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Should International Schools Admit Students with Low English Language Proficiency?

By Bonnie Billak
Should International Schools Admit Students with Low English Language Proficiency?

In recent years the number of students with no English or low English language proficiency levels applying for entry to international schools has grown. With the demanding curricular expectations of international schools, this leads many people to ask if students should be required to have a certain English-language proficiency level in order to attend these schools. There are varying answers to this question, depending on the infrastructure of the school.
To adequately serve these students, every school should have a policy on how to handle English language learners (ELLs) from day one. For example, how will entrance testing be conducted if no one speaks the student’s language? Such tests must include elements that measure level of knowledge without the use of language. Having parents or outsiders serve as translators for the students should not be allowed since, due to cultural beliefs, they may think it is acceptable for them to tell the student the answers.
Next, once admitted, the practice of placing the students back a grade based on their level of English should be avoided except in extreme cases; with proper English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction, the student should be able to learn English very quickly and have no problem doing the work at the appropriate grade level. However, the school will need to have an adequate staff of teachers with specialized training and certification to teach ESL—a highly technical field of study that requires specialized training. Being a native speaker of English is not synonymous with being ESL-trained.
Along these same lines, all English-language teaching should be content-based. That is to say, based on the content material of the regular curriculum of the grade level. This will ensure that students stay on grade level as they learn English. Also, curricular and assessment expectations should be realistic, taking into consideration the number of second-language learners in the school population so that excess pressure is not placed on these students. Teachers should talk with parents to make sure that they have realistic expectations regarding timelines for their child’s language acquisition, as well as for mastery of the content material.
Since many teachers are not trained to teach second-language learners, out of desperation they will often tell the parents that they need to hire a private tutor for their child. While well intentioned, this produces a situation in which the classroom teacher becomes more or less a babysitter for the student during the day, assuming that the tutor will work to develop the student’s English language skills after school. This situation causes stress for both the teacher and students. In addition, parents often balk at the idea of having to pay a tutor, since they feel that it’s the school’s responsibility to teach their children English, especially in light of the high tuition costs they are paying.
The admission of students with low English proficiency levels will also impact on the hiring and job placement of teachers. In many international schools it is common practice to fill ESL positions with spouses needing a job, regardless of whether or not they have ESL training. This is not a very effective practice since students do not receive the proper assistance needed to be successful.
Admitting students with low English proficiency levels has far-reaching implications for a school. However, with a bit of prior planning these students can be accepted and experience success if the previously mentioned areas are addressed and special care is taken to ensure that students feel happy and safe in their classrooms and other learning environments. This will maximize both their language acquisition and their mastery of the content material, thus satisfying their educational needs as well as meeting and maintaining the school’s high academic expectations.

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01/21/2017 - Holly
Thank you for this article. The title is deceiving--of course, we should accept them, we are an international school. But as you have pointed out so clearly, we must be prepared to do right by them or face the consequences. You have hit all the most important aspects for how-to along with the unfortunately very common how-not-to practices we see in our schools. Well done!



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