not alone in their quest to offer English language learners an educational environment where they can thrive. The following section offers practical strategies to help teachers help their students, specifically in the area of writing development.