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Oct 28

Don’t Discount Content Knowledge

Yesterday I was a substitute in an ESL class. I always love working with  ESL students (hence my graduate program specification) because ESL students have this desire to learn and the look that graces their faces when a concept is finally understood, shows me my job as a teacher does not go unnoticed. So in the classes yesterday, students were at a variety of language proficiency levels. For example, one student just arrived in the United States this week, and he knows no English, only Spanish; conversely, there are students who fully understand English, but struggle reading and writing the English language.

The tasks to be accomplished yesterday were: students had to take an exam testing both their math and English language skills, and students had to look up vocabulary words to go along with the novel they were reading. The math/language test asked the students to write out the numbers in a sentence to tell time, and to spell out an answer. Additionally, students were given math problems in a paragraph, where students had to read the information and then solve the problem. This is where it dawned on me that some of these students are struggling in their academic classes, not because they do not understand the material, but because they do not understand the English language.

We discuss this concept in TESOL classes: how some teachers assume ELL students do not understand material, and sometimes this leads to ELL students being misplaced in special education classes. However, with these math problems on the test yesterday, as soon as I translated the problem from English into Spanish, the students immediately knew how to go about solving the problem. That is exactly what that specific test is designed to do: figure out if the issue lies in content or language. The test that students took yesterday was similar to the Bililngual Verbal Abilities Test (BVAT), which is used to evaluate ELL students through presenting pictures, where students have to identify what is being shown to them; oral vocabulary, where students have to explain synonyms or antonyms of words; and verbal analogies, where students recognize relationships between words. Then, the test is repeated to students in their native languages for questions they got wrong in English.

Although there is controversy over whether BVAT is biased based on if students have been socially/ culturally exposed to various images/ words, the test helps to determine if the student is having an academic content problem, or their answers in English were wrong due to understanding the language. Overall, teachers need to be aware that ELL students may be struggling due to a language improficiency, not that they aren’t able to comprehend the material, and then take this information to structure helping the ELL students succeed.