Madeleine Clays is a public school teacher with twelve years' experience teaching English language learners K–12.
Teachers Are in a Key Position to Advocate for Their Students
Throughout the past few decades, the number of English language learners (ELLs) in public schools across America has risen drastically. In fact, in the last decade alone, the number of ELLs has grown by 60%, making them the fastest-growing student population in the country.
Unfortunately, many ELLs who enter our schools are not welcomed into inclusive environments. The unequal treatment they experience is sometimes subtle but often very evident.
Teachers—especially those who teach English learners—are in a key position to draw attention to inequalities they observe in their schools and to advocate for their students.
7 Ways Teachers Can Advocate for Their ELL Students
1. Ensure that all important information is communicated to their parents in a language they understand.
2. Teach students to self-advocate.
3. Talk to their other educators on students' behalf.
4. Ask your administrators to use visuals in important assemblies.
5. Request that ELLs be placed with teachers who support them.
6. Persuade your school to support WIDA ACCESS every year.
7. Watch for activities that don't foster inclusion.
1. Make Sure Important Information Is Provided to Parents in Their Home Language
The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice states that any information given to parents who are native English speakers must also be given to non-English speaking parents in a language they can understand. This information includes any programs, services or activities related to their child's education.
When parents register their children in school, they are normally asked to complete a Home Language Survey which asks them for their preferred language of communication. This is the language the school should use to relay important messages to them by email, regular mail, and over the phone.
Information Sent Home
If you notice the office or other teachers sending home important papers that aren't in your English language learners' home language, talk to the front office or check the Home Language Survey in your student's office file. It is likely that the parents are not receiving messages in their language of preference.
It's not uncommon for field trip permission slips, parent conference invitations, and even report cards to be sent home in English to parents who aren't literate in English.
Student Conferences and Meetings
Many of our English language learners' parents are unaware that if they selected a language other than English as their preferred language of communication on their Home Language Survey, the school district should provide them with an interpreter for all conferences and meetings that relate to their child.
This includes parent-teacher conferences as well as IEP, eligibility and other special education meetings. Many districts have both on-site and over-the-phone interpreters available. On-site ones are generally the preferred option, as communication is much better when all parties are physically present.
Ensuring that all staff at our school are in compliance with the requirements set forth by the U.S. Department of Justice is a vital way to support our English learners. Just as important is to make sure our students' parents are aware of their federal rights.
2. Teach Your Students to Self-Advocate
One of the best things you can do to support your ELLs is to teach them to advocate for themselves!
Let your ELLs know that if they don't understand something in class, they need to let that teacher know.
Teach your students basic phrases such as:
- "I don't understand."
- "Can you please repeat that?"
- "Please speak more slowly."
- "I need more time to answer the question."
- "Please use pictures to help me understand what you teach."
Create flashcards for your ELLs with these phrases accompanied by a visual for each one, along with the translation in their home language. Tell them they can use these flashcards to communicate with their teachers.
Reading books about minorities who brought about change in our society as a result of advocating for themselves and others is a great way to teach your students about standing up for themselves. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Frederick Douglass are excellent role models of people who spoke out peacefully for justice and civil rights.
Teaching and encouraging your students to stand up for themselves serve to boost their confidence and help them to be more successful academically.
3. Be Their Spokesperson
Sometimes students don't want to tell their regular classroom teachers that they don't understand what is going on in class or that they need help. They may be very shy or feel intimidated by a teacher and be afraid to approach her.
In this case, you can speak to those educators on your students' behalf, at least until they are more comfortable approaching them on their own.
It's important to communicate your students' concerns to their other teachers in a professional manner. You want to be gentle but also assertive. You are your students' voice and that voice needs to be heard.
- Develop a rapport with your colleagues from the beginning of the school year.
- Begin the conversation on a positive note.
- Consider if emailing them or speaking to them in person is the better option (sometimes it helps to have an electronic trail).
- Always conclude your message on a positive note.
- Thank them for their time.
4. Push for More Images
Have you ever sat with your ELLs through an important school assembly that included an endless display of PowerPoint slides, none of which contained a single image? If you had beginner-level English learners, they probably sat there with blank expressions, chatted with their buddies during the entire assembly, or fell asleep. Frankly, I can't blame them.
Imagine sitting through a presentation in Arabic—or another language you don't read or speak—that used only words but no pictures. You probably wouldn't have a clue what was going on and would be bored out of your wits. Well, this is exactly how our ELLs feel when they're forced to sit through speeches that offer them no visual cues.
This past fall, I sat with my students through an assembly on the behavior code of conduct—arguably the most important assembly we had all year. The presenters spoke about not bringing weapons to school, students who threaten to harm themselves and others, and the school's policy on drugs, among other critical topics. Not a single image was used during the entire presentation. My school has a high percentage of English learners, so this was pretty disappointing.
Folks, it's our job as teachers to communicate to our administrators that our students need images to help them make sense of content!
5. Help Select Your Students' Teachers
Do you have teachers in your school who don't like teaching ELLs? They don't say this, but they show it by the way they treat their English learners. Sometimes my students will tell me how they feel in certain classes which gives me clues as to how their teachers might be interacting with them.
If there's a class in which ELLs normally get very low or failing grades year after year, chances are that educator is doing next to nothing to help ELLs be successful in her class. We can help these teachers learn effective strategies for teaching English language learners. However, sometimes teachers have been given many strategies to help their ELLs but nothing seems to change.
On the other hand, do you have educators in your school that your English learners love? Maybe they refer to those classes and teachers as their favorites. This tells you those teachers probably enjoy teaching ELLs. Your kids clearly feel comfortable and valued in those classes!
Talk to your guidance counselor about the educators your students most thrive with. While it may not be a good idea to pinpoint names of teachers who don't appear to support ELLs, highlight the ones who do. Ask your counselors to place ELLs in those specific classes for the coming year and be prepared to explain why. Let them know how pleased you are that those educators are sensitive to the needs of English learners.
6. Get Your School on Board With ACCESS
Every year, ELLs take the WIDA ACCESS to measure their English proficiency level and growth from year to year.
Does your school ensure that testing conditions are adequate and that protocol is followed to enable students to do their best on this important state assessment? If not, this is a chance for you to help make this happen.
Some ways you can help your students do their best on ACCESS is by ensuring that the following conditions are in place for testing:
- Students are tested by a familiar person (preferably their ELL teacher).
- They are assessed in a familiar environment.
- There are no loud noises or other distractions during ACCESS.
- Testing sessions are scheduled in a way that doesn't interfere with their lunchtime.
- Students have ample time to take the ACCESS practice tests to help them feel more comfortable with the assessment.
- All staff in the building are informed of how important this assessment is and encouraged to support ELLs.
- Communicate to English learners the purpose of ACCESS and that they shouldn't rush through the tests. Ask them to create personal goals for their performance on this assessment.
7. Look for Ways to Foster Inclusion
A school with a diverse student population is not always a school that fosters inclusion. An inclusive school integrates its ELLs into their environment so that they aren't segregated from their non-ELL peers in ways that are unnecessary.
Some examples of unnecessary segregation between English learners and non-English learners:
- placing them in separate classrooms for specials classes, such as Art, P.E., and Music so that all English learners are in one class and their peers are in a different class
- organizing field trips in which all ELLs go on the field trip one day and non-ELLs go on a separate day
- scheduling students' lunch times during different blocks based on their language status
- seating all ELLs together in one area of the classroom so that they interact only with each other during class projects
You may think that the above scenarios are outdated and would never exist in our public schools today. Maybe 60 years ago, but not in the 21st century, right? Well, I will tell you that in certain regions of the U.S., segregation is still alive and well.
Just this past year, my English learners were scheduled to go on their grade level field trip on a different day than their native English-speaking peers. The plans were changed after I brought my concerns to the attention of my supervisor, but I have no doubt they would have proceeded with their original plan had I remained silent.
If you notice that ELLs aren't being integrated into grade-level activities with their non-ELL peers, don't turn a blind eye.
Fellow teachers, your voice matters and our ELLs often rely on us to be their voice!
How to Create an Inclusive Classroom for English Learners
© 2020 Madeleine Clays