The Unique Challenges of Teaching English-Language Learners

The most common problem in providing meaningful access to the curriculum has been the practice of viewing English-language learners with learning difficulties as simply low-performing native English speakers. It is critical that teachers avoid this reaction when confronted with students who do not use English proficiently. In thinking about curriculum access, the important goal is that students understand the critical concepts being presented, rather than knowing the correct English label for a particular concept.

One educator described what it was like to come to the United States knowing very little English: she suddenly changed from perceiving herself as a "smart" person to someone with many academic problems. This perception remained private, because there was no opportunity to share it with anyone else. She believes it would have been enormously helpful to have heard from other students about these same kinds of feelings – she would have understood that these feelings were normal and that the difficulties were an understandable reaction to learning in a new language and environment.

The unfortunate consequence of viewing English-language learners as having limited ability is the tendency to merely adopt watered-down versions of the standard curriculum, a practice that is in clear conflict with curriculum access. A second-rate curriculum denies English-language learners access to high-quality instruction and, ultimately, real academic opportunity.

In thinking about potential solutions and remedies, it is important to remember that there is no one right way, and currently there are no experts who have precise remedies. Nevertheless, rapid advances are being made in this area, and some promising practices are emerging. At the heart of these practices is a clear recognition that English-language learners with learning difficulties face unique learning challenges that demand innovative practices.

Excerpted from Teaching English-Language Learners with Learning Difficulties

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