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English as a Second Language (ESL) Instruction and Internationally Adopted Children: Are they perfect together?

Interview with Dr. Boris Gindis by Jackie Lawson.
We continue our series of interviews with Dr. Gindis.
The topic of this conversation is the controversy surrounding English as a Second Language as a subject offered to our children in school.

Q: Dr. Gindis, many adoptive parents asked to clarify the matter of the ESL curriculum. Do our children really need this instruction? One of our members asked: "I have to bus my son to another school three times a week to get ESL lessons, is it worth it?" Another parent inquired if her daughter could continue with ESL for as long as it possible. Still another is confused why the school keeps mentioning ESL "service" while denying her child needs for speech and language therapy. I know cases where adoptive families decided to discontinue ESL for their child, but the school insisted that according to current law their child must continue with ESL.

A: Just looking at your questions, I see two intertwined issues: a legal aspect (an entitlement to the service and parental rights to reject the service) and an educational aspect (what are the educational gains and losses for international adoptees in taking ESL). I will concentrate mostly on the second aspect, but cannot resist the temptation of saying one more time loudly: ESL is not a special education service, it is an academic program; an attempt by your school to substitute any supportive service (e.g.: speech and language) by ESL is not acceptable!
Historically, ESL as an academic discipline was designed for students from recently arrived immigrant families. At present, ESL is a mandatory, federally funded program for every non-English speaking child who enters the public school system. In New York State, for example, a student may exit the ESL program only after achieving the 41st percentile on the LAB (Language Ability Battery) Test. I have to point that the teaching methodology of ESL program is designed for children from families where another language is practiced. Moreover, acceptance to the program assumes this premise. However, from the time of the adoption, internationally adopted (IA) children live in monolingual (English only) families, not in families where "other-than-English" language is used. Indeed, we have a unique and paradoxical situation when students that are legally eligible for ESL have the English language as their home language!

Q: In your opinion, is ESL beneficial for our children?

A: Yes and no: it depends on several factors. The real issue is what can be done to make this curriculum ultimately beneficial for our children.
First, ESL teachers should realize the uniqueness of IA children as students in their program. These children live in English-speaking families and this situation changes the overall context of acquisition of the second language by bringing about a possibility of enrichment at home and active parental involvement in the process of new language learning.
Second, ESL instructors should understand that most IA children are not bilingual. Therefore the traditional ESL methodology that may be effective for bilingual children may not be appropriate for them. For example, many ESL methods of teaching are based on the assumption that children will transfer some of their first language skills to their second language. This assumption is not true for most international adoptees because they are losing their first language so quickly; that they are not able to perform the transfer of existing skills (which are weak and inconsistent). It has been found in children from immigrant families that those who have well-developed first language skills usually acquire a second language more quickly and easily. The reverse is also true. Internationally adopted children more often than traditional ESL students have deficiencies and delays in their native languages. This alone makes it more difficult for them to learn their new language.

Q: What other differences between children from immigrant families and internationally adopted children in terms of their learning English?

A: The major difference is that whereas for the traditional ESL population, learning English is in many respects akin to learning a foreign language, for IA children second language acquisition is more akin to the natural ways in which first languages are developed. IA children are completely immersed in the language: their new families, peers, media, and the culture at large are influential sources of language, not school instruction alone. They acquire English as a by-product of meaningful communication in the process of performing different activities within their families. The typical situation is that adoptive parents do not know the language of the country they have adopted from and adopted children do not know English at the time of adoption. For the first several months the issue of communication is one of the most pressing in adoptive families. The motivational urge to acquire language is much more intense in adopted children (and adoptive families) than in bilingual children. The overall tempo of mastering the English language in IA children appears to be faster than in a "traditional" ESL population. The problem is that this is mostly communicative, "social", language, not cognitive, "academic" language needed for school performance. Modern ESL programs do take into consideration the "social" and "academic" aspects of the English language, however, the communicative aspect of the language is their priority with children from newly-arrived immigrant families. IA children however, get this aspect of language in their families in a more concentrated and intense way. IA children need more "cognitive" language along with language remediation.
Very often, in less than a year in the US, pronunciation and word usage in the English language in international adoptees become almost indistinguishable from their peers who are native speakers. As a result of their fluency in face-to-face communication, educators (and adoptive parents alike) assume that these children have learned the language, can be classified as English-proficient, are qualified for regular instruction in English, and should be discharged from ESL instructions. This does not mean that they have sufficient mastery of the more abstract aspects of the English language to do well academically. After "graduation" from an ESL program, some children may continue to experience academic difficulties or show low verbal abilities on an intelligence test. Often a child may need ESL as a supportive academic program for a longer period of time than is indicated by the results of the exit test or even the opinion of the ESL instructors.
Ideally, there should be a modified ESL curriculum designed specifically for IA children. This curriculum should be developmentally appropriate and have a needs-specific methodology that serves two purposes: to teach the English language; and to concurrently remediate for deficiencies in language development itself. In other words, ideally, the ESL curriculum for internationally adopted children should be academic and remedial at the same time: remediation is to be intertwined with academic instruction to compensate for language-related institutionalized disabilities.

Q: But we do not live in an "ideal" world. What should be done now to make ESL work for our children?

A: Its focus should be on "academic" (cognitive) language and specific pre-literacy and literacy skills with less concentration on communicative aspects because these skills will be learned in the families through actual communication. If ESL instruction addresses "academic" language issues, then ESL lessons could be to some degree remedial for IA children. There should be a home "follow-up component" of the classroom instruction (homework) - a first in the history of ESL instruction! Adoptive parents may act as teachers of and as "language role-models" for their children. For children between the ages 6 and 9, I suggest that the "Bright Start" methodology to be used as a foundation for a specialized ESL curriculum (for more information about this remedial methodology please visit my website at ).
It is widely recognized by both the adoptive parents and by teachers that learning English is the major adaptive activity for IA students within the first year in their new homeland. The main avenue to learn their new language in public schools is the "English as a Second Language" (ESL) academic program. It is a request of many adoptive parents as well as of ESL teachers that the ESL instructions for IA students should be modified according to the specificity of this group of children and the special circumstances of their current situation. By and large, ESL means extra help and extra support and adoptive parents should take advantage of it. You have to realize, however, that ESL is not a special (that is, remedial) service. It is an academic program. It should not be used as a substitute for speech and language services. In other words, your child may have ESL along with the remedial services.

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