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    Saturday, April 20, 2024

    Teaching new English learners at local schools and in the community

    Editor’s note: In this two-day series, we profile people who have recently moved to the Norwich and New London area eager to learn English and better their lives, and the professionals dedicated to teaching English to school-age children and adults.

    Teacher Bryn Clayton, center, works with Yesenia Ospina, originally from Peru, left, and Keylin Vargas on recognizing medical terms during a low-intermediate English for Speakers of Other Languages class Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, at Norwich Adult Education Center. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    A student takes notes on a worksheet during an English for Speakers of Other Languages class Monday, Feb. 12, 2024, at Norwich Adult Education Center. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Norwich Free Academy assistant teacher Kaitlin Connors gives a thumbs up to a student during an advanced multilingual civics class Monday, Feb.12, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Teacher Katrina Bercaw talks with English for Speakers of Other Languages students Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, at Norwich Adult Education Center. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Norwich Free Academy teacher Jessica Chapman laughs as she talks with a student during an advanced multilingual civics class Monday, Feb. 12, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Teacher Angel Martinez helps students come up with animal names during a Families Learning English class for parents at John B. Stanton School in Norwich on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Teacher Julie Feindt-Cagle introduces a worksheet during an English for Speakers of Other Languages class Monday, Feb. 12, 2024, at Norwich Adult Education Center. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Norwich – Norwich Free Academy bilingual teacher Jessica Chapman made a quick line drawing of a house on the electronic white board and a stick figure of a person next to it to start a recent lesson on the makeup of the U.S. Congress and how it works.

    She joined her 16 students in chuckling at her rudimentary artwork. But using a mixture of Spanish and English, Chapman made a point to these new English learners that as they learn complex lessons in their high school classes, they can draw images to help them remember words and concepts.

    Teaching English to immigrant students of all ages has become as complex as some of the rules of grammar and the vocabulary new English learners need to grasp. Protocols differ for elementary through high school students as compared to adult education programs.

    A recent influx of hundreds of newcomer families to southeastern Connecticut has led to an expansion of English learners’ classes both in the public schools and in the community. The students arrive with a wide range of previous education, making it a challenge for those with wide gaps in their studies to learn quickly enough to meet the academic requirements to graduate high school.

    At NFA, the house Chapman drew for her students was for the U.S. House of Representatives. She added the number 435 next to the stick figure to show that it has that many elected members.

    “It’s your creation,” Chapman told the students, as they used their worksheets to make their own illustrations on the makeup of the U.S. Congress. Co-teacher Kaitlin Connors meandered around the room offering assistance in a mixture of Spanish and English.

    By the end of this 45-minute bilingual support class, the 10th through 12th-graders had written and illustrated summary paragraphs of how the legislative branch works, with 100 senators, two elected from each state for six-year-terms and 435 in the House elected for two years.

    An increase in adult new English learners has also led to larger numbers at Literacy Volunteers drop-in classes at Otis Library in Norwich and at a new Haitian Community Center, based at La Famille de l’Eglise de Dieu church at 63 Church St. in downtown Norwich.

    Sue Goldstein, a board member for Immigration Advocacy and Support Center in New London, held three teacher training sessions for the language learning program at the Norwich Haitian Community Center to help launch the program and led demo lessons for the fledgling class.

    One Wednesday afternoon, retired elementary school teacher John Andriso, now a Literacy Volunteers English teacher, used a marker to write different monetary amounts on a white board: $409.76, $1,563.00, $60.07. He asked students to read the amounts aloud, making sure they used “dollars” and “cents,” and explaining that the first figure could be a car payment, the second might be rent and the third could be a grocery bill.

    Three adults at first came to this 90-minute drop-in English class, but by halfway through the class, 10 students had crammed into the room. Andriso progressed from the money lesson to the complex English use of contractions, such as “l’ll” for “I will” and the even more confusing use of homophones ― words that sound like but have different spellings and different meanings.

    He handed out a worksheet listing 11 homophones, including pear and pair, here and hear, led and lead, meet and meat, with space for students to write the comparable word in their native languages and then a sentence in English using the words. Combining the lessons, he compared the contraction “I’ll” to the aisle of a church or grocery store.

    “Homophones are important to know when filling out job applications,” Andriso said. “You want to know the right words, otherwise the boss could look at your application and see it’s not proper English and toss it aside and go onto the next one.”

    Evolving teaching terms, practices

    Education practices and terminology for English learning have evolved in recent years. Acknowledging that many newcomers to the United States might be fluent in multiple languages, they now are called multilingual learners. Adult education also uses the term TESOL, teaching English to speakers of other languages.

    For example, NFA 11th grader Christyna Riffin, 16, who arrived in Norwich from Haiti eight months ago, is fluent in Haitian Creole, French and Spanish and hopes to add English to her repertoire by the time she graduates high school. She also is enrolled in NFA’s new medical interpreter class, learning medical terminology in multiple languages as a possible career path.

    Elementary and high school students attend all the regular academic classes required by the state to advance grade levels and to graduate. Para-educators might accompany them in class ― as other paras do for other students with specific needs in regular classes. During break-out periods, MLL students receive additional lessons or support from teachers.

    Luz Rivera, director of multilingual learners in Norwich Public Schools, said the school places MLL students in levels 1-5, based on their proficiency. Beginning learners, level 1, are paired with students in level 3 during breakout English classes. Students in levels 2 and 4 attend breakout English classes together.

    “That way the level 3 students can become models to the level 1 learners,” Rivera said. “They have more practice in speaking and listening. And the 2s and 4s are together.”

    In regular classes, MLL teachers pair with classroom teachers to ensure the students are learning the core subject matter, Rivera said. Students are tested each year to measure their proficiency.

    “Because of the exposure, and it’s so continuous and so consistent, they grasp the language a lot faster,” Rivera said of placing MLL students in regular classes. “It’s accelerated. They’re not being isolated only with their native language. They’re forced to use English and practice it and therefore the results are way faster.”

    At Norwich Adult Education, English learners are divided by six proficiency levels and placed in classes with others of the same skill level, Director John Glover said. Students must become proficient in English before taking other classes, such as GED or high school credit diploma classes or vocational classes, such as CNA training.

    Adult Ed enrollment is capped at 25 per class, with the recent spike in demand resulting in a waiting list of more than 200 applicants. Norwich Adult Ed recently asked three teachers to take on additional class loads, opening afternoon sessions to reduce the waiting list.

    Learners at any level are welcome at Norwich Adult Ed classes at Madonna Place, an agency for young parents in downtown Norwich, at Mohegan Sun’s class for English learning employees and a class called Families Learning English for parents of MLL students at the John B. Stanton Elementary School.

    Angel Martinez, MLL teacher at Stanton, also teaches the Families Learning English class in the school library. Child care is offered in the cafeteria during classes held on Monday and Wednesday evenings.

    Martinez started a recent class by writing the alphabet in a long column on the whiteboard. After a brief review in sounding out letters, he asked the students to name animals in English for each letter.

    As the students filled the board, Martinez transitioned to a lesson on sentence writing and comparisons, first writing, “The ant is small. The elephant is big.” Then: “The ant is smaller than the elephant.”

    The lesson transitioned again, as Martinez noted that different terms are used for the meat of some animals eaten at the dinner table. Pig becomes pork. Cow becomes beef. And while chicken remains the same, it also is part of a broader category of poultry, and fish is part of seafood.

    From there, Martinez asked his students how they like their meat or eggs cooked – terms they will need to learn either to order food at a restaurant or to work there, he told them.

    Turning more serious, Martinez projected images of a fire and medical emergency onto a screen to teach how and when to call 911. He said the three-digit emergency call is becoming universal internationally, but some newcomers to the United States may not be aware of the emergency system.

    He described various scenarios: car crash, fire, heart attack, smell of gas, a break-in. “What do you do? Call 911,” Martinez said.

    Education gap leaves some behind

    Elementary and high school students do not have the luxury or the time to learn English first before addressing academics. And there’s no such thing as a waiting list for the school-aged kids. All students are required to learn the state-mandated curriculum of their grade level, at times presenting challenges to staff and students alike.

    What if a 16-year-old student arrives with no school records and cannot read in his or her home language? What if a second grader does not know how to hold a pencil? School officials occasionally are confronted with these so-called education gaps.

    In the lower grades, teachers and classroom interventionists work to help the students catch up as quickly as possible to their proper grade level. School officials meet with parents to design an education plan.

    “It’s not that they’re seeing it and not getting it. It’s just they haven’t learned it at all,” Rivera said of elementary-age students. “It’s a lot faster process, faster for them to catch up with the proper supports in place.”

    For high school students, however, they might be up against the clock, NFA and New London school officials said. State law requires school districts to educate MLL students up to age 21, but in some cases, there will not be enough time to earn the credits needed to graduate.

    “We have kids who haven’t been to school since second or third grade, and now they’re 16,” said Lithia Lopez, intervention specialist at Norwich Free Academy. “It costs money to go to school in those countries. The families can’t afford it. The family can only send one of the students to school, usually the male, and they pay up to grade six and then they just can’t do it anymore.”

    Enock Petit-Homme, an intervention specialist in NFA’s Diversity Department, said a 14-year-old girl arrived at NFA last year and could not even write her name. She has since moved out of the school district.

    “We had to hold her hand to teach her ABCs,” Petit-Homme said. “We were all cheering the day she could actually write her name.”

    NFA Director of Diversity Leo Butler said it’s heartbreaking to face some parents and tell them their child will not be able to earn enough credits to graduate. They can be referred to Adult Education for high school classes, but only after they gain proficiency in English.

    New London Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie said her district is conducting a study of the approximately 200 students who are deficient in credits. The district is developing an alternative education program, with courses at the high school and some at the district’s new welcome center, including some adult education classes and job training for students who fall short of high school credits.

    “We are trying to get these students to graduate and get jobs,” Ritchie said.

    c.bessette@theday.com

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