Reaching Students Who Don't Speak English

Students play around at the front of a classroom in Omaha. (Photo by Brandon McDermott, NET News)
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December 6, 2017 - 6:45am

According to the Migration Policy Institute, Nebraska’s immigrant population grew 172 percent between 1998 and 2008. There are more than 22,000 English language learner (ELL) students currently enrolled in public schools across the state. 


In a classroom at Benson West elementary in Omaha, a handful of English language learners (ELL) pay close attention as their teacher Jennifer Kaminski reads a book to them aloud.

Jennifer Kaminski reads a book to ELL students at Benson West. (Photo by Brandon McDermott, NET News)

The students look at every picture as she turns the pages and listen closely to every word. It’s sometimes a struggle for the students trying to learn a new language – and can be overwhelming for the teachers trying to help them.

"Reach out and look for help because if you feel the way you do, how do you think the students feel sitting in the seat, honestly?," Kaminski said. "They are feeling a lot more stress and worry than you are,"

Kaminski taught general education for six years, before moving to ELL. At Benson West alone, students speak Nepali, Arabic, French, Spanish, Karen, Somali, Swahili and Burmese. And there are 114 different languages spoken by students in public schools across Nebraska.

During the last school year, Kaminski enrolled in a program through Concordia University in Seward to learn how to teach English language learners.

"It is very hard when you're in your classroom all day and you go to classes for three hours a night and then you're doing homework on the weekends you might go – ‘Oh this is really exhausting!’ – but it's worth that to be tired for the kids. It's worth it," Kaminski said.

Languages spoken by students in Nebraska public schools. (Courtesy Nebraska Department of Education)

A 2012 Nebraska state law says if there is an English language learner student in a school, then districts are responsible for having somebody within that school who is endorsed in ELL – or someone who is training for ELL.

There are 11 colleges and universities in the state which have been approved by the Nebraska Department of Education to offer ELL training to teachers.

"Nebraska has a growing population of English Learners," said Matthew Blomstedt, commissioner of the Nebraska Department of Education. "These students often times come into the state with little or no English at all. It is our responsibility to help these students adjust to their new setting and continue to succeed in the classroom."

Blomstedt says school districts across the state are meeting new challenges presented by the growing ELL population.

"We are committed to provide these students with what they need to succeed and that includes quality instruction from well-trained teachers," Blomstedt said.

Kaminski says the ELL training also helps teachers develop empathy for non-English speaking students.

"Today there was a moment where I was working with one of the students.  He is brand new to the country," Kaminski said. "He read the word notebook -- so excited – ‘Notebook!!’ and he started doing the yes sign. So it's just little things like that, that I know when he goes the classroom if he needs a notebook or a ruler or if he even needs to just ask the teacher, ‘Can I use the restroom or the bathroom?’ He can do it. It's about empowering the students."

Rule 15 as written in the procedures and regulations handbook. (Courtesy Nebraska Department of Education)

Kaminski has even taken it upon herself to help teachers at Benson West who haven’t been through the ELL training.

"As I was going through the program, teachers would come and ask, ‘Hey, what do you think about this concept, how can I teach this concept?’ and (I was) just sharing what I learned through the program," Kaminski said.

Omaha and Lincoln Public Schools’ teachers who work with ELL students all are ELL endorsed. But it’s not like that everywhere in Nebraska.

"Getting enough ELL staff is a challenge across the state," said Julie Myers, director of curriculum at Lexington Public Schools where 35 percent of the students are English language learners. 

Not all of the teachers with the Lexington Public Schools have an ELL endorsement. But Myers says they are committed to developing the skills they need to reach the students who don’t speak English.  

"Sometimes that can come through college coursework, sometimes that can come through professional development and for our veteran staff it has just come through experience," Myers said.

Myers pointed to Lexington Public Schools long-time dual language program as one way the district is staying ahead of the curve. It’s an opt-in program, so parents have to sign up for their student to be a part of the program. Sixty-Six of this year’s class of 213 kindergarteners will move through the K-5 dual language program at Bryan Elementary within Lexington Public Schools. Whether students speak English as a first language or a second, they all learn both Spanish and English during the day.

"Ironically for us, that type of a program received strong support from our English dominant families," Myers said. "They quickly saw that their monolingual English students may not have the best career opportunities in the future being monolingual."

Lexington seems to have found a way to help all students become fluent in a second language. The first kindergarten class that went through the program will graduate from high school this year.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated "all students within Lexington Public Schools go through the dual language program." We have corrected the story and given more detail.

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