Sheila Villanueva held a book open to the fourth-graders -- all native Spanish speakers -- crowded around a low table Wednesday morning in her small room at Evansville Elementary.

"What word do you see in 'earth'?" Villanueva asked, pointing to the text. "Do you see 'ear'?"

Her students nodded.

"But do we say, 'ear'-th?" she said.

Danny Henriquez-Vasquez laughed.

"No!" he said.

"Good. Silly English, right?" Villanueva said, turning a page in the book. 

The number of English language learners in the Natrona County School District has grown by more than 30 percent over the past five years, from 262 non-native English speakers in 2009 to 358 last year.

No new tutors or teachers have been hired amid the influx, though the number of students needing extra English help has increased.

Statewide, the number of non-native-English-speaking students has grown 16 percent, from 3,190 students in 2009 to 3,700 students in 2013, according to state data.

Local school leaders are evaluating whether a student-to-teacher ratio should be enacted for groups of students learning English as their second language, said Dean Braughton, director of student support services for the Natrona County School District.

That will help determine whether the district should hire more ESL tutors, he said.

Other student groups, including special needs students, have student-to-teacher ratios that require fewer children per teacher than a mainstream classroom.

Like special needs students, English language learners require varying degrees of extra help in school, said Kim Jones, the district's ESL coordinator.

Some come to school from families that speak little to no English, Jones said. Others are in families where one parent is bilingual and the other does not speak English. Still others are from families whose English skills have improved over the years they have been in the U.S.

"The goal is to get them to become English-proficient," Jones said.

That includes speaking, listening to, reading and writing the English language. 

"We're also working to make sure they maintain grade-level content," she said.

The district trains mainstream teachers how to accommodate non-native English speakers in their classrooms. Use pictures, Jones tells them. Speak more slowly than you normally would, and try interactive lessons. Let the students practice using language with their peers.

"The strategies that we (use) for language learners are good for all students," Jones said. "But the difference is that they're really necessary for language learners." 

At Evansville Elementary, one of three "hub" elementary schools for English language learners in the district, most of the non-native-English speakers know Spanish as their first language, said Mike Britt, the school's principal.

"We don't look at them as our 'EL' population," Britt said. "We still look at them as individual students, just like we would any other kids."

Students learning English can attend any school in the open-enrollment district, but hub schools provide ESL-certified tutors like Villanueva.

For 30 years, Villanueva taught Spanish to junior high and high school students. When she started as an ESL tutor at Evansville Elementary five years ago, she worked with about 16 students.

Today, she works regularly with 30 students and monitors seven more who have tested out of intensive tutoring but may still need occasional help.

Why the increase?

"I think the jobs are here," she said. "That would be my biggest guess."

Some of her students' families are from El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Honduras and Mexico. Others are born in the U.S. to Spanish-speaking families.

Vocabulary is the biggest difference between teaching English to native speakers and nonnative speakers, she said.

"They haven't heard the words before, a lot of them," Villanueva said. "They don't know all the words, so they don't know the sounds."

Later Wednesday morning, before sending a group of kindergarten girls back to their home classroom, Villanueva asked the girls to think of words that began with the letter "m."

She asked them what hangs in the sky at night.

"The sun!" Lizeth Rodriguez said.

"The moon," Yajahira Ortiz said.

"I almost said 'moose,'" Allison Hernandez said.

"Here's another 'm' word," Villanueva said. "Can you be as quiet as a mouse walking back to class?"

She ushered the girls out the door, one by one.

The girls would be back in Villanueva's small room the next day, practicing sounds and tracing letters, until the English symbols and sounds eventually link into words.

Reach education reporter Leah Todd at 307-266-0592 or leah.todd@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter @leahktodd.

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