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Breaking down barriers: Illinois State University empowers teachers to engage English learners in the classroom

Pauline Clardy

Pauline Clardy

It’s happening in classrooms all around the U.S.

Talented, passionate educators who do not possess the pedagogical training to work with English learners are struggling to engage these students through their curriculum. They are confused when English learners can speak English with ease on the playground and at the lunch table but cannot express themselves in the classroom.

This is a common situation for teachers, according to Associate Professor Pauline Clardy and Assistant Professor Elizabeth Skinner, both of the elementary bilingual/bicultural elementary education program. In their work with teachers and teacher candidates, they help demystify such phenomena and, more importantly, prepare educators to better serve English learners. “My goal is to help teachers to modify their lens,” Clardy said.

Sometimes English learners possess the language and interpersonal skills to carry on a conversation with friends but not the mastery of academic language required for abstract thinking and problem-solving in the classroom.

While there are many methods available to assist these learners, many teachers do not have the theoretical and pedagogical background necessary to apply them effectively.

“Data from the National Center for Education Statistics tell us that only 2.5 percent of teachers who instruct English learners have received any professional development training for working with these students,” Clardy said.

The not-so-old terminology used to describe English learners was “limited English proficient.” Clardy said the label has created a deficit perspective of these students and has limited schools’ expectations of their capabilities. This has caused many educators to teach less, rather than more.

Clardy and Skinner are working hard to reverse this trend through a new $1.8 million federally funded grant project with the Elgin Unit 46 School District.

As co-investigators, Clardy and Skinner assist monolingual educators in the district to earn English as a second language (ESL) approval and provisionally certified bilingual educators to earn permanent teaching certificates with ESL/bilingual approval. They are also recruiting bilingual paraprofessionals to the field by offering course work leading to a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, teacher certification, and bilingual/ESL approval.

“We are teaching them that they can still have high expectations for these learners,” Clardy said.

The district was chosen because of the large numbers of English learners (28 percent) who were being served by teachers who did not have bilingual/ESL approval. And five-year projections showed that the number of teachers possessing ESL approval needed to increase by 20 percent to keep pace with the rise in the area’s English learner population. So far, teacher recruitment in the grant project is favorable.

Approximately 40 educators have been accepted to participate, and Clardy and Skinner expect to train 100 teachers and paraprofessionals by the conclusion of the grant program in 2017.

Part of the school district’s need is based on a districtwide shift to dual language programming. Dual language classes are taught in English and a partner language, usually Spanish.

“School systems are slowly trending toward dual language programming because it is an optimum model for supporting bilingual students’ long-term academic success and outcomes,” Skinner said.

Because of this shift, Skinner and Clardy have concentrated their strongest efforts in educating the district’s largest teacher population—monolingual educators.

“These teachers want to serve all students in the district, but some may be concerned about their job security in light of the district’s move to dual language,” Clardy said.

However, in a true dual language program, Clardy said monolingual and bilingual educators often team teach classes.

In fact, monolingual teachers serve as role models for the students whose first language is English. “Teachers learn the principles of second language acquisition, as well as the sociocultural needs of English learners,” she said.

For example, educators are introduced to Stephen Krashen’s filter hypothesis. He explains that when an English learner experiences the positive variables of self-confidence, positive self-image, and interpersonal acceptance in the classroom, the speed of language acquisition for English learners is enhanced. However, when an English learner experiences the negative variables of anxiety, low self-esteem, and low motivation in the classroom, the affective filter is raised and forms a mental block for the student. This can occur when an English learner must endure the cultural insensitivity of a teacher or peer.

For Krashen, a teacher’s goal should be to construct learning environments that promote positive variables and eliminate negative ones, thereby optimizing an English learner’s responsiveness and comprehension.

As teachers build up their theoretical framework, they begin to understand why certain methods are so beneficial to English learners.

Professional teachers tell Clardy and Skinner that they re-enter their classrooms excited to apply what they have learned.

“And, they feel so empowered to be able to better meet their students’ needs,” Clardy said.

Clardy recalled an identity exercise she has used that is designed to connect Anglo teachers with their ancestry.

One of the teachers discovered that her family immigrated illegally to the U.S. and were bootleggers. When sharing this information with her own class, many of the Hispanic students whose families emigrated from Mexico, and who were previously silent, started talking and made a connection with her. She believes this powerful sharing experience helped inform the teacher’s perspective on the historical struggles, disenfranchisement, and marginalization of English learners and their families.

The importance of a lens-changing moment like this cannot be overstated for both current and aspiring educators.

And it is why Skinner and Clardy tell preservice teachers in the college’s undergraduate bilingual education program to take advantage of opportunities that allow them to see the world from the perspective of a minority whose first language is not the area’s native tongue.

“I encourage preservice teachers to seek out opportunities where they will experience being a cultural and/or linguistic minority through study abroad programs and by completing their student teaching in Chicago’s (Hispanic, Spanish-speaking neighborhood of ) Little Village,” Skinner said. “I ask them to consider those experiences when creating lesson plans and reflecting on how their actions impact the thoughts and feelings of students.”

Opportunities for preservice teachers to be immersed in learning environments like Little Village are made possible by the University’s partnerships with CPS and local community-based organizations. This area is one of two Chicago neighborhoods where Illinois State’s bilingual education majors can complete a required yearlong student teaching placement. The Auburn-Gresham area was added in 2010, and Albany Park will soon become the third Chicago neighborhood where yearlong placement is offered.

These placements enable teacher candidates to live and work in the same urban communities as their students’ families. There, they gain the valuable experience of belonging to both the neighborhoods and the schools.

Skinner’s role as Illinois State’s liaison for the Professional Development Schools (PDS) program in Chicago includes supporting student teachers and instructing courses designed to enhance their practice in the classroom.

In her time with them, Skinner encourages students to “recognize the value of bilingualism and biculturalism, and the ability to go between and amongst the cultures.”

This development occurs not just in the classroom, but when students connect with community-based organizations. “Chicago is really a center of community organizing.

Elizabeth Skinner

Elizabeth Skinner

During the past 20 years, community-based organizations have become involved in shaping their work around education reform,” Skinner said. “I help our students to see them as partners not only in the school, but on community issues and to serve as resources for families.”

Skinner said her and Clardy’s goal for both the undergraduate program and Elgin grant is to “get a critical mass of bilingual educators in the schools who will really fight for quality bilingual education.”

After current and aspiring educators complete the coursework, they are prepared to do just that. Clardy and Skinner said that their former students actively use the culture and language of their students as resources, not liabilities. By making connections to those resources, a student’s learning potential is increased.

They are also able to differentiate instruction, thereby empowering all students to become important contributors.

In an increasingly diverse nation of learners, teachers serving the current majority will need training and experience in teaching English learners to remain relevant.


Things have certainly come a long way. DR. CLARDY has done a great job with the program.