Trends in the Education of English-Language Learners

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 10, 2008 2 min read
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Over the weekend, I traveled to Memphis to give a speech about trends in the education of English-language learners. I spoke during a luncheon at the annual conference of the Tennessee Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

Here are the trends that I talked about:

--More immigrant families are moving to small-town or rural communities that haven’t received many immigrants for at least a century. (I noted that some school districts in those small towns and rural areas do a good job of quickly putting programs in place to serve English-language learners while others don’t.)
--The federal No Child Left Behind Act has brought increased testing for English-language learners. (I talked about how the federal law tightened up exemptions for ELLs from taking state tests. I also talked about how states were required by the law to create new English-language-proficiency tests for ELLs. See “States Clear Initial Hurdle on ELL Tests.”)
--"Academic English” has become a buzz word in the field. (Academic English is the language that students need to understand school subjects rather than the social English that they speak on the playground. I noted how a presenter at the Tennessee conference defined academic English as “the words students will see on a state test that really mess them up.”)
--Team teaching between English-as-a-second-language teachers and mainstream teachers is becoming more common. (I gave the example of how St. Paul schools in Minnesota have adopted team teaching in the elementary grades. See “Team-Teaching Helps Close Language Gap.”)
--School districts are increasingly trying to figure out how to better serve ELLs with disabilities. (I noted that Tennessee has done some work in this area. See “Special Education and ESL: Myths and Facts,” a document posted on the Tennessee Department of Education’s Web site.)
--More school districts and states are standardizing the definition of English proficiency for ELLs for placement and exiting programs based on students’ scores on the new generation of English-language proficiency tests. (Here, I gave the example of Waukegan, Ill. See “Test Scores and Exiting Programs in Waukegan, Ill.”)
--Some school districts have written policies clarifying the relationship between school officials and immigration authorities. (This was the one trend I spoke about concerning how immigration is handled in the United States, which sometimes involves English-language learners in a school setting. See “With Immigrants, Districts Balance Safety, Legalities.”).

I told the teachers of English-language learners in Tennessee that I respect the fact that they give special help to students, and thus provide a bridge to the curriculum for students with limited proficiency in English.

I’m particularly feeling respect for teachers of ELLs after visiting Amman, Jordan, to write about Iraqi refugee children in the schools there. I noticed that Jordanian teachers, in a school system that is already stretched, are not in a good position to give special help to Iraqi children who have missed several years of school and need to catch up.

My heart went out to those Iraqi children who have missed school and lag behind their peers. And I have a new appreciation for the laws in this country that require school districts to give special help to children with learning gaps.

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