Breaking the Language Barrier
following case study depicts a somewhat typical English as a second
language (ESL) classroom in the small school district of Denton
County, Oklahoma. This is a self-contained classroom for children
who are learning English and whose schooling was interrupted in
their home countries. ESL students are all placed together regardless
of language of origin or presence of a learning disability. Consequently,
the students and their teacher tend to develop their own classroom
subculture within the larger school building and school district.
you read the case study, consider some of the variables at play
here. Try to imagine yourself serving the various roles of school
principal, ESL teacher, and teacher aide. Are there specific things
you would handle differently?
you have completed the case, you may want to review the section
labeled Discussion Questions
for further insight into the case analysis.
Hodges' English as a Second Language classroom is the only second
language learning classroom at Rockdale Elementary, a small school
in Denton County, Oklahoma. Ms. Hodges shares classroom teaching
responsibilities with her teaching assistant, Mrs. Vargas, a native
of El Salvador. Mrs. Vargas has been working in the Denton County
school district for four years as a teaching assistant in the
ESL classroom, and was principal of a school for ten years in
El Salvador. Ms. Hodges is a first year teacher.
students make up the class; nine from Spanish-speaking countries,
Mexico and El Salvador, and two siblings from Vietnam who arrived
at the school only three weeks prior to the incident. Students'
ages range from seven to twelve years. Five of the students are
between ten and twelve years of age. These students would normally
have been placed in the fifth grade, based upon their age. However,
only three of the fifth grade aged students have any experience
with formal schooling. These three students attended school in
El Salvador through the second grade before leaving school to
help with the family's field work. The younger students from El
Salvador have even less experience with formal schooling. The
two Vietnamese students experienced only three years of formal
schooling before leaving Vietnam.
students carry the heavy emotional weight of their personal histories.
Many escaped from war-torn countries. Some were smuggled in the
trunk of a car, some came on foot, walking nearly 700 miles across
the Mexican border into Texas. Several students were separated
from their parents en route to the United States, some were sent
with another family member, one fifth grader came by himself,
and is currently living with a family who learned of his situation
through their church community.
is a particularly difficult task for these students to sit quietly
in the classroom all day. Several students in the class are frequently
loud and "rowdy" according to Rockdale principal Mrs.
Deloris Vorce. A review of student records reveals that three
of these students have been identified as children with learning
disabilities. Two have particular trouble with reading comprehension,
even in their native language, Spanish. A third child has been
identified as Emotionally and Behaviorally Disturbed due to his
frequent, unprovoked violent outbursts.
Hodges and Mrs. Vargas tend to divide classroom responsibilities
equally. The students do not see them as Teacher and Assistant,
but as sharing classroom authority. However, the students are
aware of their teachers' limits and have tested these limits on
more than one occasion this school year. The students agree that
Mrs. Vargas has a much shorter temper than Ms. Hodges. They have
gotten away with some tricks with Ms. Hodges that they would never
have tried when Mrs. Vargas was in the room.
Problem - as seen by Rockdale Elementary Principal Mrs. Deloris
heard the commotion all the way down the hall. Sometimes during
the lunch hour students get a little too rowdy in the cafeteria,
but this was 9:15 am. I immediately headed in the direction of
all the noise. I was not surprised to find Ms. Hodges' classroom
in chaos. All of her students were up out of their seats. Two
boys were physically fighting in the independent reading corner
of her room. Four other students were looking on and cheering.
Another little girl was screaming as a boy pulled her hair. Ms.
Hodges was focused on the fist fight in the corner. She was trying
to separate the two children while struggling to regain control
of her classroom.
was not the first incident of this kind occurring amongst Ms.
Hodges' students. Last semester I heard a commotion on the playground
during the Physical Education hour. Two of Ms. Hodges' students
were wrestling while several other children cheered. I went outside
and ordered the children back into the building. They just looked
at me dumbfounded. Clearly Ms. Hodges had not taught these students
even enough English to understand our school rules. Surely they
had been their long enough to know what I mean when I say "Come
inside the building, Now!"
her aide, Mrs. Vargas, is present, the classroom is usually much
quieter. It seems Ms. Hodges has trouble maintaining control of
her students. She simply has not set the proper tone in her classroom;
the students feel as though they can walk all over her! On more
than one occasion I have passed by the room during Ms. Hodges'
teaching time. While she is at the board students are up out of
their seats, walking around the room, sometimes leaving to visit
the water fountain without asking permission. Ms. Hodges says
this practice keeps her students on task for a greater period
of the day, however I have never seen her classroom completely
on task. What is the problem here? Are the students becoming bored
because they cannot recognize the language? When Mrs. Vargas is
speaking in Spanish to the students they all seem attentive. Perhaps
Ms. Hodges is not teaching enough material in the language the
students can comprehend.
is an issue we must resolve. I've asked to see both women in my
office this afternoon. We simply must lay down some ground rules
for classroom management and curriculum. I cannot have students
breaking the rules of our school simply because they are not yet
able to understand them.
was trained as an ESL teacher at the University of St. Thomas,
Texas, in what is considered to be one of the most forward-thinking
programs of its kind. One of the major focuses of my study was
creating a community of learning in which students are exposed
to as much authentic interaction in English as possible. I want
students to feel a sense of autonomy in the classroom, and personal
responsibility for creating a peaceful and workable learning environment.
have 11 students in my ESL class. Nine students are from Spanish-speaking
countries, Mexico and El Salvador, and the other two are from
Vietnam. We experience a number of cultural incongruities almost
daily. For example, one of my Salvadoran students, Jaime, has
a juvenile crush on Twi, a girl from Vietnam. He is constantly
looking for ways to be near her physically, help her with class
projects, and engage in classroom play activities with her. Twi
appears particularly uncomfortable with this behavior. After discussing
the situation with a colleague, I learned that in Vietnam, male
and female children are typically separated during classroom learning
and play time. Twi was unaccustomed to a male child devoting so
much attention to her.
know my students have had a terrible time leaving war-torn El
Salvador and making their way to the United States. Many have
seen their parents killed or jailed along the way. Take Hector
for example, his family history is particularly turbulent. He
and his father were jailed in Mexico for seven months before escaping
to the United States. His father was not always able to be with
him in the prison and it is suspected he was the victim of physical
abuse by three other male prisoners. His diagnosis of Emotional
and Behavioral Disturbance does not begin to offer him the school
services he needs in order to prepare him to learn. So many of
my students have horrible life-memories to contend with, as well
as the stress of adjusting to life in a new country; particularly
a country where they do not speak the language!
also exists between students from different regions of El Salvador.
The students from the capital of El Salvador have often made derogatory
remarks to the Eastern Salvadoran students, calling them "garroberos"
or "iguana eaters." This is considered an insult in
El Salvador, typically used by other Salvadorans as a condescending
remark to Miguelenos, people from the more rural East. The Spanish
speaking students all laugh at this joke, but I can tell some
of our students from the Eastern region are hurt by the remark.
have been a few incidences of physical outbursts among two or
three students and I want to put a stop to that. In giving them
a little extra breathing room, I'm allowing the students to keep
their own physical aggressions in check. My students are not bored
in the classroom, as Mrs. Vorce has suggested. Rather, they are
angry and upset with circumstances which have separated them from
their families and have brought them to a foreign country to learn.
style of teaching is not culturally typical for either the Salvadoran
or the Vietnamese students. However, I believe the best way to
teach them to become well educated and productive U.S. citizens
is to use a democratic-style learning environment. In my class
I have tried to present information using the communicative methodology
as much as possible. My approach to teaching the English language
is to present everything, including vocabulary words and specific
information in the most natural context possible. That way, students
can learn specific cognitive information while simultaneously
developing their English language grammar skills.
am only with these students for 7 hours a day, we don't have time
to waste on activities that are not promoting specific learning
goals. I think that's the main disagreement Ms. Vargas and I had
in terms of classroom time. She spends at least 30 minutes a day
delivering a moral lecture to the Salvadoran students, in Spanish.
She feels this is the best way to remind the Salvadoran students
of their cultural heritage and of the class system from which
they came. And what of our two Vietnamese students? They just
sit quietly, learning nothing!
and I have discussed this classroom practice. On several occasions
I have asked her to refrain from long moral lectures, and to simply
stick with the class curriculum we have planned for the day. However,
she seems to feel that these particular students will benefit
from her experiences as a morally upstanding woman from El Salvador,
who came to the United States without knowing much more English
than the students do currently. While I respect her intentions,
I am not always sure she is making the most of our class time.
came from El Salvador myself, I understand the students in our
classroom. In fact, I was the principal of a school there, but
after I came to the United States I could not get my certification,
and they made me an aide. It is not easy to come into a country
without speaking the language. Americans are not always patient
or kind with people still learning English. I do not want to see
any of our students fall into the gangs here, or leave school
just because they are struggling to learn.
of our children came to America without their parents, they have
all suffered in the transition to a new country. I understand
their problems better than Ms. Hodges ever could because I have
experienced them first hand. These children need moral guidance
as much as they need a good formal education. In my country "bien
educado" means well brought up. We believe that moral education
need to be told what to do, in their native language, almost all
the time, otherwise they will not be able to obey. Ms. Hodges
believes in a more loosely controlled classroom. She thinks having
a conversation in English with our students will help them to
learn the things they need, when they cannot understand one word
she is saying. The ones who can comprehend some of her English
are not paying attention, they are misbehaving. This is why I
tell her not to give them so much freedom! Be strict, I say, teach
them to stay in their seats and respect authority; practice with
the children words they need to learn, over and over again; test
them repeatedly to be sure they are learning. She wants our students
to spend time considering world problems like prejudice and racism,
and the destruction of earth's natural resources. I say teach
them to read! Some of our students can't read in their native
language, much less English. Teach them the basics before the
rest of this information. They are just children. They're not
ready to consider the world's problems yet; right now they have
enough of their own problems to think about.
What are some of the issues at play in this scenario?
Why do you think the classroom seems out of control? What are
the cultural factors that may be leading to conflict or violation
of expectations? Is Ms. Hodges misguided in her efforts to create
a "democratic" classroom? Is Ms. Vargas' approach more
appropriate for these students? How can the two teachers come
to terms with their different styles of classroom management?
How can Ms. Hodges and Ms. Vargas educate their principal regarding
the particular challenges related to educating immigrant English
language learners in order to enlist her support?
Issues of inclusion arise in two ways in this scenario:
Do you think ESL students are best served in this kind of pull-out
classroom, or should they be taught in a mainstream classroom
alongside native speakers, with ESL and content teacher team-teaching?
b) What about the studets who have been identified with disabilities?
What training should ESL teachers receive for working with this
population? Would they perhaps be better served in the special
ed classroom with assistance from the ESL teacher? What is the
least restrictive environment that could meet both their language
and special education needs?