Voices Vol 41 No 1

SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS: ESL Elementary Grades 1 - 5

Bilingual and ESL Education Through the Years

By Noreen Drucker

Teaching English to second language learners has changed drastically in the last 40 years. We have gone from a nation that demanded instruction in a language the student could understand to a nation tied to the requirements of NCLB. Today  we struggle to break those ties and design  an educational system that will make our students successful in school and in life. So maybe it is the perfect time to reflect on what has happened in ESL and what the future holds for us and our students.

Let’s go back for a moment to the early 70’s. The place is San Francisco-a synopsis of Lau vs. Nichols still in effect today….

Probably the most important legal event for bilingual education was the Lau v. Nichols case, which was brought against the San Francisco Unified School District by the parents of nearly 1,800 Chinese students. It began as a discrimination case in 1970 when a poverty lawyer decided to represent a Chinese student who was failing in school because he could not understand the lessons and was given no special assistance.

Lower courts ruled in favor of the San Francisco schools, but in 1974 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the plaintiffs. In his opinion, Justice William O. Douglas stated simply that “there is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers, and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education.


And so began the golden age of bilingual education and ESL programs.
Bilingual/ ESL  programs sprang up all over. Federal funds were funneled into schools needing assistance to run them. There were not enough certified bilingual/ESL teachers. States and universities scurried  to create emergency certificates and start up teacher preparation courses in these new fields. In the case of bilingual programs, schools scrambled to find ANYONE who could speak Spanish, Japanese, or Chinese.

Publishers were just getting out some of their newer materials. Classroom teachers were frantically creating whatever they could make so that the kids had something to work on. Picture dictionaries came out, as did vocabulary picture cards. The Scott Foresman Company put out their CUE BOOK. In my humble opinion, this publication was way ahead of its time. It contained the basics for teaching beginners- the colors, the numbers, jobs, prepositions ( for those of you who remember- there was a girl- in a car, next to a car, under a car etc). The pictures were clear and easy to understand. The best part was that they constantly reused the vocabulary. The tall man, for example, was the lawyer in one picture, walking down the street in the next and talking to the policeman in the last one. They knew, back in those days that new words had to be manipulated 12-18 times before they were committed to short term memory. They were ahead of their time.

In the classroom, ESL teachers were implementing a  “It’s a, that’s a, what’s a”  strategy. It was used to teach vocabulary and went like this: What’s this? It’s a pencil. What’s that? It’s a pen. What’s this? It’s a notebook. What’s that? It’s a cat. This methodology was used by many ESL teachers, because they simply had so little to choose from. ESL teachers needed more training both through the universities and professional development programs, more appropriate resources, materials that were engaging and rigorous and a curriculum that was consistent and challenging.

In the late eighties and nineties the research began. We were  questioning how children learned, how the brain worked and what bilingualism really was.

There was work done by Stephen Krashen— http://homepage.ntlworld.com/vivian.c/SLA/Krashen.htm

and Jim Cummins— http://esl.fis.edu/teachers/support/cummin.htm —which led to many changes in thinking and implementing new ideas.

Back in the classroom, some technology began filtering in. There were BIG computers referred to as desktops and programs that by today’s standards were Jurassic in nature. There were many books being published for ELLs. Actually, that is not completely true. There were some books totally dedicated to ELLs. Most of them, however, were written for native English speakers, with an Add On for ELLs. Content area became a part of an ESL program. ELLs needed to know the vocabulary to learn science, social studies. and math.

The number of ELLs continued to grow. Many states that previously had no ELLS were now finding them filling up  their schools.

Bring on the new millennium. More and more studies were being done, touting the advantages of bilingualism. Technology continued to astound us, both in and out of the classroom. The numbers of ELLs skyrocketed in places like Georgia, Wyoming and North Carolina.

SIOP Training was provided to teachers. ESL teachers began to collaborate  with mainstream teachers. Programs to educate the parents and community were funded.
Testing was  king. NJASK ruled. Scores were unfair to kids who didn’t dominate the language. Access was  designed to assess language proficiency. The WIDA Consortium grew.

It is now 2012.

The only school-age population that continues to increase is that of the ELLs. We have lots of technology, but figuring out how best to use it with our kids can be challenging. Do we purchase a program, subscribe online to one, or do we create our own?

We know more about our kids now. They might come and go, but they are being tracked and information about them is on file.

We have learned the value of the home language and can explain to the parent how important maintaining it is.

What other changes can we look forward to?  How will we, as educators be able to guide our students through the educational system of today and tomorrow?

Please consider joining us at our annual convention on May 30th and 31st at the Hyatt Regency in New Brunswick. We will explore some of these very questions with you and provide you with assistance as we continue to advocate for those whose voices can barely be heard.

Noreen M. Drucker, ESL 1-5 SIG  Representative.