The USD School of Education uses its English as a New Language (ENL) programs to prepare future teachers to work with students from a variety of cultures, even if they don’t speak their language.
The department offers a minor, a graduate certificate and a masters specialization. English as a New Language is also a required class for all elementary education majors.
Dyanis Popova, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, teaches many of the ENL education courses. She said their program focuses on equipping future educators to teach English learners in their classrooms.
“Students are learning how to take their existing teaching or existing plans and adapt them to the needs of a student,” Popova said. “We also focus on using specific tools to adjust instruction, things like visuals and gestures so students can understand what they’re supposed to do without having to translate every single word, so making content more comprehensible and more accessible.”
English learners make up 7.7 percent of students in South Dakota schools, according to the South Dakota Department of Education. Popova said the growth of English learners in South Dakota and across the nation has led to struggles with meeting their needs.
“The odds are that if you have one or two English learners in your classroom, you’re still going to have to teach the same content to all of them. A lot of the time, English learners get sent to the back of the classroom with an iPad or crayons because a teacher is trying their best, but not necessarily sure as to how to communicate,” she said. “Our program sort of looks at the cultural background and how that impacts or influences a student’s learning… if a kid is worried about family members getting deported, or if a kid is worried about missing their friends or homesickness… all these little things can affect their attention span and how they retain information.”
Popova said the program shows teachers how they can use different methods to assess students who are English learners.
“In most cases, students have the content knowledge and are able to grasp the content, they just don’t have the vocabulary to demonstrate their understanding in the way that we look at it,” she said. “So knowing if you’re asking a tenth grader to write a five paragraph essay, and they are a level one English learner, they aren’t going to have the vocabulary and the sentence structure to produce a five paragraph essay. But if they can show you they understand by drawing an image or labeling or producing short sentences, as long as they’re demonstrating that they’re understanding, they should be able to get credit for that.”
Kaitlyn Danielson, a junior elementary education major who is minoring in English as a New Language, said it is important to make sure that students are understanding what is being taught.
“Being sure that your students are able to understand what you’re talking about, and pulling them aside to help better them, and to make sure that they’re understanding it,” Danielson said. “If they’re not understanding it, figure out another way to teach it, like maybe putting a worksheet in their home language or making home visits to understand their culture.”
Chaelor Koolstra, a junior elementary education major with an English language learners (ELL) endorsement, said she is passionate about English learners because of her past experiences.
“I volunteered at a local elementary, and I got put into the ELL room, and at first I was really nervous about it because I had no idea what it was about, and I thought you had to speak their language to understand them,” she said. “But it ended up being my favorite thing ever… I loved working with them and seeing their smiles when we would like to get each other, even though we didn’t speak the same language.”
The ENL masters program focuses on cultural differences in the classroom, along with language barriers.
“With the master’s program, we expand into not only English learners, but English learners as well as culturally and linguistically diverse persons who are not necessarily English learners,” Popova said. “You might have members of the Native American population who are bilingual at home… You may have students who are ethnic minorities or who have been minoritized who may have cultural differences.”
Popova said these communication skills can make teachers more marketable when applying for jobs, and it can even increase pay in some states, although not in South Dakota.
“It does increase your marketability significantly, mainly because it tells schools and principals that are interviewing that you have an additional skill that would be really useful,” she said. “Especially if you are able to show that you’ve covered not only English learners but culture and how culture affects things. It gives you a little bit of marketability, and in some states, it would increase your pay.”
Although the ENL programs are currently designed for teachers, their content can be applied to a variety of disciplines.
“It translates to medical care, it translates to business, it translates to a bunch of different fields, because our world is diverse, and we do have global migration, and knowing how to navigate that is helpful to everyone,” Popova said. “It has amazing value, not only in terms of schooling but in terms of you being a global citizen and interacting with others.”
Koolstra said being able to communicate across linguistic barriers is an important skill for everyone to have.
“I think anyone can use these skills that I learn because the United States is very diverse,” she said. “Understanding cultures and why people do things is very important, and I think that can help many ways in life.”