Support multilingual learners

University of Minnesota Center for Writing Staff

We are writing to follow up on your important coverage of the recently proposed closure of the masterâÄôs program in English as a second language, as reported in the Jan. 19 article âÄúU canâÄôt keep up with influx of intâÄôl students,âÄù and discussed in recent editorials.

At a time when the state of Minnesota is experiencing a dramatic increase in number of English language learners, it is imperative that our stateâÄôs flagship university lead the way with sustained research on English language acquisition and rigorous preparation of ESL teachers. Not only are these experts in language acquisition needed to provide direct instruction to our multilingual students, but their guidance is also needed by the University of MinnesotaâÄôs faculty across the curriculum struggling to accommodate an increasingly complex communication paradigm in their day-to-day teaching.

Although the Minnesota Daily presented the need for greater English language support as an international student issue, we know from our work in the Center for Writing that many of the multilingual students learning academic English on our campus are American citizens, both immigrant and refugee.

In the past four years, the percentage of Student Writing Support clients who identify a language other than English as their first language has grown from 35 percent to 51 percent, and consultations with non-native English speakers are now making up 63 percent of our approximately 10,000 consultations each year. These multilingual students are a diverse group, identifying 70 different first languages.

In Student Writing Support, we need trained language teachers both to consult individually with these students and to train the rest of our staff. These specialists also offer workshops for faculty and instructors across the disciplines through the centerâÄôs Teaching With Writing program.

Our work with pre-K-12 schools through the Minnesota Writing Project confirms that our population of multilingual students will continue to grow. In 2008-09, St. Paul public schools reported that English language learners made up 41 percent of their total student population. The Minnesota Compass reports that among those aged 19 and under in Minnesota, one in seven is the child of an immigrant, a proportion that rises to one in five for children under the age of five.

Nationally, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by the year 2030, 40 percent of the school-age population will speak a language other than English at home. Clearly, research on teaching and learning English will be essential in an increasingly multilingual, multicultural and global world. To support student writers and their instructors, our center has relied heavily on the resources in our second language studies department and the M.A. ESL program specifically. Two-thirds of our current professional NNS Specialists graduated from the UniversityâÄôs M.A. ESL program, and many of our past professional and graduate writing consultants were educated in that program.

Without second language studies research knowledge and teaching expertise, we would not have been able to create our much praised âÄúespecially for multilingual writersâÄù videos and tutorials. Developing these resources and working directly with multilingual students and faculty on campus have convinced us that what we learn about teaching writing to English language learners makes us better teachers of all students.

We believe that a short-term decision to save money by closing the M.A.- ESL graduate program will be a regrettable long-term failure of the stateâÄôs flagship university to respond to the needs of our local and global community. We have written to University leaders to call for a forum to discuss the ramifications of such action and, more broadly, the UniversityâÄôs commitment to supporting multilingual students.

Authors:
 

Patricia Eliason, non-native speaker specialist

Kit Hansen, non-native speaker specialist

Pamela Flash, associate director and director of Writing Across the Curriculum

Debra Hartley, assistant director

Kirsten Jamsen, director

Katie Levin, assistant director

Kimberley Strain, non-native speaker specialist

Muriel Thompson, director of the Minnesota Writing Project

Terri Wallace, executive secretary