By Kaitlin Karins
When a student who has the potential to be accepted into the English Language Learner program enters Lincoln Public Schools, three questions are required by the Nebraska Department of Education to be asked.
• What language did the student first learn to speak?
• What language is spoken most often by the student?
• What language does the student most frequently use at home?
If the responses to these questions indicate that the student speaks a language other than English, then a language proficiency assessment must be conducted. These assessments are conducted at the ELL welcome center, located on the west side of Park Middle School at 855 S. 8th St.
Michelle Langer, chairwoman for the ELL program at McPhee Elementary, has more than 15 years experience in helping the children of refugees and immigrants learn English.
Langer, in her seventh year of teaching at McPhee, specializes in teaching the first level of the ELL program. This means that when students at McPhee enter the ELL program, she is one of the main teachers they will interact with.
Entering the first level, students are expected to have little to no English language abilities. Students use observational skills and visual cues for language comprehension. Students in this level also follow a daily routine to help them adjust. They can become overwhelmed easily and need to be exposed to the language through varied activities.
In the second level, students are in the beginning level of English language skills. Students in this level are still relying on observational skills and non-verbal cues, but they are more comfortable in their social setting. They will often repeat conversations to understand the information. Students in this level have begun to see the importance of English in order to learn both academically and socially.
The third level of the ELL program is the intermediate level. Students in this level have a strong command of speaking English, which may be a false sense of the language proficiency. Being accepted by their peers and having an understanding of popular culture is important to students in this level. Although they have a limited awareness of the skills needed to acquire the academic language, they have advanced above the two previous levels.
In the fourth level students begin to feel the academic demands of school, and will begin to find it more challenging. They may become frustrated and require support to acquire the skills need to help them in the classroom.
Then there is the final level in the ELL program—level five. Students may read and write at or near the same level as native English speakers but still require refinement in these areas. Students at this level are confident in their ability to compete with native peers. They can complete daily assignments and classroom projects well, but do not preform well on district test.
Students at the fourth and fifth levels spend most of their school’s days outside of the ELL classroom.
Students who are in third, fourth and fifth grade but at level one start their day with Langer. They begin their day by going over the date, discussing the weather and adding a new stick to the bag to count how many days they have been in school.
These students will spend any where from 3-5 hours of their day with Langer.
“McPhee started serving ELL students in 2009. It started out as primarily Spanish-speaking students, but now we have quite a few Karen students from Burma, some Kurdish and even a few kids who come through an international program through UNL,” Langer said.
Most of the ELL students whom Langer teaches are refugees who have been resettled in Lincoln. They have often had limited formal schooling.
“It is not uncommon for some refugee children to come into the ELL program with no prior schooling,” Langer said. “Refugees from Burma come from jungle-like experiences, so everything for this child is new.
Langer said that even those who have had some type of formal schooling may have had their education limited or interrupted because of their refugee status. “How much time you’re away from your classroom does have an impact on your learning.”
Paw Hla, a refugee who came from Thailand when she 7 years old, started out in Level 1 of the ELL program.
“When she was first learning her letters and how to write her name, we went over how we use capital letters at the beginning of our names here,” Langer said. “She said because of the way you spell her name, ‘I have a big p and a big h. I’m the big PH!’
“I have called her the big PH ever since.”
Paw Hla, who is now a sixth-grader at Park Middle School, graduated out of the ELL program as a fifth-grader.
“At first it was really hard, but I liked it,” Paw Hla said.
Say Lay Dar, Paw Hla’s younger sister, also started out at Level 1 as she went through the ELL program and now as a second-grader is waiting to test out of the program.
Through the program the sisters were able to get the help they needed in order to catch up to the other children within their grade.
Paw Hla received some formal schooling in Thailand, although she doesn’t remember it being anything like her time at LPS.
“If you were late, the teachers would spank you with a bamboo stick, and the school was very poor,” Paw Hla said.
Say Lay Dar who is only 7 years old, doesn’t recall much of her homeland, but she does remember celebrating holidays with her family. Culture is something her family tries to keep alive at home, even as the family adapts to American life.
“My mom takes me to a music class where we sing Karen songs after school,” Say Lay Dar said.