Introductory Challenge

This is a very short challenge, but it is huge one. The questions are difficult because the scenario is exceptional. But it’s drawn from an actual case.


Imagine this scenario. Seventeen year old Blong Keng arrived in the U.S. after a miserable year in a refugee camp. He grew up in a very rural area on the Laos-Vietnam border, and has seldom attended school. He was an orphan, and he fled his home community in fear of his life. He’s never been to school, but now he’s in your ELL classroom. He is lucky to be here and very lucky to be alive.

Difficult Questions

If you are not working in a class or workshop, where your instructor may form small groups to consider these questions, arrange a meeting (perhaps over lunch) with an ELL teacher to think about these questions and some of the issues they raise.

  • What do you think your instructional team needs to find out about Blong?
  • What organizations beside the school might be involved in helping Blong?
  • How might the instructional team make plans for Blong?
  • What do you think that the plans should include?
  • How might you be expected to help Blong learn English?
  • What language do you think Blong speaks?
  • How might the language Blong speaks influence the plans your instructional team makes for his education?

Debriefing: Students with Interrupted Formal Language (SIFEs)

Blong is almost an adult, yet he has a huge amount to learn as quickly as possible. Students like Blong are sometimes referred to as “students with interrupted formal education” (SIFEs). But Blong is an extreme case even among SIFEs—he has almost no formal schooling. And yet he is the age of the typical American high-school junior.

Students like Blong are often burdened not only with severe educational challenges, but also with substantial emotional and economic challenges. In a sense, the needs of SIFEs are like those of all ELLs, but more extreme. Thinking about SIFEs, therefore, can help us think about ELLs more generally.