In a kindergarten classroom, four girls sit at a table to the side of the room and learn the English words that match pictures of a dog, a celery stick and an apron.
The girls are native Spanish speakers starting on a years-long process of learning English at Northeast Elementary School in Greenwood. With the help of an instructional assistant, they are learning to read, write and speak their new language.
Every day, they work as a small group on vocabulary, reading and homework with an aide who teaches English as a second language. Then they rejoin their classmates to have the rest of their lessons in English.
At elementary schools in Johnson County, students learning to speak English are placed in the same classrooms as English speakers so that they have the chance to learn the language by communicating with peers and learning the same lessons in counting, the alphabet and reading as their classmates.
The students are just as intelligent as their peers, so it’s important to keep them involved in learning at their grade level, Clark-Pleasant Community School Corp. assistant superintendent John Schilawski said.
Across the county, 771 public school students (3 percent of the total) are English language learners. Among their native languages are Spanish, Japanese and Punjabi. They come into schools at different ages and with different language abilities, and teachers and aides work with them based on their individual needs and levels of English understanding.
In the past decade, most Indiana schools started integrating English language learning students in classrooms with native English speakers. The students learn English from hearing their classmates and teacher speak the language every day and by meeting with an instructional assistant one-on-one or in small groups for added help.
The four girls in the kindergarten classroom at Northeast Elementary School scored low on a yearly test that assesses language ability. The scores range from one to five, with one meaning a student understands no English and five meaning fluency. The girls spoke little to no English when school started last month.
Sara Barron, the English-as-a-second-language aide who works with the girls, translates her instructions into Spanish and English so they can all understand. The individual instruction helped the girls progress in reading and speaking, but being integrated in the classroom with English speakers has helped them conversationally, Barron said.
The students hear instructions in English from the teacher and mimic their classmates following those directions, including standing up, going to another classroom or gathering for story time. Over time they come to understand what the words and phrases mean.
“They’re sharing the responsibility for their learning,” Greenwood director of elementary curriculum Helen Crawford said. “Any kindergarten child, no matter what their background, is not going to be able to read the lunchroom rules in the first week of school. So you model the behavior for them.”
The goal of the teacher and the instructional assistant is to keep the students on track in the classroom while continually improving their English, Crawford said. The children have to learn more in a semester than those who speak English, because they have to keep up with lessons and learn a new language at the same time.
By fourth or fifth grade, most of the students improve to a higher level of understanding and are able to speak conversational English well. But academic language and terminology still might be difficult for them, so they may get extra help in science or social studies classes, Crawford said.
Older students, many who already spoke some English or have been in classrooms where English is spoken for a few years, are still tested yearly on their language ability in local schools, and that helps determine which still need extra help. Barron meets with these students a few times a week to help them with more complicated tasks, such as verb conjugation, scientific vocabulary or writing papers.
Aides face barrier
Students who don’t speak English come into local schools at different ages. When fifth-graders come in without any understanding of English, they will have a harder time learning the new language because they have spoken only their native language for longer, and grasping a new one takes more time, Schilawski said.
Instructional aides will modify and shorten assignments for students who need help and can read tests to them in their native language. They will work with them on vocabulary and reading. But teaching them the language is difficult when they already have the ability to read books and write essays in a different language, Schilawski said.
In a kindergarten class, students get simple picture books to read for vocabulary. But a fifth-grader can’t use those same books, because they have a higher reading level than a kindergarten student, he said.
Teaching assistants have to work with students on vocabulary and reading in English and balance that work with helping them understand assignments and tests so the students can keep up with their classes, he said.
Students who have started learning to read in their native language have an advantage because they already have a basic understanding of letters and words, Clark Elementary School Principal Shelly Gies said. Nearly half of all English language learners in Clark-Pleasant schools attend Clark Elementary School.
While the students are unable to speak English, the assistants who work with them do not necessarily speak their native language. The are hired based on experience working with children, not necessarily what language they speak. So one challenge for instructional aides is what to do when they can’t speak the language of the students they are supposed to help.
Clark Elementary instructional assistant Sheetal Pradhan speaks Hindi, Punjabi and Marathi, but not all of her students speak any of the languages she does. Many are Spanish speakers, and for them she uses visual aides and gestures to indicate what she wants them to do.
When she has to help them with a test, she translates the content ahead of time for them so they can understand the material, she said.
For the first few weeks, translation, visual aids and gestures are the main ways the students communicate. But after they begin to understand instructions and basic words, she phases out their native language and speaks more English.
Barron switches between Spanish and English when she teaches students who understand little of their new language. She spends more time with these students; and as they get better, she uses Spanish less and less with them. She meets with all of the students who speak little English every day, because they need extra help learning not only how to read English but how to read at all.
An important part of learning is developing a relationship with an aide and teacher, Pradhan said. The instructional assistant has to build trust with each student because they are often shy at the beginning of the year, she said.
Barron has one fourth-grader who will answer any question in writing but never out loud. She’s shy and likely embarrassed to pronounce words incorrectly and make mistakes, Barron said. By building that trust with her teacher and making friends with her peers, Barron hopes by the end of the year the girl will gain more confidence in her English speaking.
After a month in school, assistants and teachers already see improvement in their students.
One kindergarten girl started the year with almost no English understanding and now knows simple words and instructions, Barron said. She can proudly count up to 69 and knows most of her letters only a few weeks into the school year.
Barron told her how well she was doing with her new language, and the girl already knew.
“I speak English now,” she said. “I’m teaching my mom at home.”