April 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Getting ELL Students College-Ready Challenges School Librarians

Sara Frey’s top concern? Preparing her English-language learning (ELL) students for college. Beyond the classroom, where she works to make sure they have materials they need for their studies, Frey is laser-focused on building them a support network after they leave her high school.

“I tell them, ‘There’s a me at your school,'” says the instructional media specialist and technology integration coach now at the Plymouth Whitemarsh High School in Plymouth Meeting, PA. “There’s a Mrs. Frey at their college. And [that person is] there to help too.”

More than nine percent of all K–12 students in the U.S., or 4.4 million children. were considered English language-learners in the 2012-2013 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Those numbers have grown year to year, up from 4.1 million students 10 years prior.

ELL students often need multiple levels of support. Educators want to help these students learn how to read, write, and speak English as quickly as they can so they don’t fall behind. But at the high school level, with just a few years left before students apply to college, this process has added complications, since grades during these years are crucial for college applications. There isn’t a lot of wiggle room time-wise. Plus, they also often require more support after graduating.

Frey, who led a session on the topic of supporting ELL students at the American Association of School Librarians national conference in November, recalls a former Arabic-speaking student who got in touch with her after graduating in 2015. Struggling through a rough first semester at Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) in Whitpain Township, PA., the student asked for help. Through Frey, the teen connected with an MCCC counselor, and from there, a study partner who also spoke Arabic.

Sara Frey, right, and ELL teacher Charise Young flank three ELL students

Sara Frey, right, and ELL teacher Charise Young flank three ELL students

At Plymouth Whitemarsh, only 12 students out of the 1,400 ninth through 12th graders are English-language learners, says Frey. But they speak a wide variety of languages, including Arabic, Spanish, and Nepali. Finding materials that support their literacy needs is  tough, she says.

“There’s not a lot there in Nepali, and you really aren’t going to find translated copies,” Frey says of books, both fiction and nonfiction, published in the United States or English-language books that are then published into Nepalese. “There’s a trend to translate a lot of novels [for ELL students]. But my students from Nepal are not necessarily going to relate to a fiction text [about] the streets of Chicago.”

That sentiment is echoed by the 55 percent of school librarians who say they have trouble finding suitable materials for their ELL students, according to a 2015 School Library Journal and Rourke Educational Media survey.

Instead, school librarians sometimes look for workarounds to address the lack of materials available in foreign languages. For example, Monica Tolva, the librarian at Vernon Hills (IL) High School, allows her two dozen ELL students to read informational articles in their native language for school projects. She translates articles into their native language, including Russian and Korean, and she also shares ideas with her school’s ELL teacher to help those students.


Vernon Hills High School students showing off their new gym jerseys

One such idea included making gym jerseys with vocabulary words deemed important for ELL students to know. As students run during their physical education class, they’re also having a mini-study session. According to Physical Welfare Department supervisor Michael McCaulou, the idea came to him last year through school literacy coaches Ellen Macias and Amy Christian. The first time, they only used words related to fitness, but this year, McCaulou asked all department supervisors to submit their top 10 frequently used words. 

Tolva is planning to add signs to different objects in the library, with the English word like ‘chair’ and ‘table,’ then encourage ELL students to add the word in their native language.

Tolva also tries to keep many foreign-language books in her collection for students to take home to family members. “One student showed up who knows very little English, and he checked out some Spanish-language books,” she says. “I know the books are comforting to him, and he also takes them out for his family.”

Kathy Clarke believes her role is not just in supporting her 140 ELL students,  but ELL teachers as well. At Castro Valley High School in San Francisco, Clarke collaborates with classroom teachers and tries to ensure appropriate ELL materials are available when those students have projects.

Kathy Clarke works with one of her ELL students.

Kathy Clarke works with one of her ELL students.

Clarke, now in her third year at the high school, also keeps a world language section in her library and purchases popular titles such as those in the “Percy Jackson” series (Hyperion) and “Twilight” (Little, Brown), which she has in Vietnamese.

“Anything we can do to support [reading] is incredible,” she says. “If the library can play a small role, I want to be able to do that.”

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Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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