In August of 2017, I moved my family from Cairo, Egypt to the Dayton, Ohio area … just in time for my three children to start school! I am a long-time translation and localization professional, working primarily in English. My wife similarly worked in the translation and localization industry and is very proficient in English. We did our best to teach our children English, though their opportunities to practice were limited in our Arabic-speaking community. Still, our kids had a pretty big head start in acclimating to U.S. schools.
Under federal and state guidelines, our children were assessed for both English language proficiency and academic proficiency to be placed in the right classes. My two sons were classified as “English Language Learners” (ELL). They each spent some time in ESL studies (English as a Second Language), and received other types of language assistance. Speaking with them and their teachers over the school year taught me some very valuable lessons about how even “English proficient” students can and do need language assistance to thrive and succeed in school.
Social English vs. Academic English
The first thing my sons taught me is that there is a big difference between talking with your classmates about video games, sports, lunch, TV, movies and the like, and learning science, math, literature, grammar, history, and social studies. Each class has its own, unique jargon and terminology that aren’t part of the everyday social dialogue between school children (except, maybe, to complain about homework!).
Plus, much of my children’s base of knowledge in academic subjects is in Arabic. And more than that, it’s based in a different culture. My children didn’t learn about the Alamo, the 4th of July, or the Declaration of Independence. They didn’t learn to measure in inches, yards, miles, gallons, pounds, or ounces. They didn’t read classic American or English literature. So why would anyone expect them to understand the terminology needed to study these subjects in English?
ELL students with some or even high levels of English proficiency can and will need extra help with academic English. Bilingual teachers and teacher aides, interpreters, and translated documents provide the resources these students need to learn both the subject matter and the English terminology that surrounds it.
You Can’t Ask if You Don’t Know the Words
Perhaps the most important lesson my sons taught me about being an ELL student with some English proficiency is that you cannot ask a question if you don’t know the words. I’ve seen them struggle with some subjects. When I’ve asked why they didn’t ask their teacher more questions or ask for help, they’ve explained they didn’t have the right words to even ask the questions.
In the vein of “you don’t know what you don’t know,” it’s really difficult to ask, “Where I can get more information about the Constitutional Convention of 1787?” if you don’t know the English words for “Constitutional” or “Convention.”
It’s in situations like this that access to a language interpreter can really come in handy. Whether in-person, by phone or by video, a quick consult can empower the student to ask questions and get involved in the subject.
Finally, my children have taught me the value of language assistance during tests – especially timed, state standardized tests. My home state of Ohio uses state standardized testing in much the same way as most states. Standardized testing affects everything from school funding to a student’s ability to graduate. Schools place a great deal of emphasis on these tests, and a student’s progress is often judged on the outcome.
Tests are a Double Whammy
For ELL students, each test is really a double whammy. It not only tests their knowledge and ability in the subject matter, but also their English language proficiency. Because of this, it can be difficult to determine whether a student who didn’t do too well really didn’t understand the subject, or instead just didn’t understand the words in the question, or even understood the question but didn’t know the English words to write down an answer. Because of this, students who excel in math, science, or social studies could receive low scores on tests.
How to Help
Since the point of math, science, and social studies tests are to evaluate the student’s knowledge of the subject matter, language really shouldn’t be allowed to be a barrier. For this reason, many school districts offer translated standardized tests and/or language interpreter assistance during. Ohio, for example, lists the following examples of accommodations for ELL students during standardized testing:
- Dual monitors to allow an interpreter to read on one monitor while the student tests on the other monitor and avoid requiring the interpreter read over the student’s shoulder.
- Extended time to allow students more time to work through the test.
- Human reader or text-to-speech options for students who listen and speak English more fluently than they read and write.
- A scribe to write down an ELL student’s answers, for students who listen and speak English more fluently than they read and write.
- Translated tests or oral interpreters during the test. This includes “Stacked Spanish/English bilingual” tests, where the test items are presented in both Spanish and English. Responses must be entered in English, but the interpreter can assist with this.
- Use of a word-to-word dictionary that shows only the English and native language word equivalents (i.e., not definitions, examples, pictures, etc.). 
My wife and I have truly appreciated the extra help our sons have received to help them succeed. The ELL tools our school district offers help them not only to learn English but to actively participate and learn other academic topics, as well.
 Note that the majority of these accommodations are not allowed for the English language arts tests. The English language arts tests actually test English language skill, so this makes sense.
 See Ohio’s Test Administration Manual, available here: https://oh.portal.airast.org/core/fileparse.php/3094/urlt/OSTF18_TAM_A-K.pdf.