Many years have passed since international adoption began
to spread in the US. Many schools now have some experience with international
adoptees, but a poor understanding
of these children's school related needs by school personnel is still
a cause of parent's disappointment. One of the contentious issues is
the English as a Second Language (ESL) program. Every parent's story
is unique in a way, but combined together, parents present
a bleak picture of daily frustration and slow progress of some internationally
children in the ESL classes, which were (ideally!) enforced to scaffold
them to a brighter
start in this new cultural and linguistic environment.
Historically, ESL was designed for students from new immigrant
families. At present, ESL
is a mandatory, federally funded program for every non-English speaking
child entering a public school system. The teaching methodology of ESL
programs is designed for children from families where another language
is spoken. But internationally adopted children live
in the English-only monolingual families, and we have a unique and paradoxical
situation when students, who are legally eligible for ESL, have the
English language as their home language! Here's how parents describe
these concerns in their own words:
"My 9 year old, adopted two
years ago, is stuck in an ESL program, which is usually
pushed as a good thing and may be OK for some kids, but there seems
to be no benefit
for my child and no way out. My son is pulled out from his classroom
and often misses important instruction time and tests. A constantly
changing schedule of these services is stressful for him: there are
too many distractions and hardly any homework. He meets 2
of the criteria for exit from the ESL program (speaking and understanding),
reading and writing portions of the exit test. At this time he does
not understand a single word in Russian, of course."
"I adopted an 8 year old boy a year ago;
he was placed in 2nd grade and received ESL services last year and continues
to receive them this year in 3rd grade. His spoken
English is quite good. He is reading somewhere on the first grade level.
teachers get very confused about how much English my son actually knows.
trouble with complicated sentence structures, some vocabulary, and some
advanced concepts, and the assignments and tests are too sophisticated
The specifics of English language acquisition by an internationally
adopted child should
be properly understood in order to modify ESL instructions accordingly.
adopted children, though a part of the English Language Learners (ELL)
from the rest of the ELL population in many aspects. I wrote about that
before (see Internationally
adopted post-institutionalized students in an ESL class). In
What to do if the child can't pass ESL exit reading/writing
Does an ESL program, as it is applied in the majority of schools, help
IA children enough? Not always, as many internationally adopting parents
would admit. To be useful for IA children, ESL has to concentrate more
on cognitive/academic language development and
the necessity of IA children to quickly absorb the cultural/linguistic
experience of their American born peers.
Yet another reason for concern is a possibility of getting
stuck in an ESL class when the
child has more than just a lack of cultural and linguistic exposure.
It may be an
educational handicapping condition that prevents the child from passing
ESL exit exam.
We have to understand clearly that ESL is not a special remedial service
- it is an
academic subject: it should not be used as a substitute for any special
or prevent the child from receiving such services, as in the parent's
"My biggest concern is my
daughter's poor comprehension. On the level of reading words, she tests
nearly at grade level, but she doesn't make sense of what she reads.
A book report assignment was a nightmare, despite a skilled and sympathetic
classroom teacher. Sometimes she gets a general idea from the context,
and other times she just guesses,
and therefore responds inappropriately. But I'm beginning to think there
may be more to the problem than just vocabulary."
Does it mean that ESL is not helpful at all to IA children?
Not necessarily! At the beginning
of their school career and until their first language has functionally
vanished, they may benefit from a modified ESL instruction. If a child
after 10 months is not able to pass an
exit test, it is very likely that this child needs remediation rather
than continuation with
the ESL in the next school year.
In such situations the parents should take the following
1. Get an affidavit. Get a written note - affidavit,
signed by a college educated native speaker of the language (it can
be a teacher, a pediatrician, a psychologist, etc.) that
your child's first language is non-functional any longer and cannot
be used for school instructions, casual communication, or high-order
reasoning; that the child has now only
the English language - the only language available for all practical
and educational purposes.
2. Write a letter to your principle (always opt
for written documentation), where you introduce the IDEA's (Individuals
with Disabilities Education Act) definition of "native language"
as qualifying basis to request a psycho-educational evaluation for classification
of your daughter or son as a child with disability, eligible for special
education services. I suggest that in a letter you quote the following
abstract from the IDEA-Part B Code of Federal Regulations, CFR (§300.19):
As used in this part, the term native
language, if used with reference to an individual of limited English
proficiency, means the following:
(a)(1)The language normally
used by that individual, or, in the case of a child, the language
normally used by the parents of the child, except as provided in paragraph
(a)(2) of this section.
(a)(2)In all direct contact
with a child (including evaluation of the child), the language normally
used by the child in the home or learning environment.
In your situation, English satisfies both (1) and (2)
of the code. So, even though the
school may contend that your child is an individual of Limited English
Proficiency (LEP), it still is the fact that his native language is
3. Request that your child is removed from the ESL
program concurrently with the request for a psycho-educational assessment,
being necessary because of
your child's obvious delay with the English language as compared to
other monolingual children. Just dropping an ESL program might be not
enough for your child's situation,
as it will not automatically improve the grasp of the cognitive language,
even being more consistently exposed to it during the academic subjects.
In conclusion, parents need to be educated, persistent,
and proactive: it can make a big difference for your child.