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Limited Proficiency


Another category of Special Populations is the student with limited English proficiency (LEP), also referred to as English Language Learners (ELL). National and statewide demographics show that population diversity is rapidly increasing. For example, the US Census shows that the number of White Americans dropped from 75.6% of the population in 1990 to 69% in 2000.

The following breakdown by race and ethnicity shows how Texas compares to the nation in its demographics mix:


 

Texas

Nation

Native-American

1%

1%

Asian-American

3%

4%

African-American

11%

12%

White

71%

75%

Other or more
than one race

14%

8%

Hispanic
(may be any race)

32%

13%

Source: US Census Bureau, 2000

Demographics for students enrolled in Texas public schools clearly show the diversity increase:

 

1989-90

1998-99

American Indian & Alaskan Natives

0.2%

0.3%

Asian/Pacific Islander

1.9%

2.5%

Black

14.6%

14.4%

Hispanic

33.1%

38.6%

White

50.3%

44.1%

Source: US Department of Education

Research reveals that no matter what the ethnic or racial background, a large number of students who are not yet proficient in the English language are in Texas elementary and secondary school systems. In 1989-90, 309,862 LEP students were in Texas public schools; in a mere six years (1996-97), the number had increased to 513,634 (US Department of Education).

One might be tempted to surmise that since the majority of the population remains white, dealing with Limited English proficiency students is not a pressing issue. But that conclusion would be a false one. First, almost 40% of the students in Texas schools are Hispanic. In addition, other ethnic groups besides Anglos are categorized as white.

For example, as Alejandra Lopez, of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race in Ethnicity at Stanford University, points out, “People of Middle Eastern or Arab ancestry are often categorized or expected to self-identify as ‘White’ on questions about race and ethnicity on the US Census and other demographic surveys.” In fact, an article in The Christian Science Monitor indicated “A recent study also found that Texas has one of the fastest-growing Middle Eastern populations in the country, third after New York and California (Axtman)." These new immigrants to the US are often limited in their English proficiency in the same way that a recent South American immigrant is limited.

Definitions

The term “limited English proficiency” may seem self-explanatory, but, in fact, it is a term filled with difficulties. The following discussion of the topic, taken from Chapter One of Meeting the Needs of Second Language Learners: An Educators Guide, by Judith Lessow-Hurley, provides an excellent explanation of the issues involving LEP or ELL students.

One of the difficulties in identifying students with limited English proficiency is the lack of agreement among theorists on a definition of proficiency. At a minimum, theorists tend to agree that the ability to use a language is related to the context in which it is used.

For example, if you have studied French extensively in college, you may be capable of writing essays in French on topics related to literature or philosophy. Stepping off a plane in Orly, however, you may find your French insufficient to the demands of changing money, finding a bus to Paris, or registering at your hotel. It's not that you don't know any French, but that you are weaker in some language skills than others.

Conversely, you may have been born in the United States and consider yourself a native Spanish speaker. In the absence of academic support for your native language, however, you may not have strong Spanish literacy skills. Your ability to use Spanish is perfectly adequate for the requirements of daily life, such as shopping, phone calls, and social events, but you might have difficulty making a professional presentation or writing a research paper in Spanish.

Language Proficiency and Schooling

Schooling appears to require particular kinds of language proficiency because school is a highly specialized context. Cummins (1981) has clarified the issues of language proficiency and context for educators. He suggests that school-related tasks require school-related proficiency, which he has labeled Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). According to Cummins, CALP is the kind of language we use in situations that don't have a lot of context-related clues. CALP is different from what Cummins calls Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS), the kind of language we use for day-to-day communication. In ordinary daily communication we can often extract meaning from the situation or context, which gives us lots of clues.

For example, you can generally get something to eat or shop for souvenirs in a foreign country even if you don't speak the language. Shopping and eating in restaurants are contexts that are comparable from place to place. When you go into a restaurant and look at the menu, or enter a store and look at the merchandise, everyone understands what you have in mind. In addition, you can use gestures and facial expressions to communicate. You can also make your needs known with a few simple words like "please" and "thank you." Shopping and eating in restaurants are activities that relate to concrete visible objects and events; they are based on shared assumptions and scripts. That is to say, they are highly contextualized. It is easy to understand and be understood in highly contextualized situations, even if you have limited language skills, or BICS.

On the other hand, it is difficult even for fairly competent speakers of a second language to follow a university lecture about abstract ideas. In a lecture, there is little to give you a real sense of the topic or to clarify what's going on. An instructor may provide a lecture outline or make notes on the board or projection screen, but print is, by definition, extremely abstract. University lectures are decontextualized. That is to say, few communication clues exist in the lecture context. Attending a university lecture requires a particular set of highly sophisticated academic language skills, or CALP.

In sum, academic experiences and activities at every level are generally more abstract and lacking in context than day-to-day, real-life communication, so they present difficulties for students who have not developed academic language skills, or CALP. And commonly used proficiency tests do not always assess CALP. As a result, children who have playground English are often judged as English proficient even though they may not be able to handle the demands of schooling in their new language. Failure to distinguish between contexts unfairly sets up those students for failure.

Addressing the Needs

Lessow-Hurley’s words show that even a student who appears to be proficient in English in his or her social encounters may have difficulty with understanding and communicating in a learning environment.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board studies show that a sizable number of students with Limited English proficiency are enrolled in community and technical colleges. In 1998-99, the number was 52,711. In 1999-200, the number dipped insignificantly to 51,726, and in 2000-01, the number dipped to 45,818. In spite of the noticeable dip in 00/01, the number still shows that tens of thousands of our students struggle with English in an academic setting.

How can a community or technical college faculty member offer support to a Limited English Proficient student? Actually, what works to aid the learning of these students is not much different from what aids your other students.

A recent posting on the Tomorrow’s Professor's listserv, out of Stanford University, addressed this topic. What follows is the text from that posting, which was taken from the work of noted educator and ESL expert, Dr. Kate Kinsella.

Facilitating Equitable Class Discussions Within the Multicultural Classroom

Resource A

Topically focused class discussions potentially offer English learners rich exposure to new vocabulary and usage in their second language, along with opportunities to interact in a variety of academic situations - reporting information, summarizing, synthesizing, and debating. Frequently, however, linguistically and culturally diverse students remain passive participants in whole-class discussions for varied reasons, including insecurity about their listening comprehension, pronunciation, word choice, and culturally appropriate interactional strategies. Instructors may employ the following strategies to lead carefully orchestrated class discussions that provide language-promoting assistance and facilitate more active participation for English learners:

  1. Create a supportive classroom environment for less confident English users by encouraging all students to talk in turn, to listen actively while others talk, and to offer assistance rather than impatience and intolerance for classmates who need help in understanding or responding.

  2. Show your students that you expect them all to participate in oral activities by consistently inviting every member of the class to participate.

  3. Allow students to first share and rehearse their responses to a key question or comments on a topic with a partner to increase learning and ESL student confidence and motivation to contribute to a unified class discussion.

  4. Be sensitive to the linguistic and conceptual demands of discussion questions and activities. Don't inhibit participation by pushing students to communicate too far beyond their current level of English proficiency.

  5. The easiest content for less proficient English users to handle is often related to their everyday lives and activities. Make a concerted effort to build in opportunities for language minority students to share information about their cultures, communities, families, and special interests.

  6. Pair less proficient English users with a sensitive classmate who can ideally clarify concepts, vocabulary, and instructions in the primary language and also coach the classmate in responding.

  7. Attempt to activate students' relevant background knowledge on topics, and provide through "schema"-building activities (e.g., brainstorming, mapping, advance organizers) requisite linguistic, conceptual, and cultural information that would otherwise prevent them from active learning and participation.

  8. Move purposefully around the room to enable as many students as possible to enjoy having close proximity to the teacher, which should also encourage students to remain more alert and willing to ask and answer questions.

  9. Do not constantly pose questions to the group at large, allowing a minority of more confident or impulsive students to dominate the discussion.

  10. Ask a question before naming the respondent to encourage active learning by allowing all students to "attend" and decide how they would answer.

  11. Draw in less confident students by asking them to respond to an open-ended question after they have heard a variety of responses from their classmates.

  12. Call on English learners to answer not only safe yes/no questions but also more challenging, open-ended questions that provide opportunities for thoughtful and extended usage of their second language.

  13. Increase wait time (3-9 seconds) after asking a question to allow adequate time for the student to successfully process the question and formulate a thoughtful response.

  14. When calling on a specific ESL student, it often helps to first pose the question and make eye contact with the student while stating his/her name; then pause a few seconds and restate the question verbatim.

  15. Discourage classmates from blurting out responses and intimidating less confident English users from taking risks with their second language.

  16. Do not interrupt a student's thought process after asking an initial question by immediately posing one or more follow-up questions; these tandem questions confuse rather than assist English learners who may not realize that the teacher is actually rephrasing the same question.

  17. Encourage students to talk through nonverbal means, such as waiting patiently, smiling, and nodding in approval.

  18. Make any corrections indirectly by mirroring in correct form what the student has said. For example, suppose a student says, "Majority immigrants San Francisco from Pacific Rim." You can repeat, "That is correct. A majority of the immigrants in San Francisco come from the Pacific Rim."

  19. Use these conversational features regularly and in so doing model for your students how to use them in class discussions, lectures, and small-group work:

Confirmation Checks

Is this what you are saying?

So you believe that . . .

Clarification Requests

Will you explain your point so that I can be sure I understand?

Could you give me an example of that?

Comprehension Checks

Is my use of language understandable to you?

Interrupting

Excuse me, but . . .

Sorry for interrupting, but . . .

Source: Kinsella, 1993, p. 16.