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English Language Development / English as a Second Language


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Case Study
Breaking the Language Barrier

The 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.

As 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?

After you have completed the case, you may want to review the section labeled Discussion Questions for further insight into the case analysis.


The Class

Ms. 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.

Eleven 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.

These 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.

It 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.

Ms. 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.

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The Problem - as seen by Rockdale Elementary Principal Mrs. Deloris Vorce

I 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.

This 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!"

When 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.

This 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.

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Ms. Hodges

I 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.

I 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.

I 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!

Tension 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.

There 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.

My 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.

I 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!

She 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.

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Mrs. Vargas

I 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.

Some 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 comes first.

They 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.


Discussion Questions

1) What are some of the issues at play in this scenario?

2) 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?

3) 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?

4) Issues of inclusion arise in two ways in this scenario:

a) 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?

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