Challenges confronting teachers of English language learners

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Universitaets und Landesbibliothek]On: 07 December 2013, At: 03:18Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Educational ReviewPublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cedr20

    Challenges confronting teachers ofEnglish language learnersThi Diem Hang Khong a & Eisuke Saito ba School of Education , University of Queensland , Australiab Curriculum, Teaching & Learning Academic Group , NationalInstitute of Education , SingaporePublished online: 05 Mar 2013.

    To cite this article: Thi Diem Hang Khong & Eisuke Saito , Educational Review (2013):Challenges confronting teachers of English language learners, Educational Review, DOI:10.1080/00131911.2013.769425

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00131911.2013.769425

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  • Challenges confronting teachers of English language learners

    Thi Diem Hang Khonga* and Eisuke Saitob

    aSchool of Education, University of Queensland, Australia; bCurriculum, Teaching &Learning Academic Group, National Institute of Education, Singapore

    The number of English language learners and limited English procient studentshas grown exponentially in the United States over the past decades. Given thehuge cultural and linguistic diversity among them, educating this population ofstudents remains a challenge for teachers. This paper aims to review the typesof challenges that educators face when teaching limited English procient stu-dents in the US context. Findings from existing literature show the obstaclesteachers confront are social, institutional, and personal in nature. Although someresearch has emphasised stronger teacher education programmes as a solution toproblems related to the teaching and learning of these students, theseprogrammes are insufcient for teachers to overcome all of the challenges theyface. Concerted efforts by educators, local and central administrators, academics,local communities, and lawmakers are necessary.

    Keywords: English language learners; limited English prociency; languageminority; teacher challenges

    Introduction

    The number of English language learners (ELLs) or limited English procientstudents in the United States has grown exponentially over recent decades (NationalClearinghouse for English Language Acquisition 2007, 2011). These students aregenerally dened as those who are from non-English speaking families and experi-ence difculties in understanding English (US Department of Education 1994).They are occasionally referred to as English learners (Sandberg and Reschly 2010),English as a second language students (Clair 1995), language-minority students(Grant and Wong 2003), or the more general term, culturally and linguisticallydiverse students (Perez and Holmes 2010). For the purpose of consistency, the termELLs will be used throughout the present paper. Although ELLs are an integralpart of the US educational system and can potentially benet the countrys future,given their tremendous cultural and linguistic diversity, educating this population ofstudents still remains a challenge for many US teachers.

    The research hitherto has looked at various problems confronting ELL teachers.However, there is a dearth of studies that have systematically categorised theobstacles encountered by these educators in their daily practices. Among the mostdocumented issues are inadequate teacher education and professional development(Abedi 2004; Clair 1995; Grant and Wong 2003; Nelson-Barber 1999; Zucker-Conde 2009) and assessment of ELLs (MacSwan and Rolstad 2006; Reeves 2004;

    *Corresponding author. Email: hatrangvnu@gmail.com

    Educational Review, 2013http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00131911.2013.769425

    2013 Educational Review

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  • Short and Fitzsimmons 2007; Solrzano 2008). Although these issues should beurgently addressed, the existing research does not represent the whole picture ofchallenges facing ELL teachers. The issues with which they need to cope can bemuch broader and more complex, and there is a need to capture a more completepicture of the challenges they face. Therefore, this paper aims to review the typesof challenges that educators face when teaching ELL students in the US context.Despite choosing a specically US setting as the case for this review, many of thechallenges discussed in its regard are of interest and relevance to readers in otherEnglish-speaking environments, as well as those concerned with second-languagespeakers in other linguistic contexts. Since the work of educating ELLs is not con-ned to ESL (English as a second language)/bilingual teachers, the scope of thisstudy extends to mainstream teachers who work with these students in regular lan-guage arts and content-area classrooms, that is, settings in which literacy skills andsubject content are taught entirely in English, and where the majority of studentsare native speakers of English. The paper attempts to answer two researchquestions:

    (1) What are the challenges facing ELL teachers?(2) What can be inferred from those challenges?

    The paper is organised as follows. The introduction is followed by a detaileddiscussion of the problems teachers face, which we classify into three groups:social, institutional, and personal challenges, each of which is further divided intosubgroups. The nal section comprises the discussion and conclusion, in which weattempt to elaborate on the signicance of the challenges identied, and providesuggestions for future studies.

    Methods

    We used the online public access catalogue Educational Resource InformationCentre (ERIC) to retrieve a list of articles, using various combinations of keywordssuch as ELLs, LEP, and minority students. From these results, we selected 50papers, based on their focus on teacher problems. After examining these papers, thereferences that the authors considered highly relevant to the present study wereincluded in the literature review, bringing the total to 60. These included bothempirical research and opinion papers, with the former being the majority. Opinion-based papers were incorporated because of the apparent under-documentation ofcertain problems in rigorous research. The authors then read the literature, high-lighted discussions regarding the challenges confronting ELL teachers, and codedeach paper according to the steps for coding data suggested by Creswell (2008).Text segments conveying relevant ideas were identied and assigned codes for keyterms, for example, negative public feelings and public action against immi-grants. These similar codes were grouped together under more general codes suchas societal attitudes, and were then mapped out and collapsed into themes to illus-trate the general structure of the issues. As a result, three categories emerged, withregard to the overall picture of the challenges that teachers face. While the lowachievement and literacy of ELLs have been treated as major obstacles for theirteachers, and do in fact challenge many US educators, they are assumed as givenconditions in this paper and do not therefore emerge as the biggest issues.

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  • Challenges

    Social challenges

    The growth and diversity of ELLs

    According to a number of ofcial reports (Camarota 2004; de Cohen and Clewell2007; Kindler 2002; National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition2007; National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition 2011), thepopulation of ELL students in the United States has been constantly on the rise.Within a decade (19902001), the number of ELLs grew by 105%, compared to amere 12% increase in the general school population (Kindler 2002). In the academicyear 20082009, more than 5.3 million ELLs were reported, representing nearly11% of the total pre-kindergarten through K-12 (that is from pre-school to grade12) enrollment (National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition 2011).These students settle in various parts of the country, with California being the statemost densely populated by ELLs (de Cohen and Clewell 2007).

    ELLs in the United States come from diverse backgrounds (Futrell, Gomez, andBedden 2003; Gndara, Maxwell-Jolly, and Driscoll 2005; Kindler 2002; Perez andHolmes 2010; Short and Fitzsimmons 2007). A large number of ELLs areimmigrants or children of immigrants, and are disadvantaged in terms of theireducational attainment, economic situation, and social security, compared to thenative US population (Camarota 2004). These students bring to the classroom avariety of cultural backgrounds, language prociencies, academic experiences, andcognitive processes (Perez and Holmes 2010, 41).

    The rapid increase in the size and the great diversity of this student populationpose a challenge to their educators. To work effectively with ELLs, a need exists toreform educational policies, curriculum, materials, and management, as well asteacher training. However, US society and the educational system seem unpreparedfor this challenge; thus, many issues have emerged with regard to the teaching andlearning of ELLs in the United States.

    Societal attitudes

    First, ELLs are often considered problematic, due to their cultural and linguisticdiversity (McLaughlin 1992). A growing body of studies depicts how localcommunities perceive these children and their families. The White community hasparticularly demonstrated concerns about the impact and threat of an inux of immi-grants (Gitlin, Buendia, Crosland, and Doumbia 2003; Stuart 2006; Valds 1998;Vollmer 2000). These societal concerns have transformed into a popular belief thatnewcomers do not wish to learn English and they waste the investment the countrymakes in their education (Valds 1998). Furthermore, minority groups such as Afri-can, Asian, and Latino Americans have frequently reported experiences of discrimi-nation and stigmatisation (Kim, Wang, Deng, Alvarez, and Li 2011; Rosenbloomand Way 2004; Stuart 2006; Zucker-Conde 2009). Especially, increased discrimina-tion due to linguistic diversity is a serious problem (Stuart 2006), with Asian andLatino groups most likely to suffer (Fritz 2008). In addition, ELLs face serious chal-lenges in order to survive in their new country. In some cases, adjustment problemsappear as the students feel overwhelmed (Kim et al. 2011).

    To a large extent, these problems manifest an underlying ideology of American-isation, according to which members of the minority must undergo a process of

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  • becoming blind to differences (Reeves 2004) and assimilating into the dominantculture (Fritz 2008). This belief in Americanisation also seems to exist in ELL teach-ers, generally inuenced by dominant societal attitudes (Walker, Shafer, and Iiams2004, 131). This, in turn, greatly affects the educational experiences of ELLs. How-ever, despite much research into societal attitudes toward ELLs, there is a seriouslack of studies on how the inuence of societal views challenges ELL educators.

    Federal, state, and district educational policies

    Since 1964, in addition to several court rulings and non-regulatory guidance, thefederal government has passed three acts stipulating requirements for ELLprogrammes: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal EducationalOpportunities Act of 1974, and Titles I and III of the No Child Left Behind Act(NCLB) of 2001. Yet, despite the emphasis placed on the importance of providingELLs with appropriate and effective instruction, the content of these documents andtheir implementation at school level are questionable.

    First, regarding the content, NCLB does not require that teachers be trained towork with adolescent ELLs (Short and Fitzsimmons 2007). Furthermore, as Raganand Lesaux (2006, 18) claimed, the documents tend to focus onand even over-emphasizeEnglish language skills at the expense of academic achievement.There is also an issue with regard to Re-designated Fluent English Procient(R-FEP) status. In this system, schools are supposed to support and track their stu-dents who are reclassied as R-FEP, although initially identied as having limitedprociency in English, only for two further years. The concern is that schools mayprioritise English language teaching, in order to be rewarded with the reclassica-tion of a larger number of students (Ragan and Lesaux 2006). As a result, studentscontent knowledge and skills could be compromised, preventing them fromtransferring smoothly to mainstream classrooms.

    Another shortcoming in federal law, court rulings, and non-regulatory guidanceis the absence of specic and concrete guidelines (Ragan and Lesaux 2006).Substantial autonomy is given to states and districts in implementing policy, creat-ing a risk of a gap between the intent of federal policies and actual classroom prac-tice (Cohen, Moftt, and Goldin 2007). In such cases, federal policies are notnecessarily reected accurately at the state and district levels, in terms of reportingstudents yearly progress and monitoring R-FEP students (Ragan and Lesaux 2006).In connection with this issue, Short and Echevarria (2004/2005) further describedthe mismatch between requirements for high-quality teachers under NCLBguidelines and actual practice.

    In addition to national laws and regulations, teachers struggle with state-levelpolicies. California and Florida serve as typical examples: California, which has thelargest number of ELLs in the United States (G...

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