Bills aim to improve English-language instruction in schools

Published 9:52 am Friday, April 25, 2014

By Tim Post

MPR News, 90.1FM

Minnesota’s efforts to improve English-language instruction for the 65,000 students who speak another language at home could change.

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A bill moving through the Legislature would encourage more districts to shift where English learners spend their time – and honor students’ home language whenever possible.

Keeping ELL students in class whenever possible is one of the proposals state Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, has pushed this legislative session.

The bill is part of an effort to lift ELL students’ academic performance. State data shows that in 2013 only 17 percent of ELL students were proficient in reading, 40 points lower than the state average. Less than 60 percent graduate after four years of high school.

Mariani also wants the state to view students’ ability to speak a language other than English as an asset.

That would not mean foregoing English altogether in school for students who speak another language. But it could include classes to improve students’ proficiency in their home languages, while teaching them English as well.

“My biggest fear is that we’ve approached those students with from a need to remediate, fix them if you will, when what we really need to fix is the system and not the kids,” he said.

Providing new programs and in some case adding teachers could cost the state $6 million.

Several districts have already begun experimenting with having ELL students spend more time in mainstream classrooms, an effort that aims to improve the performance of English learners who are struggling academically.

The schools that are modifying their methods include Centennial Elementary in Richfield, Minn., where 60 percent of the students are English language learners.

Over the years, the school has tried different ways of teaching those students math and science, and English. The current model focuses on keeping ELL students in their regular classrooms as much as possible.

In teacher Debbie Peterson’s 2nd grade class, half of the 21 students are English language learners. Several times during the day the class gathers in groups that include a mix of students, including those learning English.

While Peterson works with students at the front of the room teacher Liz Jamieson works with other students in the back of the room.

The co-teaching model helps keep ELL students focused on academics, Principal LeeAnn Wise said.

“If we’re pulling them for everything, they’re not in their classroom very much,” she said. “So their education is very fragmented. We really work to try and keep them in the classroom, keep them going with what’s happening in the classroom and then give them the services they need.”

Allowing students to use their first languages, perhaps in the occasional assignment or report, has been shown to improve ELL students’ performance, said Martha Bigelow, an associate professor of second languages and cultures education at the University of Minnesota.

“What the research shows is that truly being able to use their home language, in a lot of the ways that this legislation is supportive of, will make them better English speakers and able to learn content more quickly,” she said.

Bigelow said that doesn’t mean Minnesota teachers need to learn all of the languages spoken by their students. In St. Paul alone, students speak 125 different languages and dialects.

But it would mean they should consider ways to let students use languages other than English from time to time.

Toward that end, Mariani’s bill and one passed in the state Senate this week, requires Minnesota teacher preparation programs to include more instruction on the best ways to teach ELL students.

That could be key to improving the academic performance of English learners, said state Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester.

“Making sure that our ELL learners are being taught in ways that are most effective for them is essential,” Nelson said.

An amendment by Nelson in the Senate’s ELL legislation would allow bilingual teachers destined for the state’s language immersion schools to skip an English proficiency test to get a teaching license. That would bring more bilingual teachers into the state, she said.

The Senate and House versions of the ELL legislation are in an education bill headed to a conference committee, where lawmakers will work to reconcile the two measures.