Southeast Tennessee students are busy adjusting to new school schedules and perhaps acknowledging a little anxiety about taking a new math or science class.

IMG_0446For a growing number of children, there’s one more hurdle—they’ll need to learn English when they enter the classroom.

Between 1995 and 2005, the population of English Learner (EL) students grew 370 percent in the Volunteer State.

This may sound like an astronomical increase, but it doesn’t surprise teachers.  As challenging as it may be for the students to learn English, it is equally challenging for teachers to incorporate English lessons into the curriculum.

That’s why the Teachers Helping English Proficiency Project (HELP) is invaluable.  HELP was created with support from a $1.9 million US Department of Education Professional Development Grant, which was awarded to The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2012.

During the five-year Teachers HELP project, an estimated 140 preservice and inservice (current) teachers from Hamilton County, Bradley County, Cleveland City, Grundy County, Marion County, and Sequatchie County schools will be certified as English Learner endorsed teachers.  The English as a Second Language endorsement may be added to a current teacher’s license.  For UTC education students (preservice teachers), they can attain the endorsement as they complete their education coursework—the endorsement will be added to their teaching license upon graduation.

The teachers are not learning new languages; they are learning strategies that will benefit all students.

“We sometimes think of EL students as primarily Spanish-speaking or of Hispanic heritage, but there is a great variety.  Volkswagen has brought German families to our area.  Bridge Refugee Services in Chattanooga has brought in families of African heritage,” explained Anne Gamble, Teachers Helping English Proficiency (HELP) Project Director.

One of the components of the Teachers HELP Project was held on the UTC campus in summer semester 2013.  Thirty-four teachers completed a two-week English Learners Summer Academy where they learned to teach the basic elements of literacy, particularly vocabulary and comprehension, according to Dr. Kay Cowan.

“Teachers learned how to introduce an art form or movement to develop vocabulary in English Learners,” said Cowan, Professor of Reading and Language Arts in the UTC College of Education, Health, and Professional Studies.  “They also learned if students draw or in some way physically demonstrate words, teachers can then help with ‘scaffolding’ to fill in the gaps.”

A survey of teachers in the EL Summer Academy showed there are currently 200 EL students in their classrooms.

Education of EL students does not mean teachers want these students to forget the language of their homeland or forego their native culture, according to Dr. Amye Warren, HELP Program project evaluator and Research Master’s Program Coordinator in the Department of Psychology.

“Research shows that children and adults who speak more than one language show cognitive advantage,” Warren noted.

In the afterglow of the EL Summer Academy, Professional Learning Communities will be facilitated by EL-endorsed teachers.  They will receive specialized training and support, mentoring, and coaching.

“Based on best practices used in the Teachers HELP program, participating teachers have great potential to make a difference in the lives of EL students.  These educators also realize that as they incorporate these methods to develop rich, academic language, all students in the classroom will benefit,” Gamble said.

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