Professor Kate Mahoney studies the ways teachers can help immigrant children learn English and keep pace with their peers while in school.
Children who come to America without knowing English are the fastest-growing segment of the public school population, and the College of Education at SUNY Fredonia is preparing teachers who can meet their unique needs.
The need to make sure these children become literate and lingual in English, yet still learn math and science on pace with their peers, has caused educators and policy makers to come up with a variety of strategies for teaching this population, known as English Language Learners (ELLs).
At SUNY Fredonia, the Intensive Teacher Institute (ITI) is designed to enable certified classroom teachers to increase their skills so they can serve the growing number of ELLs, who will comprise about 25 percent of the classroom population in the U.S. by 2025.
The major peril facing these children is that of failure over the long term, e.g., poor academic achievement, dropping out of school, low-paying jobs and low self esteem. All of that can be avoided if teachers and classrooms take the right approach to the problem, Kate Mahoney, program coordinator for Fredonia’s TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) and ITI programs, said.
“Research shows that it takes four to eight years to learn a second language at an academic level,” she explained. “So kids who are learning content only in English can go for years without fully participating in what’s going on in math and science.”
To avoid that, the teacher needs to use, or enable the use of, the student’s primary language as a support.
Research by Dr. Mahoney and colleagues has shown that children do better at learning English if their primary language is also used to teach other subjects. “For example, children who enter school speaking Spanish learn English and other subjects better if they are taught bilingually. This may seem counterintuitive, but there is a lot of empirical evidence to support it,” she said.
Immersing children into a strict, English-only classroom may have dire results. Thus, Mahoney advises teachers and administrators to use the child’s primary language as a helper. “A lot of people think English-only means no other language, but it doesn’t,” she explained. “Students should be supported in their English-only classrooms by their primary language. It’s a good strategy.” This can come in the form of help from parents, other bilingual students, translators, and a general welcoming approach to the child’s primary language.
Mahoney’s research and that of many others has sought to determine the best way to teach ELLs. “We pulled together studies from 15 years and showed that the best success stories came from the bilingual education programs,” she said. In bilingual (or dual language) programs, children are taught literacy and content in two languages — usually English and their primary language. In the end, they are bilingual.
“The students who achieved the least were those who went into programs that were English only,” Mahoney said. “These often had minimal, if any, primary language support.”
Besides the academic boost, the bilingual approach brings huge benefits to the child in other ways. “They feel more welcomed and valued, and there’s a self esteem or self efficacy factor that directly correlates to academic achievement,” Mahoney added.
The College of Education created the ITI program several years ago in the Department of Language, Learning and Leadership, but the Bilingual Extension track is new this year. It prepares teachers who can speak two languages to teach content and literacy. The bilingual teacher is proficient in the target language and in English, and uses both in the classroom.
The other two ITI programs are designed for teaching ELLs with and without special needs. Fredonia’s ITI students – in this case, all practicing teachers who are New York State certified, and most of whom already have a master’s degree – attend classes once a week and take two courses in the summer, to finish the program in a year.
The program is a collaborative effort with the New York State Education Department. Tuition assistance is provided through a state grant. Go to www.fredonia.edu/coe or contact Dr. Mahoney at (716) 673-4653 or Mahoney@fredonia.edu to learn how to apply.