WORTHINGTON — I am new to my position as the English Language Learner (ELL) coordinator for District 518, but I am not new to teaching in our community. I moved to Worthington in 1991 and began teaching English language learners (ELLs). At that time, most of my students’ first languages were Vietnamese or Lao. Today, the students learning English may have first learned to speak Spanish, Karen, Lao, Amharic, Mam, Tigrinya, Burmese, Anuak, Oromo, Vietnamese or one of the other 20 languages spoken in our district.
To support these students, we currently have 32 English language teachers employed in our district. The mission of the ELL department is to assist multilingual learners to develop both social and academic English language skills. These skills are necessary for students to be successful in their mainstream classes, graduate from high school, and be college or career ready.
The ELL department is one piece of the educational development of our multilingual learners. Currently, 59% of Prairie Elementary, 28% of the middle school, 26% of the high school, and 37% of the Learning Center student bodies are ELLs. As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and within District 518, every teacher is an English language teacher.
In our district, it is necessary for all teachers to make their content accessible to English learners. The teachers use strategies and accommodations to scaffold the subject matter and make it comprehensible for an English learner. This does not mean that teachers are “watering down” what needs to be taught but rather providing the background knowledge, emphasizing key vocabulary, and using visuals to make their lessons clear and meaningful. They draw on students’ previous experiences, and provide sufficient wait time for students to answer questions by letting them process what they want to say from their first language into English. And guess what? These teaching strategies are good for ALL students! Utilizing partner and group work gives students opportunities to develop discussions while building on each other’s thinking. Giving them opportunities to read, write and talk for authentic purposes has proven to deepen students’ knowledge of the subject matter by requiring the students to do most of the thinking and talking and not the teacher.
In addition, the attitude of the language learner, their peer group, the school and their community can strongly affect the desire and ability of the student to learn English. It is critical that students of all linguistic and cultural backgrounds are welcomed, valued and included as full members of our district, schools and classroom communities. Recognizing the student’s first language and culture as an important aspect of a student’s identity, as well as a bridge to learning and expanding content knowledge, can improve school climate and outcomes for multilingual learners.
I am very proud of how our multilingual learners have become such an integral and active part of our Worthington community. Many of my former students are now adults and fill many roles within our “village." This is proof that the families and staff of District 518 are doing something right for ALL of OUR students.
Susan Hagen is District 518's English Language Learner Coordinator.