Layla: Welcome to the Colorin Colorado series, Meet the Experts. I'm Layla Wright-Contreras, and I'm here with Catalina Fortino. She's a specialist on the education of English language learners for the United Federation of Teachers, Teachers Center, in New York City. And we're going to be talking about what it takes to teach English language learners to read. It's a pleasure talking to you, Catalina. Thank you so much for being here. Let's talk about your own experience first. You were an English language learner yourself, right?
Catalina: Yes, I am. I came to the United States when I was nine years old. And I remember that very distinctly being in the fourth grade ... entering the fourth grade. And then back then, there were no ESL services or bilingual services. So I was placed in this fourth grade class because my teacher, Mr. Averbach, went to Mexico every year. So they figured, okay. He knows a little Spanish. He was very helpful. But for a year, I sat silently in my class.
Layla: How did you finally learn to speak and read English?
Catalina: It was a slow, painful time. Because you sat in the classroom just taking everything in and wondering what's happening here as you're trying to make sense of this language.
Layla: So obviously, your experience informed your work today. Are there any other experiences that you take from yourself in what you do day-to-day?
Catalina: Yes. Well, several of them. But one in particular was how important it is to maintain one's native language. When my parents came to this country, when they brought our family to this country, they very much wanted to be here. We were immigrating because of political and economic situations. But in our home, my parents insisted that we speak Spanish and we maintained our native language while speaking and writing and reading. And I think that's so important.
Because I think it maintained our home as a connection of our values and beliefs as we were going through this transition of coming into a whole new culture. So we knew that at the end of the day, we would come home. And through use of our language would be transmitted and shared our values and beliefs that we grew up with. And that just gave us a grounding. So when I was a classroom teacher, and I began working with children and families, I always encouraged my parents to say use the native language at home. If you cannot read in English to your children, read in the native language. And that will continue to encourage that child's reading skills.
Layla: We were just mentioning that you're a classroom teacher. And I think you've been so for over fifteen years. So you've obviously seen a lot of programs for English language learners. I'd like to ask you what characteristics of the programs that have the best results, what characteristics do they have?
Catalina: One of the ... there are a couple of essential points of effective characteristics that makes for success for English language learners. One is that the practices have to be based on research. And I think that we need to continuously encourage our field to bring the current research into the classroom. So research-based is essential. One is having high expectations for English language learners. So, always thinking that as we are encouraging our youngsters to learn the English language, to learn the new culture, we are having the highest expectations of these youngsters to be able to achieve beyond their limited English right now. And the other is to use the native language as a bridge as the child is learning the second language. I think that's really important. Because it helps the youngster to know that he's grounded on some ... that he has some skills that he can make connections.
Layla: So those are some characteristics that a perfect program or a very good program would have in place. What advice do you have for those teachers or schools where the research isn't really supported, where they don't have all these characteristics you just spoke about?
Catalina: Well, one thing is to ... what I have always advocated to my colleagues anywhere across the country is to be advocates for what they need, to be a spokesperson. So if they have English language learners coming into their classroom and they're feeling that the teacher's saying I don't know how to begin to work with this youngster. So reach out and make that need known to the administration. Make that need known to your union. Because our union is really here to support not only our bread and butter issues, but is here to support our professional development needs.
And so I'll bring those concerns and issues and say we need workshops that help me to deal with our English language learners, the strategies of how to teach them how to read. So that's the kind of advocacy that teachers need to take on.
Layla: Wonderful. Well, just changing tracks a little bit here, I want to talk about the place you come from, New York City. It's a place with incredibly diverse schools. There must be over 100 languages in the school system. How does this affect instruction?
Catalina: There are buildings in our school system that have 100 languages all in one building. So the language diversity issue is very common in our schools. And there is a diverse approach that schools take in New York City. We have English as a second language, the free standing English as a second language where youngsters are pulled out of their classroom to receive ESL services. Then there are schools that have ESL services where the teacher pushes in and works with these youngsters right in the classroom.
We also have dual-language schools and bilingual transition schools. So you would see in New York City the full range of services. And that's really up to each school building to determine what we call the language allocation program for that particular population.
Layla: So what would you tell a teacher that has maybe those 100 languages or maybe just 20 languages in one classroom? How difficult does their job become? And what advice could you give them?
Catalina: My advice to that teacher is to say that in New York City, by law, that's Part 154 in New York State law, is that a child who is a second language learner and who has passed their home language test to indicate that in fact he does need ESL services, that monolingual classroom teacher should not feel that she or he is alone in that building. That there are services for that student. And there are services for the teacher to receive for their professional development. And so they need to reach out and say how can I be supported by the other services in the school building?
Layla: Now, adding another layer of complication on top of the languages is the range of skills and proficiency or literacy that the students have. How does a teacher go around handling that?
Catalina: Well, an approach that a teacher needs to take when working with English language learners is not to think of English language learners as a homogeneous grouping. So, it's a very heterogeneous group. You really need to begin to find out who that individual English language learner is. Because that child may have a formal education from their previous country. Whereas, another youngster, ELL youngster, may have no formal education. And the approach would have to be different. You might have a child in your class that has literacy skills in their native language and another child that doesn't.
So I think for a teacher getting to know and assess their children on an individual basis and bring a cultural awareness and sensitivity to their work. Because that child, while he or she may not know the English language, is coming into that classroom with a whole world of experiences from their native country. Not only does that child have a native language, but there's a whole cultural world that he or she is coming forth. And it's very important that the teacher get to know that culture and acknowledge it as she's bringing ... building a relationship with that student.
Layla: So we're talking about some of the skills that teachers may need to have. And one of the important pieces of that puzzle is high quality, professional development. In your opinion, what would high quality professional development be?
Catalina: High quality, professional development is not an event. It does not mean that I go to one conference, and instantly I know everything of how to support English language learners. High quality professional development has to be ongoing, intensive, job-embedded and with a lot of support and in-classroom coaching. So I may go to a series of work sessions and learn skills and knowledge. But then when I come into the classroom, I need to have another peer in that classroom to view what I am doing, how I'm working with the youngsters and have the ability to give me feedback and support for what I'm doing. So that I'm constantly not only have the opportunity to increase my knowledge base, and that's where the research comes in, but also have the ability to look at my practice, see how it's impacting on my students, and then refining my skills. It's that whole cycle.
Layla: And it's a very complicated cycle. Nationwide, how many of our teachers are getting this kind of training?
Catalina: It's a struggle. I think that in the work that I'm doing with schools across the country through the AFT redesign institute, we are trying to promote this type of intensive professional development. And here is where we need to educate the districts and our union leaders to be advocates for that type of high professional development. So that the folks who are making the decisions on how to deploy the funding for professional development ... and we do know that under No Child Left Behind there's ten percent of that funding that needs to go for professional development.
But we want to be able to have informed practitioners who would be able to say see the funding? Don't just bring us consultants from the outside. We can have capacity within our own building to support this professional development.
Layla: What do you think we can do to increase the number of teachers that are highly prepared to teach English language learners?
Catalina: One way to increase ... well, to look at strengthening highly qualified teacher force for English language learners, we need to look at our institutions of higher education and have them as partners in helping to prepare the teachers. Having incentives for teachers who are beginning their career, who are thinking of becoming teachers, having incentives for having teachers to become bilingual and English as a second language teachers. I think we need to look at those incentives.
Layla: Let's talk about English language learners with special needs for moment. And tell me how do these children differ from other English language learners?
Catalina: Youngsters who have ... who are English language learners and have special needs have two sets of needs that have to be considered at the same time as I'm teaching them. One of them is the language, the second language, acquisition. And the other is the special needs and how that special needs gets translated or how it gets shown in their work. So when working with special education children who are second language learners, we are constantly needing to make sure that we differentiate what is a disability and then what is the issue around second language acquisition. So that we don't mistake the second language acquisition as a disability. And that requires for clinicians who work with our youngsters to identify them as needing special ed services to be very acute in the way that they understand how language plays into disability, how culture plays into disability. So that they're able to distinguish those two areas.
Layla: Let's turn to the student's perspective for a bit. One of the most challenging moments in an ELL's life has got to be that transition into the mainstream, all English environment. Can you describe what that process would be like for an ELL?
Catalina: It can be a daunting and frightening experience. And yet, it could also be one of exhilaration. And here is where we need to really put a lot more support than what we already have into our transition services. Because we have our youngsters who are in this kind of sheltered environment, receiving bilingual and ESL services. And then they're feeling very positive about themselves as learners and achieving and they have teachers in a small group setting. They are put now into a mainstream. And we have to prepare that mainstream teacher to welcome this youngster and to get to know what his or her strengths are and needs are to better make that transition.
And here's one area that we also need. So it's transitional services that we need to strengthen and also build what we call our academic literacy for our English language learners. So that when they're confronted with content-area learning, they will be equipped with the English, the academic English that is required for them to do high standards work.
Layla: So there are some issues that kids are getting stuck on, where they're getting slowed or stopped in the transition. Aside from the content area and the lack of academic vocabulary, what are some other things that they struggle within that transition?
Catalina: I think one might be ... and I'm thinking about our high school students ... having support services that helps them to make the transition into college. It's very important that our English language learners not fall behind in terms of seeing themselves as not only graduating from high school and completing, but also moving onto college. And so that would be an area of guidance that we need to strengthen.
Layla: The home/school connection is another topic that I want to touch on before we end. Why is it so important?
Catalina: The home/school connection goes back to what I've started at the beginning of our conversation. This is where ... the home is where that youngster is having his or her source of support as they're entering into this new world. Not only the American culture, but the culture of a school that may be very different from the culture of the school where they came from. And so it is important that the two worlds where the youngster lives in not be in conflict, but yet have what Sonya Nyat talks about, have a mutual accommodation. So it is really up to the school to get to know the family. And for the family to also get to know the school. What are the norms and the values and rules of that school building or of that school culture? So that the two worlds are connecting. So that the child does not feel pulled apart. And he or she feels that these two worlds are coming together to support them.
Layla: Well, on that note, thank you so much for joining us, Catalina. And thanks to our listeners. We hope you enjoyed this episode of Meet the Experts, a podcast series from Colorin Colorado. For more information on helping English language learners read and succeed, visit www.colorincolorado.org. This podcast was made possible by the American Federation of Teachers.
Catalina R. Fortino is a field liaison for New York City's United Federation of Teachers Teacher Center. As a liaison, Ms. Fortino coordinates professional development for schools servicing English language learners. A staff member for the Center for the past 17 years, Ms. Fortino previously served as a teacher of bilingual early childhood special education and as a bilingual educational evaluator in New York City public schools before entering the field of professional development.
Ms. Fortino served as the Chair of the New York State United Teachers committee on English language learners and is presently the chair of the United Federation of Teachers Task Force on English language learners. Ms. Fortino has also been an adjunct instructor in the City University of New York Literacy Certificate Program. She coordinated the initial New York City School Support Teams for Chapter 1 Schoolwide Projects as well as institutes on social issues impacting our children and youth.