Some students must learn a foreign language English HOWARD COUNTY EDUCATION

March 08, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

The five students in Tebbie Stewart's class hail from different parts of the world -- two from Korea and others, from Cambodia, Jamaica and Russia.

They have been in the United States for as little as three months and as long two years. The one thing these Mayfield Woods middle-schoolers have in common is English -- the need and desire to learn it.

The five are among a growing number of Howard County students for whom English is a second language. More than 350 of them are enrolled in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program.

This particular day, they're reading an Aesop's fable, part of Mrs. Stewart's lesson to teach them how to think critically and interpret orally -- skills they need in their regular classes. All of them are just grasping the idea that there are regular verbs and irregular verbs.

"How do you know which verb is which?" asks 12-year-old Song Yi, a shy Korean girl who barely speaks above a whisper.

"There are no rules to this," said Mrs. Stewart, an ESOL teacher for 10 years. "It's just something you must learn. If it's any consolation to you, American students have problems with irregular verbs. It's not only you, it's Americans, too."

The ESOL program began with 95 students seven years ago and is expected to grow to 400 students by the end of this school year. Korean students are the most numerous, followed by Chinese and Latin American students. More than half of ESOL students are in elementary schools.

Students spend varying amounts of time in ESOL classes, depending on their age and English proficiency level. Students from kindergarten to eighth grade are pulled from their classes for individual or small-group instruction.

Seven full-time teachers and a handful of assistants cover the 43 elementary and middle schools, spending their mornings in one school and their afternoons in another.

Some elementary and middle-schoolers get as little as 30 minutes of instruction a week, while others get an hour of instruction a day. Teachers and others say they all need more.

They're really frustrated because right in their own country they're considered bright kids," said Pat Hatch, director of the Columbia-based Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network. "They're treated as if they're stupid, and it doesn't take long for that to erode yourself, your sense of courage."

High school ESOL students are bused to the School of Technology in Ellicott City to spend 2 1/2 hours in intensive English classes, where they learn the basics, from conversation to vocabulary building to pronunciation. Two full-time teachers and an aide staff the classrooms.

Because high school students get daily instruction, "they learn English much quicker," said Shing Mei Altman, an ESOL teacher. "At the same time, they have so much more to learn to be on grade level. If they're in 10th grade, they have 10 years to catch up."

Students who have prior schooling and a good grasp of their native language pick up English more quickly, but it's still hard for them. "If you don't speak English, you don't know anything," said Nancy Comete, a Haitian-born 15-year-old who came to the United States two years ago. "When [teachers] try to explain and you don't understand, you can't do anything."

Although Oakland Mills High School sophomore Eun Hahn learned English in her native South Korea, she still had to take ESOL classes when she came here nearly three years ago. She has finished ESOL and is taking French as a third language. Still, she has difficulty with English -- especially reading novels.

"My friends need 30 minutes to finish reading two or three chapters, but I take two hours," she said. "It's really hard. Sometimes, I think I want to go back to ESOL."

For students who have never had schooling, or whose schooling was interrupted because of civil wars in their countries, it's harder. They not only have to learn English, but also have to DTC learn to read and write, said Peggy Wilson, ESOL project manager and teacher.

"It's a double whammy for them," she said. "They've got to become literate, and they've got to become literate in a foreign language."

And then there are teachers who don't understand ESOL students and the difficulties they go through. "After so many years of being in this business," said ESOL supervisor Celeste Carr, "I still see things that appall me, like teachers yelling at students who are limited English-proficient. The language teachers sometimes use is such that these students can't understand them."

Some ESOL students become so frustrated that they drop out of school. Ms. Hatch knows of two Vietnamese students -- one who has become a manicurist and another who has become an intermittent factory worker. One dropped out right before finals, and neither is in a stable situation, she said.

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