English learners: what principals should know

English learners: what principals should know

Even though English learners (ELs) represent more than 10% of the US student population and represent one of the fastest growing subgroups in schools, they remain among the lowest performing students.

Complicating this issue, education policies and practices often create barriers for ELs to achieve access and outcomes that are equitable to those of their non-EL peers.

A recent summit shed light on how schools can navigate these challenges and ensure that these children get access to quality education.

The EL (English Learner) summit, held at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, examined how schools can confront the structural and systemic silos that stand in the way of creative thinking, adequate resourcing and positive results for English learners.

So what should principals know about ELs?

While the discussion at the summit was nuanced, a central theme stood out: English learners are multi-layered students with a wealth of life experiences, which should be celebrated and which should directly shape all the work we do to support them.

One of the panelists, Rebecca Westlake, director of English language learning for Salem Public Schools, encouraged principals to ask what their students need and want out of their education.

“We have to challenge our tendency to overgeneralize and assume that all students have the same needs,” Westlake said.

“We are not ourselves members of the group that we advocate for and serve, so it’s essential that we ask questions, listen, and be empathetic, because we will never know the experiences that our families have.”

Other benefits of EL

Given that English is the most spoken language worldwide, learning English is an important skill for students of all nations, but one principal found that it can also have benefits to students’ self-esteem and discipline.

When Paul Hough became principal of St Joseph’s International School in Malaysia three years ago, he implemented an assessment test that all students enrolling at the school had to take.

“When I look at the results of that test, a number of students will be asked to go to an English language bridging course before I’ll accept them, but it’s improving now,” Brother Hough told The Educator.

“Last year I sent 18 students to a special intensive English course that lasted four hours a day, five hours a day for 10 weeks – and it worked.”

Brother Hough said the self-esteem and discipline of the students has “improved immensely” since their English language skills improved.

“The kids that I had discipline problems with were kids who could barely understand a thing in the classroom, but when you improve their English skills, everything else seems to improve along with it.”