Q&A with a Latino Policy Forum analyst

If children who don’t speak English are going to learn to read in your schools, then your teachers will need more training in how to work with these children, says Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro.

As a research and policy analyst at the Latino Policy Forum, a Chicago-based nonprofit that seeks to involve Latinos in public policymaking, Vonderlack-Navarro’s work includes advocating for systemic change in teacher preparation—and in ongoing professional development—so that teachers can meet the instructional needs of the nation’s increasingly diverse English language learners (ELLs).

Vonderlack-Navarro is scheduled to speak at NSBA’s Annual Conference in March in Nashville. Recently, she spoke with Senior Editor Del Stover about how school boards can improve reading instruction for ELLs.

It’s not always possible to get ELLs reading at grade level by third grade. How does a school board respond to that reality?

You can’t expect every child’s learning trajectory to be the same, especially for linguistically and culturally diverse children. But, as 60 percent of your English learners will be in the preschool-to-grade-three spectrum, it should be clear that there’s a need to focus on early education opportunities.

It’s also important to understand that it takes five to seven years for a child to acquire a deep understanding of academic English. I’m not talking about social English ... what’s good enough for a social situation. I’m talking about being able to understand what someone is saying in a geometry class or in a “deep” conversation about a book of literature. 

But how do you get ELLs to that level of mastery?

You want to emphasize bilingual instruction and biliteracy. You really want to be careful that children aren’t pushed into English-only approaches to instruction.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but an English-only approach can be detrimental to learning English. By promoting a child’s development of his or her native language and literacy skills, as well as advancing them academically, they make cognitive and linguistic gains that actually nurture their transition to English.

How do you make these literacy gains in a classroom with ELL children who speak many different languages?

That’s a challenge. There are, however, strategies and supports you can provide for multilingual classrooms. ELL specialists can be critical leaders for districts in this regard.

School board members will want to ask how their bilingual and ELL specialists can be used to help train and support all teachers in the district on ways to best serve these students.

The goal should be to prepare general education teachers to work with English learners. Many ELL students spend at least part of their day in a regular classroom, so your general education teachers need training to understand the instructional strategies and techniques to help these students advance.

You do a lot of work to engage parents in their children’s education. How should school boards reach out to parents of English learners?

Your parent engagement must be linguistically and culturally responsive.

You have to understand that these parents will have really mixed literacy levels. Some will be highly educated; others won’t even have a grade school education.

But having parents involved in the school community can be a huge support for the reading progress of your English learners.