Educating English Learners


In this chapter, I discuss some of the major policies and pedagogical issues related to educating ELs, the fastest growing segment of the American school population. One in five school-age children (ages five to 17) in the U.S. (11.2 million) speaks a language other than English at home (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2011). About half of this group, or 5.3 million school-age children, are ELs, students who are not fully proficient in English (U.S. Department of Education, National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs, 2011).

ELs (also referred to as “English Language Learners,”or“ELLs”) are among the students placed most at risk for academic failure—on practically every educational measure, ELs perform at lower levels than almost any other category of students (Gandara & Hopkins, 2010b). In California, for example, with a third of the nation’s ELs, the overwhelming majority of schools in Program Improvement status for failing to meet NCLB benchmarks are schools with high proportions of English learners (Gandara & Hopkins, 2010b: 17; more on this legislation later in this chapter). Since an increasingly larger portion of the nation’s report card depends on the academic performance of ELs, educators and policy-makers are paying more attention to improving the education of this group.

One of the most intensely debated issues surrounding the education of language minority students has been the question of what language should be used for instruction. School districts with large numbers of Spanish-speaking ELs have provided various forms of bilingual education in Spanish and English to a subset of this population. A small percentage of these programs are geared toward helping students maintain the use of Spanish while they learn English

(i.e., “developmental bilingual education programs”), whereas most other models offer instruction in Spanish for a limited amount of time, and drop it as soon as students are deemed sufficiently proficient in English to be mainstreamed into English-only instruction (i.e., “transitional bilingual education programs”).

Regardless of the amount of Spanish used in these programs however, bilingual education has often been wrongly blamed for the poor academic performance of Hispanic students (see also, Chapter 1, Myth #5). Some groups opposing bilingual education for immigrant children have argued that teaching in Spanish prevents students from learning the English they need to succeed in school. They argue that if children come to school lacking proficiency in English, they need maximum exposure to English in school in order to learn it (i.e., the “maximum exposure hypothesis”). This hypothesis has led to the claim that immersion in English is the most effective means to ensuring the learning of English and improving academic performance.

But simply teaching in two languages does not automatically lead to academic failure. Many non-language factors including the student’s socioeconomic status and prior education as well as overall school climate influence the academic performance of ELs. In fact, ELs are over-represented in schools in urban areas with high concentrations of minority and poor students (Fry, 2008). In these schools, many students struggle academically regardless of whether they are ELs or English speakers. In addition, many ELs are educated in schools in which they make up either a majority or substantial minority of the student population and therefore have limited opportunities to interact with native speakers of English, who can serve as good language models (Valdes, 2001).

Many ELs struggle with reading, writing, and oral language in English, which interferes with their academic work in all subjects. One of the biggest challenges facing ELs is going beyond the intermediate level of English to develop advanced language skills. While many immigrant students make fairly rapid progress from beginning to intermediate levels of proficiency in English, few progress beyond the intermediate level to achieve the high levels of English literacy that are required to meet grade-level standards in content areas (August & Shanahan, 2006; Bielenberg & Wong Fillmore, 2004/2005).

Many ELs are fluent in the conversational English needed for everyday interaction, but have considerable difficulty in navigating the dense, de- contextualized language of academic English (Scarcella, 2002; Short & Fitzsimmons, 2007). A consensus is emerging in the field of EL education, that ELs should be explicitly taught the features of academic English (Saunders & Goldenberg, 2010; Spada & Lightbown, 2008). In this chapter, I will show how academic English is structurally different from everyday spoken English and what teachers can do to draw students’ attention to linguistic form within a meaning-driven study of content area texts.

This chapter is organized as follows. I will first show some statistics on the growing numbers of ELs in the U.S. I will discuss geographic distribution of ELs across the U.S. and their language backgrounds. I will then provide a brief history of the policies that have guided the instruction of language minority children in the U.S. I will discuss how English, itself an immigrant language, has come to dominate the American linguistic landscape, and major policies and legal precedents that have guided immigrant education. I will describe how federal support for language minority students has evolved over the years and what impact the NCLB has had on EL education.

I will also discuss some state-level educational policies that have restricted the use of languages other than English in the classroom. We now have data on the educational outcomes for ELs since the passage of Proposition 227 in California (1998), Proposition 203 in Arizona (2000), and Question 2 in Massachusetts (2002), anti-bilingual education legislation which has significantly curtailed the use of languages other than English in EL education in these states. Despite what has been widely claimed to be the panacea for the poor academic performance of ELs, English-only instruction has not closed the achievement gap between ELs and non-ELs in these states (Rumberger & Tran, 2010). After at least five years since the passage of these laws, ELs in all three states maintain the same relative (and very low) position academically compared to their English-speaking peers and in some cases are doing worse (Mahoney, MacSwan, Haladyna, & Garda, 2010; Uriarte, Tung, Lavan, & Diez, 2010; Wentworth, Pellegrin, Thompson, & Hakuta, 2010).

I will then provide a synthesis of the available research on academic language, and show how ELs could benefit from an instruction on language structure. There is currently a renewed interest in focus on form, an approach to second language teaching that explicitly draws learners’ attention to the structure of language within a meaning-driven content-based lesson (Doughty & Williams, 1998; Ellis, 2002). This approach is contrasted with communicative language teaching, whose primary goal is to promote meaningful social interaction in the second language. In communicative language teaching, the acquisition of language forms and rules are seen to be an implicit process, not requiring overt instruction. Focus on form, on the other hand, involves occasionally shifting students’ attention to linguistic features triggered by perceived problems with comprehension or production during an otherwise meaning-based lesson (Long & Robinson, 1998). It is important to understand that focus on form is not a proposal to revert back to a structural syllabus (e.g., the grammar translation or audiolingual methods). I will show what focus on form looks like in a content classroom and why it is important to train content teachers to address language issues in their classrooms. Finally, I will discuss policy implications for improving the education of ELs.

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