The Future of ELL Education

Quality Counts 2009 writer Mary Ann Zehr invited a state legislator, an administrator of English-language programs for a large urban school district, and an expert on state policy for ELLs to discuss how school districts and states should meet the challenges of educating these students.
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January 15, 2009

The Future of ELL Education

  • Ellen Forte, president, edCount, LLC.
  • Maria Santos, executive director, Office of English Language Learners for New York City public schools.
  • Ana Sol Gutierrez, member of the Maryland House of Delegates, representing Montgomery County, Dist 18.

Mary Ann Zehr (Moderator):

Welcome to Education Week’s Live Chat, “The Future of ELL Education,” which follows the publication of Quality Counts 2009, Portrait of a Population: How English-Language Learners Are Putting Schools to the Test. We’d like to thank our sponsor of this chat, CDW-G.

Answering questions in the chat today are Ana Sol Gutierrez, a member of Maryland’s House of Delegates; Maria Santos, the executive director of the office of English-language learners for New York City’s public schools; and Ellen Forte, president of edCount, LLC, and a former consultant on ELLs for the Council of Chief State School Officers. They’ll be talking about some ways that school districts and states can work to improve the education for the nation’s 5.1 million students with limited proficiency in English.

I’m Mary Ann Zehr, an assistant editor for Education Week who specializes in writing about ELLs both for the newspaper and its blog, Learning the Language.

Thank you for submitting a lot of great questions on this topic. We’ll move on to them right now.

Question from Ben Ward, Editor, ESL Magazine:

Briefly, what are the fundamental challenges that face ELL program administrators and educators and how should these issues be addrssed?

Maria Santos:

ELL program administrators and educators must address the multiple academic and social challenges ELL face (e.g., varying levels of schooling and language proficiency, diverse family and work situations, immigrant status). However, their common challenge is that they must accelerate ELL language development while helping them acquire the content they need to meet state graduation requirements and grade level standards.

In order for educators to address this pressing need, they must engage these students as quickly and deeply as possible (given the challenge of language development and high standards) and for as long as possible (extending the traditional notion that English can be acquired in three years). As the number of ELLs grows in schools nationwide, more attention is being paid to effective ways of accelerating their learning, especially in literacy, so that they can succeed in language and content areas. Several well-documented organizational (appropriate placement and assessment, flexible program models, extended program, small class size, newcomer programs or academies, professional development, resources, collaborations and school guidance) and instructional (native language development and support, ESL through content, academic language development, literacy and vocabulary development, technology) elements have emerged in recent research on programs and practices that serve this population. These elements, when effectively incorporated into the instructional day, accelerate English and native language development as well as academic language and content learning.

Question from Paula Sereleas, AP Summit Hill Dist 161:

What is the best advice that you would give to a district with rapidly changing demographics and limited experience in the area of ELL?

Ellen Forte:

The number one advice I would give is to make a conscious decision that your top priority is to support high academic achievement for all of your students all of the time. Everything else flows from that decision. You can’t set policies that diminish options for any student or group of students or look a student in the eye and say, “not you” if you remember that high means high and all means all. If you look closely at communities where students have achieved beyond what might be “expected” given their demographics, you’ll find a huge array of strategies, but also a common vision for all students’ success.

Second, reach out. I don’t know if you’re an administrator or a classroom educator or a parent or all of the above, but wherever you stand in the community know that you and your district are not alone. Through many many organizations,such as (get ready to google) CAL, TESOL, NABE, AFT, NEA, NCELA, NCTE, etc., you can make connections to other districts facing challenges (and opportunities) similar to yours. Reading the research can help, but making connections with others can be extremely powerful.

Beyond that, learn about your student population and the resources available in your state, district, and community. Understand the nuances of your growing ELL population. Be ready to see the variations within that population and, like for all other students, recognize that one size won’t fit all. On balance, target your resources to (1) support all educators in becoming more adept at addressing ELLs’ needs and – not or – (2) ensure that you also have and maintain specific expertise in second language acquisition.

Question from Victoria Pilotti, ESL teacher, NYC:

With only three states requiring teachers to receive training in working for teachers, do you recommend a federal initiative for nationwide teacher training?

Ana Sol Gutierrez:

Yes, I believe a federal initiative could do much to highlight the enormous need for teacher training to better serve the growing population of ELL students throughout the U.S. A stronger federal bully pulpit could help identify best practices and establish quality standards and guidelines that State and local school district could use to strengthen current teacher training programs. My experience is that many districts don’t really know what works and what doesn’t when teaching ELLs and therefore continue provding the same ineffective services that get us the poor performance results reflected in Ed Week’s report on ELL achievement. Training must go beyond training on how to teach English to non-English speakers for ELL teachers. The Center for Applied Linguistics recommends that training be provided DISTRICT-wide and that training curriculum include a long list of topics such as knowledge of linguistics, language acquisition theory, language development strategies, cultural differences and similarities, among other key elements.

Question from Lee J. Dury, Data & Assessment Specialist, NLNS:

While one focus is certainly on the acquisition on English - and the ability to master academic language in our schools - what about the influence of different cultural perspectives from students’ native countries? In many countries students are not expected or encouraged to attend school through age 17 or 18, but when the family arrives in the USA, those expectations change. So, in addition to dealing with language-related issues, our teachers and administrators must also deal with myriad cultural issues (such as proximity/eye contact, perceptions of authority, safety, etc). Can you comment on effective programs and supports that transition students into our American/Western mores?

Ana Sol Gutierrez:

Appropriate cultural awareness and sensitive training should be a mandatory component of both teachers and administrators in school districts that have high numbers of ELL students. Educators must broaden their own knowledge of other cultures in order to better understand student diversity in terms of their students’ background, national history, ethnic customs, practices, and beliefs, together with linguistic abilities. Our schools need to demonstrate in practice that they value what an ELL student brings to the classroom and build upon a very broad spectrum of cultural dimensions to enrich every student’s learning experience. To achieve this, we need to develop and provide far better multicultural training to all teachers than what is provided today.

Question from Lisa Ross, Consultant, Education Policy:

No one opposes immigrants maintaining their home language and culture but people differ about whether ELL children should be taught by immersion or bilingually. However, with the number of foreign languages in our schools numbering dozens or more in many places, it is not feasible to find teachers that speak in each foreign language nor are there even enough Spanish-speaking teachers in the US, the most widely spoken foreign language. Nor do most other countries teach foreign speaking children bilingually. School budgets are also squeezed extra tight these days with increased NCLB and IDEA requirements as well as smaller budgets this year from a sluggish economy. In light of these facts, please explain the pros and cons of simply researching and working to refine effective methods of teaching solely through immersion so that all teachers can help all children, no matter what their home language, to learn English and succeed in school.

Ellen Forte:

I appreciate your concern about the linguistic skills and language instruction expertise of our teachers in general. We’re definitely not where we need to be there. However, I’ll have to disagree with some of the assumptions in your statement. First, plenty of people have trouble with the notion of immigrants maintaining their home language and culture. That’s why we have civil rights protections and case law to support education opportunities for students whose native language is not English. Second, if you’re interested in looking at what other countries do for language instruction, keep in mind that the US is rather unique in its unfortunate mono-lingual bias. Comparing approaches elsewhere to approaches here is not apples to apples.

Speaking of comparisons, it is incredibly difficult to evaluate instructional approaches and compare their relative effectiveness for language acquisition and academic achievement. I would point you to the work of excellent researchers such as Diane August, Kenji Hakuta, Claude Goldenberg, and others who do an great job of weighing the evidence about various forms of language instruction. You’ll find real-world explanations for why the research is far from cut and dry: specific definitions of “immersion” and other approaches vary significantly, as do their implementation across states, districts, schools, and classrooms. Outcomes are never black-and-white as effects can differ across students with different linguistic and academic backgrounds, grade levels, and education contexts. However, it does appear that dual-language immersion approaches, in which students learn academic content in both their native language and English with strong direct linguistic support, may result in higher academic achievement.

In the end, the right answer is the one that provides teachers with the greatest repertoire of skills and tools for serving the students in their classrooms. The wrong answer is to limit the positive range of what a teacher can access and use. Deciding a priori that if we can’t cover all the languages represented in a school then we won’t cover any but English seems pretty limiting to me.

Question from Laurel Dickey, Literacy Consultant, Hampshire Educational Collaborative:

Please comment on the relative merits of placing ELL students in sheltered programs where all of the students are English language learners, as opposed to placing these students in classrooms where they are integrated with native English speakers.

Maria Santos:

In New York City, we ask our administrators and educators to take a look at their ELL populations and design a language allocation plan for their schools that best serves the needs of their students. In other words, creating strong programs that serve ELLs requires taking into account the number of ELLs, language concentrations, specialized learning needs and, in NYC, the wishes of the parents. Using this information, schools can design bilingual programs that move from the native language to English gradually or ESL programs that include self-contained classes or content area classes with ESL and/or native language support. If the school has English proficient students interested in learning a new language and concentrations of ELLs in one language, a dual language program option may be the best fit. Rather than touting one model over another, we encourage thoughtful planning and staff collaborations to create high quality instructional programs that really meet the needs of ELLs, their families and their communities.

For more information on NYC’s language allocation policy guidelines, visit here.

Question from Susan Hersh, Ohio State University:

Are there differences in academic achievement of ELL students in suburban districts that are often just beginning ELL programs and urban districts that have had decades of experience?

Ana Sol Gutierrez:

I am not aware of any definitive research that differentiates achievement for ELLs along the lines you pose--suburban districts vs. urban district. My experience is that good, well-resourced school districts generally are able to provide better services to ELL students than those districts that are underfunded and underresourced. The collection of metrics that Ed Week has developed to rank states in their Quality Counts report, I believe, would be more aligned with where ELL students are experiencing better academic achievement. For example, a suburban district just outside Washington, DC, Montgomery County, (where I serve on the Board of Ed for eight years) has a higher number of ELL students than DC’s urban school district and has been able to provide better services to ELLs. It has overall stronger educational resources, i.e., teacher certification requirements, curriculum, instruction alignement, advanced programmatic options as well as on-going teacher training requirements and in-house programs.

Question from Gil Narro Garcia, IES/ED:

The report includes a critical sidebar about generational differences among ELL subgroups; yet, the body of the report does not explore this and actually spends most of its text describing ELLs who are immigrants. Please discuss what it means to teach 2nd and 3rd generation ELL’s who are dominant English speaking.

Maria Santos:

Second and third generation ELLs that are perceived as English dominant tend to exhibit high conversational English oral language proficiency, but typically demonstrate difficulty with cognitively demanding grade level tasks on assessments. They need significant supports and structures throughout the school day to develop academic language and vocabulary. Academic language is a register that is not only specific to each subject area but that is also shaped by the particular academic task at hand (Solomon & Rhodes (1995). Academic language includes: • recognizing that appropriate language production is associated with different contexts and for different purposes. • understanding of language functions and genres. • ability to read fluently and write coherently. • knowledge of the various rhetorical modes commonly used in the specific academic fields. Academic vocabulary is critical to understand the concepts of the content taught in schools. For instance, words that refer to thinking and communicating (like infer and deny) are common across subjects but hold different meanings depending on the subject (like element and morphology). Academic vocabulary also includes words that have meanings that are different from the discipline-specific meaning (like prove and factor) (Dr. Catherine Snow). Strategies for boosting academic language and vocabulary need to be included in lessons planned and implemented for ELLs in all subjects.

Question from Laurel Dickey, Literacy Consultant, Hampshire Educational Collaborative:

Please discuss whether or not it is appropriate and/or necessary to provide early literacy intervention support to early learners (kindergarten and 1st graders) who are ELL students at the earlier levels of oral English competencies. The case is often made that these children will learn adequately within the ELL program without additional intervention since it is primarily the learning of English that is negatively impacting their literacy learning.

Ana Sol Gutierrez:

Early language learning opportunities for ELL students will get my vote every time! We know that the younger a child is exposed to a second language, the easier it is for that child to develop not only linguistic but also cognitive abilities in more than one language. Dual language programs have clearly demonstrated the benefits of this approach. It is not enough for a child to be taught “words in English if these are without context, relevance, and outside of the students overall learning environment. Rather than minimal pull-out programs once or twice a week, we must provide enriched, aggressive language development opportunities to early learners.

Question from Elizabeth RobertsScaduto, K-12 ESL Director, Riverhead, NY:

What approaches and/or materials have demonstrated effectiveness for Students with Interrupted Formal Education?

Maria Santos:

Rather than providing remedial programs that focus on basic skills, effective programs for these students anchor reading and writing strategies in content areas. Teachers must use strategies to strengthen the components of reading (e.g., phonological development, fluency and comprehension) and writing (grammar, spelling, writing mechanics and composition), within and across content areas. Language instruction using content and theme-based instruction, especially as they relate to the experiences of ELLs, motivates students to be more engaged and draws on what they already know (Short and Fitzsimmons, 2007). Strategies for boosting academic language include engaging ELLs in relevant topics; integrating themes across classes so that language is reinforced; and providing small group learning to facilitate academic discussions. Students should have literacy-rich environments with appropriate texts (Spaulding et al., 2004). Also, successful programs focus on deep vocabulary development, teaching the meaning of words using a variety of methods (visuals, graphic organizers, demonstration), and providing effective word-learning strategies (word deconstruction, cognates, contextual clues, using reference materials).

Question from Marcia Niemann, LPAC Chairperson, W.H. Adamson High School:

There is a Texas lawsuit over the fact that Texas ESL is more successful in elementary than in secondary schools. Specifically, what do we need to do to improve our results with secondary newcomers and long term ESL in secondary? Is dual language our future in secondary as well as elementary?

Maria Santos:

An effective way to support adolescent ELLs is to offer both language development and support for content instruction in the native language. Native language arts development accelerates the literacy gains in both the native language and English, validates the prior knowledge students bring, and bolsters self esteem. Bilingual programs are preferred for high school ELLs as they provide the most native language support: Dual Language programs are especially effective for bilingual students who perform at grade level, as they are able to transfer skills easily between languages. However, if a full bilingual program is not offered, home language classes for native speakers can provide powerful language development gains in the target language and English. For instance, one NYC high school prepared Hispanic/Latino students for the English Regents by requiring them to take a series of Spanish Native Language Arts (beginning in ninth grade) courses toward Advanced Placement (AP) Spanish Language and Literature in addition to ESL/ELA requirements. This strategy was doubly beneficial for ELLs since they did better on the English Regents and gained AP credits for college (Menken, 2006).

Question from Linda Johanssen, teacher, 3rd Grade, Los Angeles:

Considering that ELLs are not new to the history of our country, and are probably not proportionally greater than in other times in our history - do you think it is wise, in the long run, to forfeit the wider curriculum to concentrate on reading? I am worried that we are commiting cultural suicide.

Ana Sol Gutierrez:

Even though ELLs are not new to the history of this country, I think we have not yet figured out how to teach the English language to them. We have tried simple cookie cutter approaches that do not recognize the complexity of second language acquisition nor the variability and diversity of needs of the ELL populations. As this population grows, we need to expand opportunities for those programs that do yield better results.

Question from Krystal Davis, Science Specialist, Hastings 9th Grade Center:

How can we counteract the negative effect that the immigration issue has had on our student’s morale? I have encountered an increasing number of students who just ‘tune out’ because they believe they have no future in this country, and therefore no reason to be in school except to keep the police off their backs. This apathy, in addition to thwarting each student’s achievement, leads to massive behavior problems as well, harming the entire classroom environment.

Ana Sol Gutierrez:

I am very hopeful that the new Obama Administration will fulfill its promises to remove current barriers impacting our immigrant youth by implementing real, comprehensive immigration reform and passing specific legislation to remove barriers. For example, the Dream Act will tell young immigrants that they can and should continue studying beyond high school and that a college education is within their grasp. It may be a double benefit-- a path to legalization as well as a path to a better life. Our best investments are those that open doors of opportunity and invest in youth to realize their full potential.

Question from Maria E. Cimino, ELL Contact, Round Lake Elementary, Mt. Dora, FL:

Is funding for ELL Teacher Assistants going to be provided (and/or increased)to assist ELL students with more small group skills and academic learning?

Children without English proficiency require intensive assistance in order to help them succeed. Cutting funds in this area will definitely cut the percentage of ELL student success with language proficiency. We are doing an injustice to the ELL population if we do not provide Teacher Assistant funds for this program. Ellen Forte:

I couldn’t agree with you more that we need to continue to provide funding for ELL teachers as well as Teacher Assistants (TA). My experience is that TAs make a significant difference in providing additional direct supports to ELL students and can supplement effective instruction and differentiation for ELLs. An added advantage is that TAs help to lower class size by doubling the ratio of instructors to students, therefore meeting individual student needs more effectively. However, ELL staffing allocations are the responsibility of local school districts (superintendents and Boards of Education) which must work within state and local approved budgets. I imagine that in these difficult economic times, we will not see growth in this area, and must fight to protect education funding for ELLs at least at current levels.

Question from Jackie Hess, Director, Family Center on Technology & Disability:

Are you seeing any indication that technology is being used in any significant way to meet the needs of English-language learners?

Maria Santos:

Scaffolded instruction that integrates technology can provide effective opportunities for ELLs to enhance reading and writing skills. Typically, use of multimedia to support instruction raises student motivation and provides multiple access points to content. Effective programs that use technology often highlight electronic student portfolios, as they allow students to save and share their work, tracking their own progress over time. We have had success with technology programs that allow teachers to monitor student progress, especially with programs designed to address multiple reading levels and with multiple entry points (including native language supports).

Question from Margie Jorgensen, Assessment Consultant:

How would you like to see the accountability requirements for English Language Learners changed under the re-authorized NCLB?

Maria Santos:

The re-authorization of NCLB needs to consider the complexity of various learning needs within the English Language Learner population. One subpopulation that requires attention is that of students with interrupted or intermittent schooling (English learners or English dominant). In addition, NCLB should look toward gains or value added metrics for ELLs, as well as metrics that capture graduation rates beyond four years.

Question from Ellen Rintell, Professor, Salem State College:

Shouldn’t states be required to ensure that state achievement tests, and state teacher licensure exams, are unbiased and fair to ELL students and to teacher candidates who have learned English as an additional language?

Ellen Forte:

States are required to demonstrate that the tests they use yield meaningful scores – but that requirement comes primarily from the Standards for Psychological and Educational Testing (APA, AERA, NCME, 1999) rather than specific federal or state legislation. The criteria that the US Department of Education uses to determine whether states’ tests meet the federal requirements for quality are largely based on those standards. Based on these professional standards, every state conducts extensive reviews of test questions and test scores to identify sources of potential bias. I know of no state where a test question on the statewide achievement tests can contribute to a student’s score until dozens of people – including teachers in the state – have reviewed it to ensure that it (1) relates appropriately to the content and skill expectations that test is meant to reflect and (2) appears to be free of potentially biasing language or content. Teacher licensure tests are held to the same high standards in general, but my experience with the development process for any one of them is limited and suggest you look specifically into the tests your state uses. Remember, though: licensure tests are very high stakes for each person taking them so professional and legal expectations for the evidence in support of the meaning of their scores – including freedom from bias – is very high.

When it comes to including ELLs in statewide academic testing, all states provide some forms of accommodations to help support students’ access to the tests and some states also offer alternate assessments, such as native-language versions of the tests. The key question is whether the accommodation or the alternate assessment reduces the linguistic barriers that may inhibit a student’s ability to demonstrate what he or she knows and can do. The answers range from probably to probably not and will never reach either yes or no definitively. If you’re really asking whether it’s odd that we subject ELLs with very low levels of English proficiency, particularly in reading and writing, to tests written in English and then expect the scores to tell us much about their academic knowledge and skills, then I can say yes, absolutely. It’s odd. However, as we continue to work on better testing solutions for these students, I’d rather err on the side of including them lest we regress to the even odder practice of exclusion and segregation. Keep up the pressure for better instruction and assessment options! Question from Juan Jose Reyes, Managing Director, American Institutes for Learning, LLC (Honolulu):

The administration of President Elect Barack Obama is proposing a “Zero to Five” program. The emphasis will be early education, which is essential for children to be ready to enter kindergarten. Are there existing ELL programs for this age group?

Ellen Forte:

I applaud this anticipated focus on early childhood and am pleased to actually be able to provide you with two URLs relevant to programming for young ELLs. NCELA recently published a report on programs for young dual language learners ( and the National Institute for Literacy just this month released a report on early literacy that has significant implications for you ELLs.

Question from Deborah Gill-Dorgan, Speech-Language Pathologist, School District of Beloit, WI:

How do we avoid the over and/or under identification of ELL students as students requiring special education services?

Maria Santos:

We can avoid under or over identification of ELLs in Special Education though a variety of proactive strategies. First and foremost we must ensure the ELLs are receiving a standards aligned educational program by teachers that utilize rich, differentiated and effective teaching methods for working with ELLs. They must be provided with support in the native language, rich and engaging instruction, and explicit English language development. In addition, multiple and appropriate assessments need to be used regularly to monitor a student’s progress. If the student is struggling, additional supports through academic intervention services for ELLs and the establishment of an academic intervention team should be provided to the student. These services should supplement, not supplant, the core classroom instruction. If sufficient progress is not made through regular classroom instruction and academic interventions, then a student should be considered for a special education assessment using methods and instruments that are designed for culturally and linguistically diverse students.

Question from Denise Harlos, ELD Coordinator, Shakopee, MN:

Would you advocate that ed. policy and public schools should recognize the importance for students to use and maintain their first language even when the educational goal may be English development, in order for students to stay connected to their cultural heritage and bilingual capacity?

Ana Sol Gutierrez:

Yes I would. Dual language programs have been shown to have not only short term benefits for teaching English to non-native English speakers, but long term benefits for that students who continues learning at higher levels of achievement throughout their K-12 schooling. But what is more important is that maternal language is a primary element of a person’s identity. Knowing more about your own culture-- history, music, food, traditions, family background-- provides a solid basis for self-esteem and self-awarenes that is very important in understanding and adopting a new culture.

Question from Peggy Sorensen, Ohio Department of Education:

Many high performing countries internationally seem better able to deliver on bilingualism than we are. Where we may expect that a student “take” a foreign language in high school, they teach towards a goal of bilingual ability from the earliest grades. One of the things that I find striking is their frequent commitment to teaching children content in their “mother tongue,” while teaching a national language as a second language. We seem, rather to be committed to teaching English as a Second Language in order to be able to teach content in English only. Do you see any movement to change this in the US?

Ana Sol Gutierrez:

My father taught me that one of the signs of an educated individual was that she/he spoke more than one language. Most of the rest of the world values knowing and speaking other languages, while the United States, as you well state, consideres a second language as nice but optional. Thus I believe we do not place a value of the language that a student brings to the school but rather as a barrier. And what is more, the path to content learning is “block” by the requirement that the student FIRST learn English. We act as if the non-English speaking student has limited knowledge of everything simply because he or she does not speak fluent English. I do not anticipate significant changes in the near term-- even though the United States IS already a “bilingual” country when we count those who speak something other than English at home.

Question from Mr. Inquisitive, Policy Analyst for a Member of Congress:

Could you run through the terms, or language, that should (and should NOT) be used in describing ELL students? What about ESL - is that a “proper” term? Are there other terms? And - what is the technical definition of ELL, or does it vary by state/district? Thank You.

Ellen Forte:

You bring up an interesting little irony that the language we use to discuss language learning is itself lacking in clarity. There are indeed many acronyms in this conversation, and while I’m neither qualified to nor interested in serving as a language cop, I’ll share what I’ve learned from my far most astute educator colleagues. English Language Learners (ELLs) or English Learner (ELs) are individuals whose native language is not English and who are somewhere on the continuum of acquiring English proficiency. The ESEA/NCLB legislation does not refer to ELLs or ELs; it refers to Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students. Title IX of NCLB provides a definition and states have their own definitions of “LEP” students. They may also define Non-English Proficient (NEP) students (students whose English language proficiency is at the very low end of the continuum) and Fully English Proficient (FEP) students (students who have achieved a relatively high level of English proficiency, keeping in mind that we have to consider reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills separately), etc. I find that educators sometimes prefer the ELL or EL terms to the LEP terms because LEP suggests a deficiency and that’s not how we should think about any student. ESL stands for English as a Second Language and refers to an approach to instruction, not a student.

Question from Ben Ward, Editor, ESL Magazine:

Is Arne Duncan capable of implementing policies that will help to meet the challenges of educating ELLs?

Ellen Forte:

I think it would be difficult for anyone in the Obama administration to make a case against serving this increasingly large and politically vocal component of our student population. I have worked closely with the current administration on these issues and can assure you that Secretary Duncan will find growing momentum for improving the quality of programs and services for ELLs both outside and inside the US Department of Education. I look forward to great progress in the years to come.

Question from Ana Ardon, Researcher, National Latino Research Center at Cal State San Marcos:

In San Diego County, California, many ELL students are falling through the cracks. For some school districts in our region, the dropout rate is very high reaching almost 50% and many of these students do not meet the college prep requirements to be prepared academically or professionally, either. We are currently working on changing policy, by implementing A-G requirements as the default curriculum in all San Diego County schools. Our goal is NOT to send all kids to college, but to make sure that all kids are prepared for postsecondary training, whether that’s in an apprenticeship program, a community college program, or a university. How are some of the ways the federal and state education departments will support a policy change such as this one?

Ana Sol Gutierrez:

What is happening in San Diego is not unique--it is quite representative of what is happening to ELLs throughout the US. The recent Quality Counts issued of Ed Week simply documents this sad fact with real numbers for every state for the FIRST TIME. One significant benefit of NCLB is that it has forced school to INCLUDE Ells when it reports academic achievement. Even if the reported numbers may not be completely accurate and games may continue to be played, it has been an important breakthrough to begin to hold school accountable for ELL students. I believe that by continuing to point to the inequity in access to a quality education for ELLs many more of our policy makers will be forced to address ELL student needs-- if for no better reason than to avoid failure in reporting AYP!! We all need to realize that is in our own long-term, self-interest to improve educational outcomes for ELLs because the students of today will make up the majority of our future workforce.

Question from Felicia (school psychology trainee 3rd year) SDSU:

I have been working with ELL students over the past three years and most of my work has focused on prevention and early intervention. I would like to learn more about how I can help students at the middle and high school level? Many times I have encountered middle & high school students who do not have cognitive academic language skills. However their teachers assume their students are fluent and do not provide their students with the needed support. How can we educate teachers and support ELL students at the middle and high school level?

Maria Santos:

In New York City, we emphasize accelerating academic language development through strong professional development for teachers, but students must be adequately assessed and placed to best address their needs. As needs grow more diverse among adolescent learners, all qualified secondary school teachers must know the basic principles of second language literacy instruction, understand second language acquisition and cross-cultural contexts, and provide ELLs content through academic language. This requires an administrative commitment to provide deep and sustained opportunities for professional development in the schools. Administrators should meet with ELL staff regularly to analyze and strengthen their instructional strategies, such as scaffolding, use of appropriate materials, and connections to student experiences. Strategies for boosting academic language include engaging ELLs in relevant topics; integrating themes across classes so that language is reinforced; and providing small group learning to facilitate academic discussions. Also, students should have literacy-rich environments with appropriate texts (Spaulding et al., 2004). In NYC, educators can increase their effectiveness in academic language instruction by learning and using strategies from the Quality Teaching for English Learners (QTEL) professional development series.

Schools that effectively serve ELLs establish multiple measures for examining student gains and instructional improvements among teachers and the school community. Regular quality review cycles (every six weeks), where data is gathered and analyzed to track the development of students and teachers over time, allow appropriate program refinement.

Question from Caryl Lyons, Test Development Associate, ACT, Inc.:

How should Obama and his administration modify NCLB to better serve ELL students? What should be kept and what should be eliminated?

Ana Sol Gutierrez:

I would keep the accountability requirements that have significantly improved data gathering and reporting for ELLs as a separate subgroup. However, NCLB must do a better job at recognizing differences among ELLs based on their age, previous educational levels, prior language knowledge and training, family socio-economic factors, etc., for setting more realistic English language learning deadlines for meeting AYP. While there are clear rules and legal mandates for meeting the needs of disable students, ELLs have no “educational protections”. NCLB should do a much better job at identifying best practices, establishing standards and guidelines, developing better assessments, etc. to ensure more consistent delivery of high quality programs to ELLs throughout our national public school systems.

Question from Ramon Espinal, teacher, Rosa Parks School, San Diego:

For most monolingual Americans it is counterintuitive to teach a child in his/her native language rather than in English from the get-going. To me it is about access to the content knowledge while they learn English. Do not the children do better in English later on when they are instructed in their native language for the first 3-5 years of their schooling?

Maria Santos:

It seems intuitive to provide non-English speaking students with as much English language instruction as possible to build the essential literacy skills necessary to perform all other academic functions. However, in recent studies, researchers from both the National Literacy Panel and the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence agree that developing literacy in the native language boosts reading achievement in the second language. This research adds to a larger body of work that shows strong native language arts (NLA) development (the linguistic goal of Transitional Bilingual Education [TBE] programs) accelerates literacy gains in both the native language and English, validates students’ prior knowledge, and bolsters self esteem.

Question from Elizabeth Judd, Education Program Specialist US DoEd:

During the last eight years states have been reluctant to report ELL results and now the climate is about to change which may result in states providing content assessments that use more simplified English (based on the incoming secretary’s point of view)for ELLs so how will states ensure that ELLs get a quality education enabling them to achieve higher education if this change becomes institutionalized?

Ellen Forte:

Under the federal peer review standards for assessment quality under NCLB, states have to demonstrate that scores from the general assessments and scores from alternate assessments, such as those that use “simplified English” or other approaches, are comparable. If a simplified English assessment actually tests a lower level of content or cognitive skills, which I am not saying is necessarily the case, then it would be pretty difficult to demonstrate comparability. Perhaps like saying that stepping over a 1ft high wall is the same as jumping over a 3ft high wall. While we definitely need better tools for measuring what our ELLs know and can do, I generally oppose options that lower the bar. Policy makers must consider the long-term consequences of allowing exclusions and lower standards for some students.

Question from Mike Cherry Glenview District 34 Board of Education Member (IL):

English Lanaguage Learning seems to take educating the whole ELL village (ELL family members) in order to reach the individual ELL child. What is the best way to teach the whole ELL village?

Ana Sol Gutierrez:

We need to have programs that provide access to English language learning to the WHOLE village. Unfortunately, funding of adult ELL programs is very limited. Waiting lists far outnumber the list of participants for the few opportunities available to non-English speakers.

Mary Ann Zehr (Moderator):

Thanks to participants for the wide array of questions for this chat and thanks also to the experts on English-language learners, Ana Sol Gutierrez, Maria Santos, and Ellen Forte, for providing thoughtful answers. We’d also like to thank our sponsor, CDW-G. A transcript of this chat will be available on Education Week‘s Web site soon.

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