Regardless of language, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, students from bilingual, ESL and LEP programs are assigned to mainstreamed classrooms in the United States. A thoughtful and appropriate mainstream classroom can provide a unique, progressive and cooperative learning environment for ESL, ELL and bilingual students. However, if educators disregard the significance of comprehending learning needs of linguistically diverse students, the corresponding environment can be destructive and unfair. Teachers need to commit to helping empower these students to be confident not only in literacy development but in different content areas.
In order for LEP students to be successful in a mainstreamed learning environment, teachers must be aware of cultural and linguistic backgrounds, learning styles, academic capacity and motivation among students. “The American society stresses the concept of equality, and knowing English has been linked as an important component in being considered an ‘equal student’ and an ‘equal citizen’ in the United States” (Carrasquillo & Rodriguez, 2001). Because LEP students need more exposure and experience with English, they are at a significant disadvantage in this country socially, linguistically, academically and economically if opportunities are not provided for these students to excel fairly. In education, how can LEP students be ‘equal’ when they are expected to follow the demands of comparable students who are English proficient?
Schools that are effective in mainstreaming LEP students can successfully keep students motivated and challenged in school by breaking down social and racial barriers that sometimes stem from cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Students in mainstream classrooms should be offered the opportunity to communicate with English-proficient peers on a meaningful and safe level. Students learn better when personally vested in content areas being studied. In addition, students need to experience confidence in their ability to be successful learners. By providing opportunities for LEP students to experience success in learning, these students can maintain motivation and self-esteem. These students need to be woven into the identity of the entire classroom without bias. Strategies to encourage this include “a) highly interactive learning activities, b) heterogeneous groups, c) cognitively demanding tasks and d) cooperative learning environments” (Carrasquillo & Rodriguez, 2001). These strategies give autonomy to the learner, which in turn will fuel intrinsic motivation and achievement.
Teachers must realize that even English proficient learners are all at such diverse learning levels that instruction cannot be standardized so with LEPs, one cannot stereotype or generalize either. All students have unique and individual demands within a classroom and a teacher needs to identify ways to embrace and teach to diversity among academic abilities. For example, communities need to be cognizant of what learning methods are developmentally appropriate and what methods reflect the best possible learning environment for each student. Mainstreaming LEP students is not necessarily the most appropriate educational environment for all students. Educators and communities must also review bilingual and ESL programs which may better reflect needs of an individual student. Often LEP students need more individualized and personal instruction in English in order to fulfill learning potential within a mainstream environment.
Many teachers need to be more competently trained in helping LEP students learn with the same opportunities as English proficient students. Without an appropriate background, teachers can inadvertently isolate or alienate LEP students who need to feel like they are “part of the instructional setting” so a positive self-image is preserved (Carrasquillo & Rodriguez, 2001). Often, LEP students need special language programs which will supplement their learning needs fairly. Because of the rise of “immigrants and high fertility rates among linguistically and culturally diverse groups in the United States,” (Carrasquillo & Rodriguez, 2001) the number of students in need of special resources such as language development programs and better trained teachers is significant. Educators need to adapt teaching styles to fit the needs of these students because they are important of our country’s diverse culture.
Though our country needs to maintain strong language development programs outside of mainstreamed classrooms, teachers need to facilitate the changing population of the quintessential American student. An American student cannot be categorized or stereotyped as an English speaker with mainstream learning needs. Teachers need to facilitate learning while advocating socialization and development of the expanding cultural fabric of this country. “It is the responsibility of mainstream educators to provide an environment in which students feel that their culture is respected thereby enabling them to be willing to accept traits of the second culture” (Carrasquillo & Rodriguez, 2001). According to the New York State Education Department, research supports the value of respecting LEP/ELLs native language. Literacy skills from a student’s native language support how easily or difficultly students can transfer skills into another language. By embracing students’ native language and culture, educators can empower students to strong students in the second language.
“Students use their native language literacy skills and strategies to become literate in the second language, and what is learned in the second language enhances native language literacy. Concepts and skills in literacy in one language will only transfer if they have been completely learned. Cummins calls this the “threshold hypothesis” and asserts that native language literacy can only transfer to a second language when students have reached a critical threshold in their native language” (New York State Education Department, 2000). When educators are appropriately trained to inspire LEP students to achieve to their greatest potential in their native language, these students will build confidence and skills in the second language. Teachers need to be proactive in ensuring LEP students have full access to content material and literacy experiences to help promote meaningful problem-solving and success.