• English as a Second Language (ESL) FAQ

    Q: How does a student get placed in ESL?

    Upon enrollment, if a student answers with a non English language to any of the questions on the Home Language Survey (on the STARS enrollment form), the ESL department is obliged to investigate. If we think the student could be a candidate for ESL, the staff will administer a screener test called the w-APT. This test measures "real world" English that a student will hear during their school day. If they don't achieve a score of 5.0 on the w-APT, they are eligible for ESL. Per state law, a beginning level student will get three periods of ESL, an intermediate level will receive two periods, and advanced takes one period. We use the w-APT to inform these placement and scheduling decisions.

    Q: Who can be an ESL student?

    The target population for ESL is defined in terms of the competency of each student in his or her native language and in English.  Any student who may be classified within any of the categories listed below could be provided with ESL instruction:
    • A student, who understands, speaks, reads, and writes his or her native language fluently but does not understand, speak, read or write any English.
    • A student who understands and speaks his or her native language but has limited or no ability to read and write his or her native language and who does not understand, speak, read any English.
    • A student who has limited understanding of spoken English but does not speak it. 
    • A student who understands and speaks English on a limited basis but who is unable to read or write English.  A student who speaks, reads and writes a non-standard English (i.e. Jamaican or Liberian).

    Q: If there are five students who speak five different languages in a classroom, does the ESL teacher need to speak all of them?

    In our district, all classroom instruction is conducted in English. We do have paraprofessionals in some of our regional centers who speak the various languages of the students and may assist in occasional explanation. Some ESL teachers in the district have foreign language experience, but it is not a prerequisite. 

    Q: My great grandparents came to the US and didn't need ESL. Why do students today need it?

    In previous generations, literacy in English wasn't as important to success as it is today. We want to equip students with the academic English that they need to thrive in school. State and federal governments recognize this fact, which is why ESL has gained such a high national profile in the last thirty years.

    Q: I have heard that some refugee families have come into the district in recent years. Who brings them to Pittsburgh?

    There are two primary resettlement agencies here in Pittsburgh: Jewish Family and Children's Services and Catholic Charities. They assist families regardless of religion, national origin, or native language. If you need to contact a caseworker about an ESL student, please be aware they are very busy and may need some time to return your call. Their important work often requires them to be out of the office.

    Q: Where can I learn more about the students' cultural background?

    Please click on Cross-Cultural Information link in the left hand column. The page provides a wealth of information about life in a refugee camp and cultural specific mores, customs, etc.

    Q: How do you teach large groups of students English when they can't speak it?

    This is a complex question, but ESL teachers use a variety of gestures, pictures, and realia to put English into context for the students. In other words, tangible items and graphics help student to mentally transfer the concept from their native language into English. The ESL department and the teacher at your site would be happy to discuss this in more detail.

    Q: How long are students in ESL? For their whole school career?

    This is a question without a concrete answer. The goal of ESL is not to retain students in the program for the entirety of their school career. Our focus is to provide students with the social and academic English that they need to succeed in mainstream classes. Various researchers have suggested that the conversational English generally comes within two years, while the academic English may take five to seven years. For students with interrupted or no previous schooling, this may take ten plus years.

    Q: How do students exit ESL?

    The state of Pennsylvania requires a score of 5.0 on the ACCESS test, Tier C, grades of 2.0 (C's) or better, and scores of 'Basic' on the PSSA or grade appropriate standardized testing.