Are Home-Language Surveys an Example of Group Think?

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 17, 2010 2 min read
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Two researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, who point out all the problems with the use of home-language surveys across the country as a first step for identifying English-language learners caused me to wonder if the use of home-language surveys is a product of “group think.” My understanding of group think is that people go along with an idea that others have implemented or suggested without thinking carefully through for themselves whether that idea is the best approach.

I write in an article just published at, “Report Advises Rethinking Home-Language Surveys,” about a review of state policies on home-language surveys by Alison L. Bailey, a professor of education for UCLA, and Kimberly R. Kelly, a doctoral student in education at the university. They spell out how home-language surveys can both underidentify and overidentify students who need support to learn English. Their research was paid for by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to a partnership of five states and five organizations called Evaluating the Validity of English Language Proficiency Assessments, or EVEA (Washington state officially got the grant). It was released in the form of a “white paper” yesterday.

The researchers’ review is the most comprehensive look at state policies on this issue that I’ve seen in 11 years of reporting on ELLs. I think the ability to see the questions on home-language surveys from a number of states, available through the UCLA researchers’ “white paper,” will help state education officials to be more reflective of whether the questions they have on their own home-language surveys are valid.

The federal government requires schools to have some kind of process for identifying ELLs, but it does not specifically mandate that home-language surveys be used. It seems logical, though, that the use of some sort of survey of students’ language background makes sense. Yet the UCLA researchers say that states don’t seem to have much documentation for how or why questions on their home-language surveys were created.

Bailey and Kelly suggest that researchers should study whether it might be best to replace the use of a home-language survey with a quick language screener for all students, not just those who are believed to come from households where a language other than English is spoken.

Jamal Abedi, an education professor for the University of California, Davis, who I spoke with by phone yesterday, told me that at the least, schools should give the home-language survey to all families, not just to those who are perceived to speak a language other than English at home. He said that he’s more concerned about the problem of underidentification of ELLs by home-language surveys, not overidentification, saying that overidentification can be corrected with further testing of a student’s English skills. But students who are underidentified may never get the special help they need to learn English, he said.

Readers, what’s the practice in your school, district, or state? Is the home-language survey typically given to all students or just a subset of students?

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