Q&A with ELS teacher Kathleen D Gallagher

Kriti Baniya, Staff Writer

What is ELL class?

ELL stands for English Language Learner. An English Language Learner is a student who speaks another language in the home (and sometimes speaks multiple languages).  The goal of an ELL class is to assist the student in learning to speak English proficiently either in a content teacher’s classroom, outside of the classroom, or in a separate classroom just for English Learners. There are seven ways that this is done, depending on the state, available funds, and on the school district’s individual choice:

7 Types Of ELL Programs

  • The ESL Pull-Out/Push In Program. … (The student is pulled from a classroom a couple times a week to learn English or the ELL teacher joins the classroom to assist teacher).  Note:  Tallmadge uses this method.  
  • Content-Based ESL Program. …The content teacher uses different teaching strategies to assist the ELL student.  One method is to “scaffold” materials (to be sure to start with simple to difficult instruction depending on the student’s background, and to provide accommodations with the help of the ELL teacher. Tallmadge uses this method, although most of its teachers do not have training.
  • English-Language Instruction Program. …In schools with English Language Instruction, there is a dedicated class every day to help ELL students learn English.  
  • Bilingual Instructional Program. …In schools such as this there is a teacher who works with the student in their language and in English (states like Arizona, California, Florida do this approach, usually in Spanish). 
  • Transitional/Early-Exit Program. …Students join a class which is early immersion in English and then when they are ready and proficient in English, they join the regular content classroom.
  • Maintenance/Late-Exit Program. …Students, who for some reason have not acquired English skills need more training and would be in a program to provide that help.
  • Two-Way Bilingual Program.: In this school both the student and teacher use two languages (English and the student’s native language).

Since when did you start to teach this class and how many students do you teach?

I have always been a teacher of English.  I have taught some form of English for almost 30 years.  I started teaching at the junior high and high school level, and then I taught college English for over 25 years.  While teaching college, I was asked to work with a manager at a nearby factory who had 200 employees and because he came here from Mexico, he needed help with business English.  From there the company asked me if I could work with the employees’ families and children.  I then went back to school to get a TESOL certificate which took me two years.  I was hired at Tallmadge five years ago when we only had 50 students and I worked in all of the buildings, teaching and testing.  We now have about 200 students with nine different languages.  I teach/test/advise 5-12 grade students, and any online students.  I still work in three buildings, but we now have another teacher who teaches K-4 in-person students (about 80 students).

How did you think that you wanted to teach ELL?

I have always loved languages, written and spoken, ever since I was a little girl, so it was natural to fall into this work.  I love to read and I am a professional published writer, and I am fascinated with how we communicate.  I fell into this work completely by accident when I was working in a tutoring lab at the University of Akron (I taught during the day and tutored a couple days a week) when Smuckers Jelly and Jam company called and asked if the college had anyone who could help a factory manager from Mexico with his English.

How was your first experience?

I loved my first experience.  I got to meet my clients’ families and I learned a lot about their culture.  I knew that this was something I wanted to do.  So at first I continued teaching college, and taught my ELL students on days I was not at the college.  I worked with many families from across the world.  I got to visit mosques, attend children’s Communion, and even went to a Chinese tea party with one of my clients.  One time I had to put stick-iit notes around the house of a Mexican family who did not know what a furnace was, or a water heater, or even the names of the appliances. I then knew that I wanted to learn more ways to help and I knew that I  needed more training, and so I went back to school to add a certificate to my Master’s and teaching degree.

There are a lot of people who do not know how to speak any English, so how do you communicate with them? 

It is actually quite easy, but it takes time and training in linguistics and one must have a teaching license in order to get a TESOL certificate.  If a student does not speak any English at all, I begin with pictures, gestures, and sounds.  I also know what sounds are available in each language and try to teach my students how to pronounce sounds they may never have used before. For instance, it is very difficult for a Chinese person to pronounce the sound of L.  They pronounce an L with an R sound.   If they can speak English, I begin with the level where they are at and I try to help the teachers know what level they are at and what they can do.There are five levels from beginner to advanced.  A beginner would start reading very simple books and speaking in very simple sentences.  An important thing to know is that every-day language is much different than content language in their classroom.  The ELL teacher’s main goal is every-day language goals, but assisting the student in academic vocabulary is also important.  An ELL teacher does NOT have to know any of the languages of their students, unless required by a certain school district.  It can help, but it can also harm a student if they only speak in their L1 (Language One or Native Language) and never try to speak English.  Here are the levels of English Learners: 

The four proficiency levels are beginning, intermediate, advanced, and advanced high. The Proficiency level describes how well ELs at each proficiency level are able to understand and use English to engage in grade-appropriate academic instruction and every-day communication skills.  There are four domains for proficiency: 

listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

Has there ever been a time where you think that you are not being treated fairly like other teachers because you teach ELL students?

I have less concern for how I am treated, and more concern over how my students are treated.There are several areas of improvement that I think would be helpful to our English Learners:

1) Recognize that our English Learners are not suffering a deficit, but rather they are fortunate to be bilingual or to become bilingual.  Many educators see the students as having a weakness, when in fact it is a gift.

2) Recognize that a teaching plan that worked in the past (for example–pushing into a classroom or pulling students out) may not be enough.  One of the other methods (such as an English instruction class for all students, or a maintenance English class for those who have greatly lost out academically due to unfortunate circumstances such as trauma, war, displacement, etc..) may be needed.  This depends on the funding that the school has and the district’s decision on what works best and is not always something an ELL teacher can change, but it should be reviewed annually.

Content teachers greatly need workshops and training in English Learner teaching strategies.

Is there anything else you would like for us to know? 

While immersion and inclusion is important for an English Learner, having a space (either a room or classroom or club, International Night, etc…) is vital to allowing the students an opportunity to become English proficient; it is also important to maintaining their own cultures, and a chance for them to relate to others of their own culture, as well as other cultures. Many ELL teachers across the country have had to use utility closets to teach their students in.  This is not unusual, and is unacceptable. English Learner opportunities,  services, and other accommodations are often pushed to the bottom of other priorities in schools which often leads to a less effective program.