English-Language Learners

Editor's Note: This report was published in 2004. An updated version from 2011 is available.

With more immigrants having arrived in the United States during the 1990s than any other prior decade, the number of public school students in need of additional language instruction has shot up dramatically in recent years (Bureau of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 2001).

A survey of state education agencies found that, in 2000-01, more than 4 million students with limited proficiency in English were enrolled in public schools across the nation, making up almost 10 percent of the total pre-K through 12th grade public school enrollment. According to that same report, the population of students who are English-language-learners has grown 105 percent, while the general school population has grown only 12 percent since the 1990-91 school year. States reported more than 460 languages spoken by students with limited proficiency in English (Kindler, 2002). These burgeoning numbers pose unique challenges for educators striving to ensure that language-minority students achieve to high levels.

Achievement data suggest that English-language learners lag far behind their peers. Nationwide, only seven percent of limited-English students scored "at or above proficient" in reading on the 2003 fourth grade National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared to about 30 percent of students overall. Results in fouth grade math, as well as eighth grade reading and math, were similar.

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 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.

In addition, provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 related to students with limited English proficiency have inspired close scrutiny of the education of those students. The law requires states to develop English-language-proficiency standards and implement English-language-proficiency tests. Those standards must be linked to state academic standards to ensure that student improvement in English-language proficiency also results in a better understanding of academic content (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, 2003). The law also stipulates that English-language learners be tested in math beginning with the first round of state exams after the students enter school, and in reading beginning that year or the following one. Students may take those tests in their native languages for the first three years they are in U.S. schools, although some students may receive waivers for up to two more years. States, districts, and schools must report the test data separately for English-language learners and show that the subgroup meets “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP, targets. Since districts and states are accountable for ensuring that English-language learners meet such proficiency goals, it’s important to determine the best ways of educating students with limited proficiency in English.

There are two main methods of educating limited-English-proficiency students: English immersion, which provides instruction in English, and bilingual education, which teaches language-minority students subjects in both English and their native tounges. The original objectives of bilingual education were to ensure that students would not fall behind academically because of a poor command of English and to gradually teach them the language. If language-minority students were taught some subjects in their native languages, proponents insisted, they potentially could learn English without sacrificing content knowledge (Gandara, 1999).

But bilingual education's critics argue that the approach keeps students in a cycle of native-language dependency that ultimately inhibits significant progress in English-language acquisition. In addition, critics of bilingual education contend that "time on task" in English is essential to English-language learning (Rossell & Baker, 1996a). Proponents counter that if students first learn to read in the language they are fluent in and then transfer the skills over to English—their second language—they will develop stronger literacy skills in the long term (August & Hakuta, 1997). In addition, they argue that in an increasingly global society, far from discouraging native-language retention, schools should work to help students maintain their native tongues, even as they also teach them English (Gandara, 1999; Fillmore, 1991). People on both sides of the debate point out that there is a shortage of teachers who are qualified to teach using the primary language of many students (Gandara, 1999).

In fact, a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education shows that the number of teachers who instructed at least one English-language learner in grades K-12 more than tripled between 1992 and 2002. But, teachers who worked with three or more of those students reported a median of only four hours of training related to limited-English-proficiency instruction over the previous five years (Zehler et al., 2003). The report also found that the percentage of English-language learners who received services entirely in English increased substantially between 1992 and 2002. However, instructional programs for English-language learners were reported to be less aligned with state standards than were programs for their English-proficient peers.

Comparisons of the effectiveness of English-immersion and bilingual education have been controversial and inconclusive. In 1996, a review of literature on the effectiveness of bilingual education concluded that the method is not the most beneficial to English-language learners (Rossell & Baker, 1996b). Subsequent studies refuted the conclusions and claimed that bilingual education is the best method of teaching language-minority students (Greene, 1997; Cummins, 1998). A more recent review of programs for English-language learners found that bilingual education ahas a particularly positive effect when students are taught to read both in their native languages and in English at different times in a single day (Slavin and Cheung, 2003).

Immigrants themselves appear to be divided on the issue. An opinion poll of immigrants conducted by Public Agenda in 2003 asked whether all public school classes should be taught in English, or whether children of immigrants should be able to take some classes in their native languages. Sixty-three percent of immigrants thought that all classes should be conducted in English, while 32 percent of immigrants thought that some courses should be taught in their native languages. But, the poll also found that some immigrant groups are more supportive of incorporating instruction in native languages than others.

Complicating the debate is the range of programs that, by some people’s definition, fall under the umbrella of bilingual education. Some use bilingual education to refer only to transitional bilingual education or two-way bilingual programs while others consider any program designed for students with limited proficiency in English to be “bilingual.” For instance, they may refer to English-as-a-second-language programs, where students are typically taught solely in English, as bilingual education.

Public sentiment against transitional bilingual education has been growing. In 1998, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 227, an initiative that largely eliminated bilingual education in the state’s public schools. Under the California initiative, most English-language learners in that state were placed in English-immersion programs.

Arizona voters followed suit by passing Proposition 203, a proposal similar to the California initiative, in 2000. In both states, the proportion of English-language learners in bilingual education classes decreased from about one-third to 11 percent after the initiatives became law.

In 2002, Massachusetts voters approved the ballot initiative in their state doing away with the oldest bilingual education law in the nation.

Studies that have attempted to assess the impact of Proposition 227 in California determined that the law was interpreted and implemented quite differently across districts and schools (Rossell, 2002; Gandara et al., 2000). The districts’ initial confusion over the intricacies of the law, combined with their varying strengths of commitment to one method of teaching English over others, has made it difficult to gauge the influence of Proposition 227 on the achievement of language-minority students.

Districts and states have also used innovative methods beyond in-class instruction, such as creating translation centers to improve parent outreach and hiring teachers from other countries. Schools in Prince William County, Va., hired former English-as-a-second-language students as classroom aides (Education Week, July 2004). The Grand Rapids, Mich., school district formed an advisory committee of parents tasked with improving the involvement of parents of English-language learners (Education Week, September 2004). Additionally, districts in Colorado opened schools with flexible schedules for immigrants who work during the day (Education Week, October 2004).

August, D. & Hakuta, K. (Eds.), Improving Schooling for Language-Minority Children: A Research Agenda, pp.28, National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1997.
Education Week, "Former ESL Students Tapped as Class Aides,", July 2004.
Education Week, "Working Immigrants Get New School Options," September 2004.
Fillmore, L.W., “When Learning a Second Language Means Losing the First,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly, (6), pp. 232-346, 1991.
Gandara, P., “Review of Research on the Instruction of Limited English Proficient Students,” University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute, 1999.Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader
Gandara, P., et al., “The Initial Impact of Proposition 227 on the Instruction of English Learners,” University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute, 2000. Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader
Greene, J.P., “A Meta-Analysis of the Rossell and Baker Review of Bilingual Education Research,” Bilingual Research Journal, 21, pp. 2-3, 1997.
Rossell, C. & Baker, K., “The Educational Effectiveness of Bilingual Education,” Research in the Teaching of English, 30 (1), pp. 7-74, 1996b. Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader
Zehler, A.M., Fleischman, H.L., Hopstock, P.J., Stephenson, T.G., Pendzick, M.L. and Sapru, S. "Descriptive Study of Services to LEP Students and LEP Students With Disabilities. Volume I: Research Report." Submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, OELA (Arlington, VA: Development Associates Inc.), 2003.