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Supporting English Language Learners
Jessica Zelaya
University of St.Thomas



This personal narrative addresses a teacher’s reflection of her early education as an English
Language Learner (ELLs) and as a teacher of ELLs. “English at school, Spanish at home,” were
words that were instilled in the author’s brain and have stuck to her as a bilingual educator. As
the only child of an immigrant, the author was forced to learn English in efforts to defend her
mother from discriminating bosses. She sensed a motive and a sence of urgency to acquire the
English language. Now as a teacher, the author feels as though an ineffective bilingual program
has failed students. However, with the help of a colleague, Elier, they have strived to build a
community of educators that can develop teaching strategies that will promote English
Keywords: English Language Learners, Language acquisition


Supporting English Language Learners

“English at school, Spanish at home,” these are words from my mother that have always
stayed in my mind. As the only child of an immigrant, I forced myself to learn English in efforts
to defend my mother from her discriminating bosses. I had a motive and felt the urgency to
acquire the English language. Now as a teacher, I feel as though an ineffective bilingual program
has failed some students. However, with the help of my colleague, Elier, we strive to overcome
the challenges and the results of a weak implementation of a dual-language program, which has
the potential of being effective in the development of the language acquisition of ELLs in our
Silence filled the classroom as Elier and I looked at the “pink and blue cards.” At the end
of each school year, teachers are required to fill out a blue or pink card for each student in their
classroom. The information provided on these cards include strengths, weakness, reading levels,
and any other information that may be beneficial to the new teacher. Looking at my students’
reading levels was a shock. We had students reading at a first grade level in both English and
Spanish. This was my first year as a teacher, but I knew this could not be normal. I was hired as a
fifth grade teacher, yet I would be instructing students that were on a first grade level. I had no
idea of how this year would turn out, but somehow I made it through. My classroom consisted of
instruction both in English and Spanish, but I often questioned myself. I wonder if my first group
of students were ready for middle school since their English was still limited as they left my
A new year came and my colleague and I noticed that we were about to face the same
challenge. Our new set of students were not ready to succeed in fifth grade based on their lack of
English and Spanish. The Spanish our students had acquired throughout the previous grades was



sufficient for socializing. As teachers who specialized in Bilingual Education, our undergrad
studies consisted on a deep understanding of Krashen and Cummins, both experts in language
acquisition and are often referred to in research related to language. For instance, in Crawford’s
(2008) collections of essays there is references of Krashen’s and Cummins, which suggests that
“knowledge and skills acquired in the native language, literacy in particular, are ‘transferable’ to
a second language. They do not need to be relearned in English” (Krashen, 1996; Cummins,
1992). We knew that language acquisition would not be successful until our students had a
strong academic foundation in their native language, but time was not in our favor. I had already
experienced one full year as a teacher and I knew the stress and pressure that came from testing.
We had eight months to prepare them for their first all English testing experience. The same
silence that had once filled the room a year ago was present again as my colleague and I looked
at the “pink and blue” cards. At this very moment I felt defeated. How would I get my students
to acquire enough English to succeed in the STAAR, Middle School, but most important in life?
The silence did not last long, as both my colleague and I had already experienced this before,
“something must be done, this cannot continue.” I could not have agreed any more with Elier.
We needed to come up with a plan. As we brainstormed, we could not help to go back to our
early years as bilingual students.
I began by telling Elier about my experience as a bilingual student. “When I was in fifth
grade I was thrown into an all English classroom, I did not have any support. My teachers were
all Caucasians, and there was no one that could help me with the language barrier. My mother
did not know English. At a young age I had become her interpreter. It is through those translating
interactions that I acquired my English.” As Garcia suggested in his article, I was “left to sink or;
swim in classrooms conducted only in English (1976).” The immersion of students into an



English classroom without any support was known as the “sink or swim” method in the 1970s.
As I reflect on my education as an English Language Learner (ELL) I could have given up, but
the determination I had established at a very young age to help my mother out was in my favor.
For the most part, I understood my teachers, but when I needed help I was sought it. Elier had a
similar experience in fourth grade. We had once struggled just like our students, however, the
only difference between our students’ education and our education would be the support. We
would submerge our students in an all English classroom environment. We would share our
stories and establish a relationship with our students. We would be there for them. Our students
would have the support in Spanish that we lacked in our transitions to the all-English classroom.
Once our plan was established, we went to our principal and proposed the plan. She supported us
and understood what we were trying to do, but we still had one last crowd to persuade.
My nerves were kicking in because it was “meet the teacher day” at our campus. Elier
and I had come up with a plan to attack the lack of English language proficiency and we stood
together in one classroom ready to present the plan to the parents. The conversation began
something like this, “We want all of our students to be successful this school year, and you must
be made aware that in fifth grade your child will no longer test in Spanish.” I can still remember
the eyes of my students and their parents looking in shock, but we had to continue. “Your child
will take three standardized tests at the end of the year, but we are not here for the testing. Our
goal is to mold your child into an English proficient student that will be ready for their future
education and life. This is why we have decided we will teach all subjects in English, but know
we will support our students in Spanish.” A sense of relief came over me, we had just given them
the “news”. I was ready for the attack, but nothing came. Instead our parents were understanding
of the drastic measures that had to be taken to prepare their children for success.



I would be lying if I said that everything was easy from that point on because, it was not.
The crowd we had assumed to be the hard one to convince was on our side. It was their children
that were not convinced. “I do not like English Ms. Zelaya,” is what I would hear from some of
my students on a daily basis in the beginning of the school year. I assured them I would be there
for them and that I once sat in a classroom without any support. I told them how lucky they were
to have Mr. Fernandez and myself. Eventually the students believed our words. They knew we
would not let them “sink or swim”.
I still remember one student who never gave up. Even though she was reading at a first
grade level and failed every benchmark, she was always seeking help. Just like myself, she was
determined to acquire the language. There were nights I cried grading her papers because I knew
how hard she was trying but the progress seemed minimal. That fifth grade year it took Jasmine
various administrations of the STAAR test to pass both reading and math. A year ago she came
back to visit and she shared her middle school success stories with me. I noticed something
different. She was no longer timid as she spoke to me in English.
The “English at school, Spanish at home” quote instilled in my head is what motivates
me to push my students to embrace the English language that will be benefiting to their success
in the future.



Brown, B. (2015). The History of Bilingual Education in America (pp. 1-13). Long Beach,
California: Bradley Wayne Brown. Retrieved from
Crawford, J. (2008). Advocating for English learners selected essays (pp. 52-53). Clevedon:
Multilingual Matters.
Garcia, R. L., & Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, B. I. (1976). Learning in Two