Published: August 4, 2004

English-Language Learners

Updated June 16, 2011

The United States experienced phenomenal growth in the number of English-language learners over the first decade of the 21st century, expanding the need in many public schools to provide special language instruction.

From the 1997-98 school year to the 2008-09 school year, the number of English-language learners enrolled in public schools increased from 3.5 million to 5.3 million, or by 51 percent (National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition, 2011). During the same period, the general population of students grew by 7.2 percent, to 49.5 million. These burgeoning numbers of English-language learners pose unique challenges for educators striving to ensure that such students get access to the core curriculum in schools and acquire academic knowledge, as well as English-language skills.

Achievement data suggest that English-language learners lag far behind their peers.

Nationwide, only 12 percent of students with limited English scored “at or above proficient” in mathematics in the 4th grade on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared with 42 percent of students not classified as English-language learners. The gap was considerably wider in 8th-grade math, where 5 percent of ELLs were proficient or above on the 2009 NAEP, compared with 35 percent of non-ELL students. The math assessment is available in Spanish as well as English, but the NAEP reading test was not as of 2011 (Slavin, Madden & Calderon, 2010).

On the NAEP reading test, the percentages of limited-English students who reached proficient was lower than for the math test in both 4th and 8th grades. Only 3 percent of ELLs met that standard in 8th grade reading in 2009, compared with 34 percent of non-ELLs.

Some advocates for English-language learners consider the implementation of the common-core academic standards, adopted by almost every state, as promising for raising achievement for English-language learners. But experts in the field and advocates of ELLs also have expressed concerns that not enough attention has been paid to including ELLs appropriately in implementation of the standards.

The U.S. Department of Education awarded $330 million to two consortia of states to create reading and math assessments for the common-core standards and pledged that, from the start, those assessments would be designed to include ELLs and ensure they were appropriately assessed. With a nod to English-language learners, the department awarded an additional grant of $9.95 million to one consortium to translate its common standards math test into Spanish and three other languages, along with American Sign Language. Groups of states led by California and Wisconsin also sought $10.7 million to create English-language-proficiency tests for the common standards that would measure ELLs’ annual progress in reading, writing, and speaking.

States also have to comply with provisions for English-language learners in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the most recent version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is the federal government’s flagship legislation for K-12 education. With enactment of that law, for the first time, school districts were required to break out and report the standardized-test scores of ELLs, as well as other specified subgroups of students. School districts are required by the law to meet targets set by their states for “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP, for English-language learners or face sanctions.

For measuring accountability, the law requires states to develop English-language-proficiency standards and implement English-language-proficiency tests. The English-proficiency standards had to be linked to state academic standards. Regulations for the law stipulate that ELLs must be tested in math beginning with the first round of state exams after the students enter a U.S. school, and in reading after they’ve been in a U.S. school for at least one year.

Different Methods

English immersion: Instruction is entirely in English. Teachers strive to deliver lessons in simplified English so that students learn English and academic subjects.

English as a second language: May be the same as immersion but also may include some support to individuals in their native tongue. Typically, classes are comprised of students who speak many different languages but are not fluent in English. They may attend classes for only a period a day, to work strictly on English skills, or attend for a full day and focus both on academics and English.

Transitional bilingual education: Instruction for some subjects is in the students’ native language but a certain amount of each day is spent on developing English skills. Classes are made up of students who share the same native language.

Two-way bilingual or dual-language education: Instruction is given in two languages to students, usually in the same classroom, who may be dominant in one language or the other, with the goal of the students’ becoming proficient in both languages. Teachers usually team teach, with each one responsible to teach in only one of the languages. This approach is also sometimes called dual-immersion or dual-language.

But many educators and researchers have contended that state content assessments have not been valid and reliable for English-language learners. As it has turned out, not many states have met the law’s AYP goals for ELLs. During the 2007-08 school year, only 11 states met their accountability goals for ELLs, according to an analysis of federal data by the Washington-based American Institutes for Research (Zehr, May 12, 2010). Researchers point out that, because states set their own goals for ELL achievement and have their own definitions for ELLs, it’s not possible to compare ELL performance among states.

An issue that continues to surface in discussions about how to improve achievement for ELLs is which education approach serves them best—bilingual education or English-only instruction. From 1998 to 2002, voters in three states—Arizona, California, and Massachusetts—approved ballot measures to curtail bilingual education in those states.

A review of research studies conducted by the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth concluded that bilingual education has an edge over English-only methods (August and Shanahan, 2006). But in the first random-assignment study to compare the effectiveness of bilingual education and English-immersion approaches with ELLs over a period as long as five years, researchers found that Spanish-speaking children learn to read English equally well regardless of whether they are taught primarily in English or in both English and their native language. That study was conducted by Johns Hopkins University researchers using the Success for All reading program, which is available in English or Spanish. It was underwritten by the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences (Slavin, Madden & Calderon, 2010).

President Barack Obama endorsed “transitional bilingual education” in the document spelling out a platform for his presidential campaign in 2008, but, as president, he hasn’t restated that endorsement publicly. Instead, he often speaks publicly about the value of bilingualism. A report on President Obama’s agenda for improving Hispanic education released in April 2011 included the following statement about the education of English-learners: “While there are certain practices that have been shown to benefit ELs, more research and evaluation are needed on the types of language-instruction programs that are most effective for English-learners” (White House, 2011).

The report features a dual-language program in Minnesota’s St. Paul Public Schools as a model for ELLs, but otherwise doesn’t mention bilingual education.

Two of the Johns Hopkins researchers who led the study that concluded bilingual education and English-only methods work equally well to teach English literacy, contend in the journal The Future of Children, published in spring 2011, that “the quality of instruction is what matters most in educating English-learners.” Some comprehensive models that change how a whole school addresses the needs of ELLs have been effective. In their article, the Johns Hopkins researchers write that individual components of effective models include integration of language, literacy, and academic content instruction, cooperative learning, professional development, parent and family support teams, and monitoring implementation and outcomes (Calderon, Slavin & Madden, 2011).

One model that involves change across a whole school is Quality Teaching for English Learners, or QTEL, which emphasizes professional development for secondary school mainstream teachers, as well as ELL specialists, to learn how to engage English-language learners. Aida Walqui, the director of the teacher-professional-development program for WestEd, and other researchers at the San Francisco-based research-and-development nonprofit developed the program. An evaluation in 2009 of the first two years of the program in a high school in the Austin (Texas) Independent School District concluded it was “moderately effective.” Districts in New York City and San Diego have also implemented it (Austin Independent School District, 2009; Zehr, Nov. 10, 2010).

Other than ramping up professional development to improve the education of English-language learners, some school districts have focused on improving the quality of instruction through response to intervention, an approach that focuses on screening students to identify academic weaknesses and implementing a series of gradually intensifying, focused interventions to address those gaps. The Chula Vista Elementary School District, in San Diego, is considered a model in making response to intervention work for ELLs (Zehr, Jan. 22, 2010).

The Obama administration has been aggressive in opening compliance reviews by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education of how school districts serve English-language learners. Those agencies settled with Boston Public Schools in October 2010 on an agreement for that school system to improve the education of such students. At the direction of the two federal departments, Boston Public Schools retested 7,000 students on their English skills. The 44-page settlement also said that all of Boston’s 135 schools would provide services to English-language learners, even if the schools don’t have large numbers of such students, which was previously not the case (Zehr, Oct. 1, 2010).

The Education and Justice departments also made a determination in 2010 that Arizona’s home-language survey, a tool used by most states to determine what languages students speak at home, did not fully capture the pool of students who should be assessed on English skills to see if they needed special services. Arizona changed its survey to comply with the agencies’ decision (Zehr, Sept. 15, 2010).

In addition, the Education and Justice departments found fault with Arizona for reclassifying ELLs as fluent in English even if they don’t pass all sections of the state’s English-language-proficiency test. As of June 2011, the Arizona Department of Education and the Education and Justice departments were still negotiating how to resolve the matter.

Sources
Austin Independent School District, “Office of Redesign: Quality Teaching for English Learners (QTEL) 2008-09,” November 2009.
Brookings Institution and Princeton University, The Future of Children, Spring 2011.
Calderon, M., Slavin, R., and Sanchez, M. “Effective Instruction for English Learners,” The Future of Children, Spring 2011.
The National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition, "The Growing Numbers of English Learner Students, 1998/99-2008/09," February 2011.
Zehr, M.A., “Bilingual Ed., Immersion Found to Work Equally Well,” Education Week, April 9, 2010.
Zehr, M.A., “Few States Meet NCLB Goals for English-Learners,” Education Week, May 12, 2010.
Zehr, M.A., “RTI Said to Pay Off in Gains for English-Learners,” Education Week, Jan. 22, 2010.
Zehr, M.A., “Ariz. ELL Programs to Violate Civil-Rights Law,” Education Week, Sept. 15, 2010.
Zehr, M.A., “Boston Settles With Federal Officials in ELL Probe,” Education Week, Oct. 1, 2010.
Zehr, M.A., “Texas District Targets Teachers for ELL Training,” Education Week, Nov. 10, 2010.

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