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Reality in Little-People Land.

Scorpio Sphinx Tutoring ELLs 10-31-05

By Freddie A. Bowles
Posted from Fayetteville, Arkansas

One assignment for my Second Language Methodologies course requires that I tutor an English Language Learner for two hours each week. I contacted a fellow grad student, an ESL instructor in the public school system, who gave me a contact name at a local elementary school. One phone call later, I was signed-up for the first grade class.

In the Quest for Fluency and Literacy,
An Equitable Education Remains Elusive.

The first week I helped a young lad with the alphabet.

The next week I was introduced to a female Hispanic with "no English skills." My task was to help her with the math worksheet.

E. is a bright child. She understands more English than she can produce, which is typical in the early stages of a student's quest to acquire a Second Language (SL). In the initial "silent period," the student learns the sounds of the language by listening.

At the Little Table,
Questions of Words and Numbers.

E. and I sat at Table Five. There were two boys, one of whom I had worked with last week, and another Hispanic female, who seemed to be bilingual. We received a handout with five problems, four computational and one analytical. My task was to go through the problems with E. while Mrs. C., the classroom teacher, explained the answers to the entire class.

It was a bit confusing for E. and myself -- she wanted to listen to Mrs. C. and to me at the same time -- but we managed to multi-task and navigate the lesson.

E and I communicated in a combined stream of English and Spanish. Her teacher had taped a graphic representation of the alphabet, numbers, and colors on our table, which proved very helpful. We were able to consult the graphics while we solved the addition and subtraction problems on the handout.

How Do I Write a "5"?

E. has yet to master her numbers in sequence in either Spanish or English, so we repeated the numbers in both languages as required by the answers. The first problem was " 7 - 2 = 5. " She couldn't quite write a legible five, so we worked on penmanship, too.

We counted to seven in both languages several times and completed the computational problems first.

Next we tackled a word problem about two men and coins. I translated into Spanish. The names of the men were also color names, "Mr. Brown and Mr. Black." Each man had a number of coins -- our task was to figure out who had the most coins. What a difficult problem for a first grader!

[ A S I D E : I am reminded of Piaget's levels of cognition. I think this kind of grouping goes beyond the cognition level of most first graders. Mrs. C. and I talked about the standards for K-1 and agreed that they seem unrealistic for the cognitive development of children of that age group. So much for theory. ]

A Concept Too High?

By the time E. and I finished juggling the coins of Mr. Brown and Mr. Black, other students in the class were engaged in problems featuring groupings of numbers represented by slashes. Everybody knows these fundamental symbols -- four grouped slashes with a diagonal across the group of four represent a group of five. Now just how old were you when you practiced this arcane bit of grouping? Probably not in first grade.

E. and I worked on our slashes. I couldn't recall the Spanish words for "slash" or "bar," so I decided to call it a "line," hoping the word would suffice. I could see that my logic didn't "speak" to E. at the moment, but we had to move ahead.

The teacher had begun to count nickels and pennies -- more grouping. What a challenge for the class! In my Piaget text, the concept of grouping coins was demonstrated with eight-year-olds. Do you recall eight-year-olds in your first-grade room?

E.? There was no way she could follow the activity as it appeared on the overhead projector. Instead, Mrs. C. handed me a bag of coins, which I emptied onto the table.

Unrealistic, Inappropriate Expectations.

E. and I began to identify nickels and pennies. E. knows how to identify them by name, but she doesn't grasp the conceptual idea of a nickel representing a group of five and a penny representing a group of one. This is the sort of challenge that reaches beyond the language issue into the instructional issue of creating unrealistic and inappropriate expectations for our children.

No wonder test scores have plummeted over the years.

It is similar to the uncomfortable situation in which a person who doesn't fully understand the language stands before a native speaker, who talks louder and faster in the vain hope that volume and speed will help the non-native speaker understand!

I think some of us have embraced a rude and audacious idea that test scores can be raised by the calculated act of cramming more information into ever-younger students at an artificially accelerated rate of instruction. Surely by force of this manic methodology, each driven student will become the coveted test expert.

A Step toward Fluency.

Where were we? Yes, by the time E. and I had arranged the pennies in groups of five and assigned one nickel to each group of pennies, it was time to go home. A ray of that coveted internal light began to shine. I realized that E.'s listening skills had taken a step forward toward fluency because the little one had been able to successfully follow Mrs. C's instructions to pack up for the day while earnestly working with me on the math problem!

After the children left the room, Mrs. C. and I talked about the duty to match curricula to cognitive development. In a jam-packed school day, how little time we allot for students to play, we agreed -- a deficiency, and a sad one.

How . . . ?

How can children develop a love for school when they are faced with learning content that is cognitively beyond their age level?

How can they find comfort in the classroom when the instruction is presented in a mysterious, other language?

How can the little ones reflect on the meaning of things when those precious, valuable things -- concepts, ideas, numbers, and words -- are presented relentlessly and without pause?

Where is the music? The art? Where is the forgotten time for children at school to learn how to sing and dance?

Recess, once a refreshing interlude of play and relaxation, becomes in our jargon-obsessed culture the "Motor-skills Development Period."

Who stands at fault?

Into chaos . . . and a way out.

I claim my share of blame and responsibility. As an experienced teacher and now as a doctoral student in Curriculum and Instruction, I step back to survey a dismal and driven state of affairs in our schools. That I have allowed myself, year-by-year, to participate in a gradual descent into chaos. . . . This is a harsh reason to join others in the search for a way out.

Is it cultural? If so, then we look at the middle-class, for I agree with theorists who identify the public school system as one modeled on a middle-class ideal.

Is it socio-economic? If so, then whose social status are we teaching to, and what economic level is taken for granted as the sine qua non?

Is it political? The common weal agrees that the present model is acceptable, and to heck with educating the disenfranchised and powerless.

A Heartless Phase of 'Uneducation.'

Is it elitist? Then let us point the finger at ourselves. We have created a framework of failure for anyone and everyone who is not expert-certified and college-bound. In the ruthless pursuit of idealistic standards of cognitive development, standards that only a few can realistically achieve, we have entered a heartless phase of "uneducation," in which an increasing portion of our youth are excluded from the hallowed halls of ivy-covered higher education.

In Mrs. C 's classroom I met two zero-level English speakers and several more ELLs, those gray-area students who have good communicative skills, but who already exhibit limited academic language skills. Yes, we must find ways to lead these children to fluency and literacy, but at what additional cost? What about the English language speakers in the class? Are they receiving an equitable education? Some educators even act appalled when a native language speaker (or her parent) dares to raise this issue. To go overboard in one area oft leads to neglect elsewhere. Heartless? I don't think so. How do we define inclusion?

I thought about this on my first visit when I noticed how much explanation had to be given for language arts lessons because of the large number of ELLs in the class. Vocabulary that first language English speakers take for granted at this early age of linguistic competence eluded over half the class. Accommodation by the teacher for the ELLs included simplification and reiteration -- a standard procedure for any inclusion class.

Issues, Solutions, Needs.

Unresolved issues mount. Mrs. C. has five students in her class of 23 who can pay for lunch. The others receive free or reduced lunches. Many parents do not speak English and may not be literate in their home language.

Jamal Abedi, a researcher from the University of California in Los Angeles, examined data across the country on the impact of students' language background on achievement tests outcomes. He concluded that for ELLs the tests measured two constructs, language and content, whereas for native speakers of English, the tests measured content only. Equitable? Language factors had a much greater impact on scores, but Abedi also discovered that income level and educational background of parents were additional variables of measurement. Achievement scores were higher for English Language Learners who did not participate in the free or reduced lunches program. They were also higher for students whose parents had post graduate education.

Solutions remain elusive. The joy I gain from tutoring is tempered with the despair I feel for our public school system. We need a better solution. We need it now.


Abedi, J. (2002). Standardized achievement tests and English language learners: Psychometrics Issues. Educational Assessment, 8(3), 231-257.

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