as a Second Language (ESL) Instruction and Internationally Adopted
Children: Are they perfect together?
Interview with Dr. Boris Gindis by
We continue our series of interviews with
The topic of this conversation is the controversy
surrounding English as a Second Language as a subject offered
to our children in school.
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.
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!
In your opinion, is ESL
beneficial for our children?
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
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.
What other differences between
children from immigrant families and internationally adopted children
in terms of their learning English?
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
But we do not live in an "ideal"
world. What should be done now to make ESL work for our children?
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 www.bgcenter.com ).
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.