When I completed my bachelor’s degree and began looking for a teaching position, I was so excited to gain my first position that I would have taken any job! In 2006, there were more teacher candidates than openings in my district. I interviewed several places, and ended up being offered and accepting a middle-level ESL mathematics teaching position. What came next changed my life. My certifications were Elementary Education (K-6) and Middle-Level Math (7-9). I also pursued and completed a minor in Spanish. What I did not understand when I was hired was that my new position meant that I needed to become certified as an ESL Program Specialist within a specified amount of time.
What Does ESL Mean and What is an ESL Certification?
It’s worth taking a few moments to lay some groundwork to the acronyms relating to English Language Learners (ELLs). Students whose primary home language is other than English can be identified through the school enrollment process as able to benefit from English Language Development (ELD) Programming. Those students are then eligible for ESL (English as a Second Language) or English Language Acquisition (ELA) instruction. Depending on the school and district, students may receive ELD support in a variety of ways. There are two basic models of for ELD programs: the first uses English and another language, the second is English-only. In the United States, English-only ELD programs are much more prevalent. Frequently, students who are identified as “Level I” on the WIDA Access Screener receive services through Sheltered English Instruction, which means that they receive English instruction directly and solely from a teacher with an ESL certification or degree in TESOL (Teaching English to Students of Other Languages)/TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language). Students who have Limited English Proficiency (LEP) and score greater than one on the screener may receive English support from an ESL-certified teacher within the regular education classroom following the co-teaching model.
Misconceptions Regarding English as a Second Language (ESL) Instruction
- ELLs are literate in their home language. Many times, these students are able to speak their home language, but are not proficient in reading or writing. This can greatly impact their English learning, as there is no background to build language acquisition on.
- ESL classes are only for immigrants. ELD programs in the United States support students whose families have immigrated to the United States, but they also support students who speak English fluently but whose home language is other than English. Teaching English abroad in a non-English speaking country is also considered ESL or TESOL instruction.
- Language and culture are synonymous. Students may speak the same language, but their culture, home traditions, and beliefs may be completely different. Spanish is the official language for 20 countries. All of these countries have their own customs, beliefs, and dialects.
- English is their second language. For many ELLs, English is their third, fourth, or fifth language. Depending on their background, students may speak multiple other languages or tribal dialects before learning English.
- They can speak English, so they don’t need ESL instruction. There is a difference between social English and academic English. Studies show that social English acquisition takes between two and three years, depending on age. The younger the student, the easier language acquisition can be. Becoming proficient in academic English can take between 7 to 10 years (think about those Social Studies texts you’re using!).
- ELD teachers need to be bi- or tri-lingual. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), more than 50,000 ELLs who represent over 200 languages are enrolled in schools across the state of Pennsylvania. Regardless of the home language spoken, the requirement of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) are the same, and so are the instructional strategies and program structures. Sure, being bi-lingual is a bonus, but it is not a requirement.
I taught middle school math classes of seventh through ninth grade “newcomers,” seventh grade ELLs, and eighth grade ELLs before inclusion became a trend again. I attended post-graduate level college classes to earn my ESL Program Specialist Certification, and even though the courses taught me to teach English, not math, they were incredibly beneficial!
Advantages of an ESL/TESOL/TEFL Degree or Certification
- It makes you invaluable to your school and very marketable to others. On top of the new teacher shortage, the need for ESL-certified teachers is growing exponentially. According to “Supporting English Learners Success: A Practical Guide for School Administrators” published by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, less than 20 years ago, the majority of ELLs were concentrated in just six states: New York, Texas, California, Arizona, Florida, and Illinois. By 2015, 31 states reported that ELLs accounted for 5% or more of their student population. A certification or degree in ESL/TESOL/TEFL means that you are eligible to teach almost anywhere in the world, at any level.
- The credits count toward your next pay increase and permanent certification. For example, in Pennsylvania, teachers must complete 24 post-graduate credits within 6 years after beginning to use their Level I certification. An ESL Program Specialist certification counts towards your required continuing education.
- You become more culturally responsive. Studying different cultures and systems of belief that your ELLs may bring to the classroom will help you develop a depth of knowledge and understanding that leads to appreciation of all student differences. Your students bring to the classroom all that their culture emulates: level of respect for education/educators, religion, dance, music, body language, affection, family structure, and more. The more you understand about their culture, the better you will be able to engage them in learning and growth.
- You become a better teacher. Learning how to create opportunities for ELLs to access the same grade level content as their peers through modifications to instruction makes you a better teacher. ELLs aren’t the only ones who benefit from vocabulary-focused instruction or multi-modal learning.