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UK College of Education $2.7 Million Grant Gives Teachers Tools to Support English Learners in the Classroom

As Kentucky’s immigrant population continues to grow, a new $2.7 million grant awarded to the University of Kentucky College of Education will assist teachers with educating children who are learning English in the classroom.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Education Office of English Language Acquisition the grant will provide funding for 125 teachers from Fayette, Scott and Clark counties to participate in yearlong professional learning designed to increase teachers’ expertise in teaching in culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms. Twenty-five of those teachers will earn a graduate certificate from the UK College of Education and will receive training to become school leaders who help sustain these strategies by sharing them with other teachers throughout their schools.

“When you put yourself in the shoes of a child who has come to a new place and does not understand the language, it is easy to see the importance of finding the best ways to help with the transition,” said Dr. Susan Cantrell, an associate professor in the UK College of Education Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Cantrell leads the grant as principal investigator along with Dr. Kristen Perry, co-principal investigator and associate professor in the same department. “Teachers wonder, ‘How can I make the content comprehensible for immigrant students? How can I instruct in a way that is meaningful for them? It’s a lot for a teacher, with a classroom full of students, to make newcomers feel comfortable and welcome while also creating lessons that enable them to learn at their highest potential.

“Students need supports and strategies to bridge that language gap,” Cantrell said. “Teachers may need to do a lot of pre-teaching of vocabulary. They may show a video or incorporate a multimedia presentation into instruction. Sometimes it helps to do role playing or dramatization or use graphic organizers.”

Even students who are able to converse fluently in English may still struggle in the classroom when they are less familiar with language used in an academic setting.  The student may have learned about metamorphosis in their native language, for instance, but words like “metamorphosis” are rarely used outside more academic conversations, so are not yet part of the student’s English vocabulary.

Language issues in schools are of growing importance in Kentucky, where the immigrant population grew at a faster rate than all but six states between 2000 and 2012. Yet, the most recent data shows 39 percent of new teachers across Kentucky felt unprepared to teach English learners.

In just one of the districts participating in the grant, Fayette County, there were 1,520 students who were English language learners in 2005.  Today, that number has grown to 5,404, which is a 255 percent increase.

“A strong part of this work is family engagement and collaboration,” Cantrell said. “Teachers learn how to collaborate with families in ways that improve students’ learning. We’ve seen students really grow and we’ve seen teachers developing relationships with students and their families in nontraditional ways. Teachers come to appreciate the knowledge that students and their families have and the culture that students bring to the classroom. The teachers have learned to use that culture as a strength in the classroom.”

The first cohort of teachers in the grant project began in January 2018. School teams of teachers in Fayette, Scott and Clark counties are being sought for future cohorts.  For more information, contact project manager Jo Davis at jo.davis@nulluky.edu.

In addition to Cantrell, Perry, and Davis, personnel on the grant include Dr. Francis Bailey (co-investigator), associate professor in the UK College of Arts and Sciences Department of Modern and Classical Languages; Dr. Shannon Sampson (grant evaluator), assistant professor in the UK College of Education Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation; Dr. Rebecca Powell (grant coach); and Carolyn Witt Jones (grant coach).