Journal Issue: Immigrant Children Volume 21 Number 1 Spring 2011
A Fast-Growing Population
Mid-decade data reveal rapid growth in the U.S. English learner population.6 During the 2007–08 school year, English learners represented 10.6 percent of the K–12 public school enrollment, or more than 5.3 million students.7 In fact, English learners are the fastest-growing segment of the student population, with their growth highest in grades seven through twelve.8 Figures 1 and 2 show the dramatic increases in English learner populations, particularly in states that are not accustomed to serving their instructional needs. These students have lower academic performance and lower graduation rates than native white students and have affected the nation's overall educational attainment.9
About 79 percent of English learners in the United States speak Spanish as their native language; much lower shares speak Chinese, Vietnamese, Hmong, and Korean. About 80 percent of second-generation immigrant children, who by definition are native-born U.S. citizens, are what schools call long-term English learners. These students,who have been in U.S. schools since kindergarten, are still classified as limited English proficient when they reach middle or high school—suggesting strongly that preschool and elementary programs are not adequately addressing the needs of English learners.10
Alongside the long-term English learners, whose language and literacy gaps must be addressed if they are to graduate from high school, exist other categories of English learners with very different needs. One group is in special education. A second group was inappropriately reclassified as general education students after passing their district's language test. As the National Literacy Panel has found, assessments used to gauge language-minority students' language proficiency and to make placement and reclassification decisions are inadequate in most respects.11 And students who are not proficient in four essential domains—listening, speaking, reading, and writing—but are no longer classified as LEP continue to struggle with reading and academic coursework. Migrant English learners, another group of English learners, are mainly U.S.-born but lack proficiency in English because their education is interrupted as their parents follow the crops from state to state. Transnational English learners return to their native countries for a year or a portion of the year and attend school in those countries. Some students classified as English learners move repeatedly within the same city, often returning to the same school during the school year, as their parents struggle to meet rent payments.
The remaining 20–30 percent of English learners are recent immigrants, but they too are a heterogeneous population. Some are highly schooled and know more geometry, geography, and science than mainstream twelfth graders and primarily need to learn the academic English language vocabulary, not core concepts. Other newcomers, called students with interrupted formal education because their schooling was interrupted for two years or more before coming to the United States, have both literacy and subject matter gaps. Refugee children who have never attended school are yet another group of English learners whose academic needs go well beyond language learning, particularly if they enter U.S. schools in the upper grades.12
In spite of their striking diversity, English learners in secondary schools have typically been lumped into the same English as a Second Language (ESL) classroom, with one teacher addressing the needs of students with dramatically varied English proficiency, reading, and writing skills. In elementary schools, a common practice is to pull out English learners across grades K–5 for thirty minutes of ESL instruction. For the remainder of the day these English learners attend regular classes in a sink-or-swim instructional situation, usually with teachers who are unprepared to teach them.13
Researchers consistently find wide and persistent achievement disparities between English learners and English-proficient students—gaps that we believe signal a need for increased teacher and staff preparation, whole-school commitment to the English learner population, and home-school linkages and collaborations,14 so that schools can more effectively address these students' language, literacy, and core content needs. Such institutional preparedness is critical to addressing the achievement gaps seen across various age groups and academic content areas—gaps that start early and persist even among second- and third-generation children of some immigrant groups.15 By disaggregating data and following English learner student achievement by cohorts, researchers can pinpoint more precisely the gaps in academic outcomes between English learners and other student groups.16 Closing the achievement gaps means, in part, closing similar gaps in teacher preparation programs and ongoing professional development. Today most English learners spend their time in regular classrooms with teachers who feel that they are ill-prepared to meet their needs.
There is considerable controversy among policy makers, researchers, and educators about how best to ensure the language, reading, and academic success of English learners. Among the many aspects of instruction important to guarantee that success, for years one has dominated all others: What is the appropriate role of the native language in instructing English language learners?17 Since the 1960s, most U.S. schools with large populations of Spanish-speaking English learners have implemented various types of programs to instruct English learners in Spanish and in English. Some schools teach in Chinese and English or other native languages and English. Schools that serve students from many language backgrounds have implemented ESL programs, which teach only in English.
Recent federal policies have had the effect of restricting the time that can be spent teaching children in their native language. Federal accountability policies and diminishing funds make it impractical for local education agencies and schools to support native language instruction. Although federal policy has neither endorsed nor opposed instruction in the primary language, in recent years policy changes have discouraged bilingual education. Among researchers, the debate between advocates of bilingual and English-only reading instruction has been fierce, and ideology has often trumped evidence on both sides of the debate.18
Based on the findings from recent studies, as described in this article, what matters most in educating English learners is the quality of instruction. In our discussion of effective instruction, we highlight comprehensive reform models, as well as individual components of these models. Certain salient features or elements of quality instruction for English learners have been found to be effective from preschool to twelfth grades in either dual-language programs or carefully structured English programs. We discuss the following eight elements: school structures and leadership; language and literacy instruction; integration of language, literacy, and content instruction in secondary schools; cooperative learning; professional development; parent and family support teams; tutoring; and monitoring implementation and outcomes.