Study Shows Teenage ELLs Need to Practice English Informally

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 22, 2008 1 min read
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The amount of time adolescent English-language learners speak English in informal situations, such as at work or in the school cafeteria, has more of an impact on how well they learn English than how much they practice the language in the classroom or at home, according to a study published in the December edition of the American Educational Research Journal. The study, “Explaining English Language Proficiency Among Adolescent Immigrant Students,” looked at a sample of 274 immigrant students, ages 14 to 19, who had been in the United States for 6.9 years on average. They were attending schools in the Boston and San Francisco areas.

After nearly seven years in the United States, almost all students said they spoke nearly exclusively their first language at home. But the results were different for how students used languages in non-family and non-classroom settings, such as at work, with friends, in the cafeteria, and in their neighborhoods. The researchers found that 44.5 percent of students reported using English most of the time in informal settings, while 30.3 percent reported using English about half of the time. The researchers found that those students who had more opportunity to use English in informal settings had a higher English-language proficiency, as measured by a test.

The researchers provide educators with the following advice:

These results point to the importance of identifying the peer, school, and community resources newcomer students may be able to utilize in advancing their academic English skills and facilitating engagement with the content of school. Teacher training should emphasize the role of social context factors in individual language learning outcomes.

The study is a spin-off from the long-term research project that resulted in a book, Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society, authored by Carola Suarez-Orozco, Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco, and Irina Todorova, and published this year by Harvard University Press. The researchers for the spin-off study are Avary Carhill and Carola Suarez-Orozco, both of New York University, and Mariela Paez, of Boston College.

The study is important because it focuses on secondary-level English-language learners, which is rare. Most studies about ELLs focus on elementary school students.

When I read the study, I recalled meeting two Korean teenagers, who were the only ELLs in their high school in Spencer, Iowa, and whom I interviewed in 2001. When I asked them what had helped them most to learn English, they said it was being on the school’s soccer team.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.