Voices Vol 41 No 1


Opportunities and Challenges

By Regina M. Postogna

We are already in the fifth month of the 2011-2012 school year and school districts have begun their supplemental programs in an effort to close the achievement gap for students deemed “at risk” which  includes many of our English language learners (ELLs). The goal for school districts is to have students perform at proficient or advanced proficient levels on state standardized tests that will be administered in the spring because this is currently how a district’s effectiveness is being measured under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). As district supervisors in charge of the effective and efficient running of our district’s bilingual and or ESL programs we are faced with many opportunities as well as challenges.


Research has determined that it is beneficial to develop literacy in the language that is used in the student’s home first, while beginning to build oral language fluency in English (Cummins, 1996: Genesee, 1987). The research further indicated that a strong foundation in primary language literacy facilitated the transfer of literacy skills into English. The evidence has clearly indicated that instruction in native language and oral language development provided cognitive and socio-cultural advantages to ELLs (Cahnmann, 2002, 2008; Ovando, Combs, Collier, 2006).When planning content instruction, it is crucial to take into account how content knowledge skills transfer from native language to a second language. During the past three decades, research consistently has indicated that bilingual students perform equally or better than students taught in a monolingual setting on standardized tests that measure verbal and mathematics skills in English (Thomas & Collier, 2003).This research creates opportunities for conversations regarding creating and or sustaining strong bilingual and ESL programs in districts.


Research also indicated that testing content knowledge in a language in which a student does not have academic language proficiency actually did not always measure content knowledge as intended. What appeared in the test results as a lack of content knowledge was often the normal pace of the second language acquisition process (Abedi, Lord, & Hofstetter, 1998). According to the WIDA standards and the ACCESS test we have three tiers by which ELLs are categorized: A Beginner, B Intermediate, and C Advanced. The challenge that schools face is attempting to teach ELL students who have been in a school district more than one year enough English to demonstrate their content knowledge on the NJASK in grades 3-8 and the HESPA in high school. Many of our high school ELLs have to take the AHSA (Alternative High School Assessment) because they have not attained sufficient mastery of English to pass the HESPA, a requirement for graduation. Many of our ELL students come to our districts over-age and under-schooled due to poverty and war. These students are not literate in their native language and therefore do not have literacy skills to transfer. This makes the second language acquisition process longer for them than a student who arrives literate in their native language.

In order to meet the needs of these students some larger districts have implemented newcomer centers where basic skills are taught. Other districts, due to budget cuts or a large number of different languages being spoken, have high intensity ESL programs and others also have sheltered English classes for the ELL students. There are still many districts that have large numbers of students speaking the same native language and these districts are able to maintain self-contained bilingual classrooms or dual language programs.

Remember that if the topic of budget cuts arises quote  Justice William O. Douglas (U.S. Supreme Court, 1974: Lau v. Nichols).

“There is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, 
textbooks, teachers and curriculum; for the students who do not understand English are
effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education.”

Also Chapter 15 of the New Jersey Administrative Code gives specific details regarding the requirements for bilingual education.


Abedi, J., Lord, C., & Hofstetter, C. (1998). Impact of selected background variables on students’ NAEP math performance. Los Angles: UCLA Center for the Study of Evaluation/National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing.

Cahnmann, M.S. & Remillard, J.T. (2002). What Counts and How: Mathematics Teaching in Culturally, Linguistically, and Socio-Economically Diverse Urban Settings. The Urban Review, Vol. 34, No. 3.

Cummings, J. (1996). Negotiating identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society.   Los Angeles: California Association for bilingual Education.

Genesee, F. (1987). Learning through two languages. Cambridge, MA: Newbury Hall,

C.J. Newbrand. D. Ecke, P. Sperr, U. Marchand, V. & Hayes, L. (2009). Learners Implicit Assumptions about Syntactic Frames in new L3 Words: the Role of Cognates, Typological Proximity, and L2 Status. Language Learning. V.59 no. 1,163-202.

New Jersey Administrative Code, http://www.state.nj.us/education/code/current/title6a/chap15.pdf

Ovando, C.J., Collier, V.P. & Combs, M.C. (2003). Bilingual and ESL classrooms: Teaching in Multicultural Contexts. 3rd ed., New York: McGraw-Hill.

Thomas, P. & Collier, V. (2003). The Multiple Benefits of Dual Language. Educational Leadership, Vol.61.