ELL teaching proficiency: One way to level that education playing field

Imagine a football field built on a slope, with one end zone 100 yards uphill from the other. The players moving toward the downhill end zone would find everything easier, wouldn’t they? Running would take less effort, scoring would increase, and even after a fumble, the ball would roll their way. And the players with the uphill end zone would find every play more difficult.

Now, haul in enough dirt to eliminate the slope. Put that field on level ground. Suddenly, the teams are on equal footing, and the game is fair.

It’s often viewed similarly in education. Teachers, administrators and communities constantly use the term “a level playing field.” It refers to efforts to allow all students to start at the same place in their education, especially poorer students – often minorities – who come to the classroom with less English language proficiency and more economic hardships than others. The argument is that these students actually need more in their early years just to give them equal footing with their other classmates. Without that extra infusion of time and education, the resulting “achievement gap” between the two demographics often becomes permanent, affecting success in class, dropout rates, performance on achievement tests and qualifications for higher education.

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There are a lot of proposed solutions, including early childhood education, legislative action, charter schools, innovation, technology, and various ways to fund schools. In its The National Education Association (NEA) suggests many steps a school or district can take, including the following:

  • Understanding and embracing diversity: Including increasing faculty levels of “cultural competence,” and understanding and making use of students’ cultural strengths;
  • Student support: Including early medical screenings, social services and community assistance, mentors/tutoring and peer networks;
  • Family outreach: Including bilingual office staff workers, outreach to families, adult educating and parenting classes;
  • Extended learning: Including full-day pre-kindergarten and/or kindergarten, and after-school programs;
  • Classroom support: Including teaching strategies that embrace diversity, extra math and literacy instruction, use of test data and research data to improve instruction;
  • District support: Including decreased class sizes, increased priority on closing the achievement gap, professional development, and strong leadership teams;
  • Staff qualifications: Including recruiting, hiring and retaining high-quality staff; continuous professional development; compensation for responsibilities above and beyond;
  • Resources: Including “adequate and equitable” funding, a high priority on resources going to places where achievement gaps exist while improving learning for all students, support from businesses and foundations, seeking federal, state and private funding where available.
  • English Language Learner (ELL) students: Those for whom English is not their first language are the fastest-growing group of students in school today, between 20 and 25 percent, according to the NEA. The organization’s statistics show that there were only 78,000 teachers dedicated to teaching ELL students in public schools during the 2015-16 school year, while there were more than 4.6 million students who qualify. How can you prepare and position yourself to teach these students well?

Dominican University of California’s online professional development program understands the challenge of teaching ELL students. They offer three online continuing education courses specifically targeted to teachers who teach (or desire to teach) ELL students. They include:

“The achievement gap takes many forms, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” writes ThinkCERCA, a company that produces literacy coursework. “What works for one student won’t work for all. However, by meeting the individual needs of our students, we can give them the boost to perform at the level we know they’re capable of and work toward reducing the disparities observed in student outcomes.”

Which brings us back to that playing field, and allowing every student an equal chance to get the ball over the goal line.

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