HUNTINGTON — For some, “I’m fine” might be a simple two-word sentence, but for a student learning the English language, it can be a big milestone.
That’s the reality Naomi Wilson, the lead ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher in the Cabell County school district, lives in.
That two-word sentence was spoken by a student who, when she entered the ESL program in her second-grade year, couldn’t tell people what her name was in English if asked.
“I didn’t have to prompt her. I wanted to jump up and give her a high-five. It was so exciting,” Wilson said, alluding to those moments as some of the most rewarding in her career.
The English as a Second Language program is a curriculum designed to give students who are not fully proficient in English language support services in school to help get them on grade level or to a knowledge of English appropriate to their age.
In Cabell County, three full-time and two part-time teachers coordinate services for 150 students in the ESL program.
The students enrolled in the program this year speak more than 20 native languages between them, including Spanish, Arabic and Chinese.
“We also have a few that speak Thai, a few that speak Tagalog, or Urdu or German. We’ve got a little mix of everything,” Wilson said.
Once identified, each student who enters the program is assigned a teacher who works with him or her to build foundational knowledge of the English language and help translate that to success in the classroom.
“It’s our job to help build up the foundation and then help them continue to learn the content they are going through so they don’t fall even further behind,” Wilson said. “They are still learning content with their classmates, so it’s about finding a balance of what each student needs.”
That balance, she added, can be difficult at times since ESL teachers aren’t bound to a single classroom and can have multiple students at different grade levels in different school buildings under their instruction.
This is where developing a relationship with classroom teachers becomes important so that even when the ESL student is not receiving direct instruction from an ESL teacher, the concepts are still being worked on in the classroom.
“One of the things that I really enjoy is that even if I only get to see my student two times a week, I get to see that improvement, where [a student] didn’t know something on Monday and now it’s Thursday and between what classroom teachers, ESL teachers and parents are doing to help the student, I can see that they know it,” Wilson said.
Each year, just as other students participate in standardized testing, so do those in the ESL program, referred to as the ELPA (English Language Proficiency Assessment). This gives teachers an idea of where students stand year after year and also provides the opportunity each year to test out of the program if their knowledge of English has advanced to a certain level.
Students are tested in four areas — reading, writing, speaking and listening — and must test “proficient” in each in order to exit the program.
“It is testing all aspects of language, and in order to test out of the program, they have to test proficient in all four areas,” Wilson said.
Wilson added that the earlier the student is plugged into the program, the more likely they are to test out before they graduate. After testing proficient in all content areas, students can still be monitored for up to two years to ensure the greatest chance of success, and can always re-enter the program if needed.
Wilson has taught ESL in Cabell County since the 2005-06 school year when she did her student teaching. She was hired part time following that year and given a full-time position in the 2010-11 academic year and has held the position since.