The Native American ESL student

by CADE SORENSEN

Teachers and PTA members at West Jordan Elementary School in West Jordan, Utah, have combined their efforts to create the “I Can Read” program, a program designed for students who need help with reading and writing skills.

Cody Black is one student who has received the one-on-one help he needs to enhance his reading and writing skills. Stacy Murdock, Cody’s 4th-grade teacher, noticed he was struggling with his reading and writing assignments. He had a harder time in some areas because his parents, who are Native American, do not speak English well enough to help him at home.

Murdock entered Cody in the “I Can Read” program to help him improve his literacy skills. “I know that if he were to just get some help with his reading and writing, it will help him a lot in other subjects,” Murdock said before enrolling Cody in the program.

After his sessions in the “I Can Read” program, Cody often mentioned how helpful it was for him to be able to read with someone, something he couldn’t do at home with his parents.

Professors Nancy S. Lay and Gladys Carro explained in their article, “The English-as-a-Second-Language Student,” how students who struggle in reading and writing can struggle in other areas as well. “Many of the textbooks are written on a reading level far higher than that attained by many ESL students,” they wrote. “Thus, reading becomes slower and checking the dictionary for every word they do not know takes time and interrupts the comprehensibility of the texts.” For this reason it is important for schools to provide additional help for students who are behind in reading and writing.

Native American students going to school where their culture is not the dominant one can also have trouble adjusting to the culture of other students, making it harder to learn or feel comfortable.

Culturally, Native American children learn differently than white children, said Forrest S. Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs.

“Most Native American children learn to concentrate on the spiritual aspects of life. Most white children are taught to concentrate on the physical aspects,” Cuch said. In addition, he said, “Native Americans are taught to be cooperative, whereas whites are taught to be competitive.”

Similar to the way cultures are different from one country to another, Native American cultures are different from other cultures within the United States. Lay and Carro suggest that if an ESL student does not participate in some activities in class, it may be because of a cultural difference that is making the student uncomfortable.

“American Indians are different in so many ways, and we process information differently,” Cuch said. “And the school system is designed for the dominant culture. And consequently, our kids have always fallen behind.” To help Native American students feel more comfortable, Cuch suggests that schools implement a system of smaller classrooms, hire more Native American teachers and incorporate Native American history into the curriculum.

Cuch did agree that when there are a very small number of Native American students in a school it is often best to give that student more one-on-one help with specific needs. Most Utah elementary schools have some form of reading and writing program like “I Can Read” to help struggling students in a more personal way.

Although Cody was helped by the “I Can Read” program, those who helped him were only volunteers and not professional teachers. Cody is now in the resource program at West Jordan Elementary and is getting better one-on-one help from professional teachers who have been trained to help students with special needs.

According to the November 2004 United States Census Bureau, only 75 percent of Native Americans and Alaska Natives age 25 and older had at least a high school diploma. This is the lowest rate among all races and ethnicities in the U.S. If more is done to help Native American students at an early age, it is more likely they will further their education and learning.