Federal Opinion

Improving Achievement for English-Learners

By Claude Goldenberg — July 25, 2006 10 min read
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—Peter Lui


The education of language- minority children has long been controversial and politically charged. Its challenges will grow in proportion to the numbers. Five million public school students—nearly one in nine—are limited in their English proficiency, an increase of 150 percent over the last decade. In some sections of the country, the increase has been staggering: In Southeastern states, the population of English-language learners grew by more than 400 percent between 1993-94 and 2003-04. By 2025, some estimates claim, one in four public K-12 students will come from a home where a language other than English is spoken. Many will be limited in their English proficiency when they begin school; some will remain less than completely fluent for years.

In part because many English-learners never fully master their new language, they fare poorly in school when compared with children who are English-speakers. English-language learners consistently perform worse on tests of academic achievement—not just English proficiency—and score lower on critical state and national exams. This discrepancy bodes ill for the society as a whole, since the costs of large-scale underachievement among large sectors of the populace are very high. The growing number of and the lack of adequate progress among English-learners—even many who were born in the United States or have lived here for years—should concern us all.

Two major, government-funded reviews of the research on English-language learners have recently been completed, one by the 13-member National Literacy Panel (“Education Department Won’t Put Its Stamp on English-Learners Report,” Aug. 31, 2005), the other by researchers from the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence, or CREDE. Three of the main conclusions from these reports can help forge a foundation for large-scale improvement in the education of these students.

1. Instruction in the primary language aids achievement. Academic instruction in the students’ home language should be part of the educational program of English-language learners, if at all possible. The National Literacy Panel conducted a meta-analysis of experimental studies and concluded—as had four previous meta-analyses—that teaching reading skills in the first language is more effective in terms of second-language achievement than immersing children in English. No other educational practice with which I am familiar can claim support from five separate meta-analyses conducted by researchers across the ideological spectrum.

The effects of instruction in the primary language are modest but real. The average “effect size” is around 0.40 (estimates range from about 0.20 to about 0.60). This means that primary-language instruction can boost student achievement in the second language by about 12 to 15 percentile points. To provide some perspective, the separate, congressionally mandated National Reading Panel estimated that the average effect size of phonics instruction is 0.44, only somewhat larger than the most likely average effect size of primary-language instruction. Let’s be clear: Primary-language instruction is no panacea, just as phonics instruction is no panacea. But, in general, it makes a meaningful contribution to cognitive and academic growth.

Beyond this, however, there is little we can say with confidence about the role of the primary language in English-language learners’ education. Is more instruction in the primary language, and for more years, more beneficial than less? (The CREDE report concluded yes; the NLP report concluded that we do not know.) Is primary-language instruction more beneficial for some learners than for others? In an English-only situation, what is the most effective way to use the primary language to support children’s learning in the second language? We cannot say.

The NLP review found that Spanish and English reading can be taught simultaneously (at different times in the school day), with mutual benefit to literacy development in both languages. “Transfer” is the likely explanation for this finding, and for the more general finding that primary-language instruction promotes achievement in a second language. Most people find this contrary to common sense: How can instruction in one language lead to better achievement in another? But this is why we do research. If we relied solely on common sense, we would still think the earth is flat.

In point of fact, evidence suggests that literacy and other skills and knowledge transfer across languages: If you learn something in one language (which is easiest to do in the language you know best)—phonological or comprehension skills, for example, or a concept like democracy—you either know it or can more easily learn it in a second language. There is also the added benefit that primary-language instruction helps maintain the first language (which studies have resoundingly demonstrated is an outcome of bilingual education). Being biliterate and bicultural confers clear advantages intellectually and economically.

2. Good instruction for English-language learners is similar to good instruction for other, English-speaking students. Primary-language instruction is often not feasible for any of several reasons. But educators still have some important principles and findings on which to base practice. The best evidence we have suggests that English-language learners learn much the same way as their non-English-learning peers, and that good instruction for students in general tends to be good instruction for English-language learners in particular. Even when taught in English, a language they are simultaneously learning to speak and to understand, English-language learners do well with instruction that is similar in important respects to what is effective instruction for non-English-learners.

Policies that block use of the primary language and limit instructional accommodations for English-learners are simply not based on the best scientific evidence available.

Just as their English-speaking peers do, ELL students benefit from clear goals and objectives, well-designed instructional routines, active engagement and participation, informative feedback, opportunities to practice and apply new learning and transfer it to new situations, periodic review and practice, opportunities to interact with other students, and frequent assessments, with reteaching as needed. Existing studies suggest that what is known about effective instruction in general ought to be the foundation of effective teaching for English-learners. But accommodations are needed when instructing these students in English.

With regard to learning to read, English-learners benefit from instruction in discriminating and manipulating the sounds of the language (phonemic awareness), decoding words (phonics), and instruction designed to enhance vocabulary, reading fluency, and comprehension—all of which are components of effective literacy instruction for English-speakers, as the National Reading Panel reported in 2000. Writing instruction also makes a contribution to English-language learners’ literacy development.

Progress in the development of literacy seems to be similar among English-learning and English-speaking students. Phonological skills, including phonological awareness and decoding, are foundational. With good, structured, explicit teaching, English-language learners can make progress comparable to that of other students in the early stages of learning to read. Their language limitations begin to slow their progress as vocabulary and content knowledge become increasingly important, around the 3rd grade. It is thus critical that, from the very beginning, teachers work to develop these students’ English-language skills, particularly vocabulary. Vocabulary development is important for all students, but particularly for English-language learners. What constitutes effective vocabulary instruction for ELLs is not well understood; but there can be little doubt that explicit attention to vocabulary development—everyday words as well as more specialized academic words—should be part of English-learners’ school programs.

3. English-language learners require instructional accommodations. While general principles of effective instruction should be the basis for instructing English-learners, these students do need certain accommodations. An important finding from the National Literacy Panel was that the impact of instructional interventions is weaker for English-learners than it is for English-speakers, suggesting that additional supports, or accommodations, are needed in order for ELLs to derive as much benefit from effective instructional practices. These additional supports or accommodations, which have not yet been adequately validated by research, might include the following:

• Strategic use of the primary language;

• Predictable, clear, and consistent instructions, expectations, and routines;

• Extended explanations and additional opportunities for practice;

• Redundant information, such as visual cues and physical gestures;

• Focusing on the similarities/ differences between English and the native language;

• Building upon students’ knowledge and skills in their native languages;

• Identifying and clarifying difficult words and passages;

• Consolidating text knowledge through summarization;

• Providing extra practice in reading words, sentences, and stories;

• Targeting vocabulary and checking comprehension frequently; and

• Paraphrasing students’ remarks and encouraging expansion.

Providing English-language-development instruction and opportunities to extend oral English skills is critical for ELL students. This places an increased burden on students and teachers alike, since every lesson should target both content and English-language development. It is essential for students to make rapid progress in their oral English skills if they are to enter the educational mainstream and derive maximum benefit from classroom instruction delivered in English. Unfortunately—and surprisingly—the CREDE report reveals that research to date can tell us very little about how to accelerate progress in oral English-language development among ELL students, or which English-language-development approach is most effective.

What is known about effective instruction in general ought to be the foundation of effective teaching for English-learners.

Accommodations must also be made because of ELL students’ different experiential bases. The National Literacy Panel found that when students read texts with more-familiar material, their comprehension improved. (Readers’ proficiency in the language of the text, however, influenced comprehension much more than readers’ familiarity with passage content did.) Given the formidable language challenges English-language learners face, teachers should be especially aware of how they can help these students experience additional success by regularly providing reading matter with some degree of familiarity.

Many educators have also suggested that effective instruction for ELL students must be tailored to the cultures of the students, that is, incorporate the behavioral and interactional patterns rooted in students’ cultures. Although some studies have indicated that culturally accommodated instruction can promote engagement and higher-level participation during lessons, the NLP found no research demonstrating that culturally compatible instruction enhances the achievement of English-language learners.

What do these findings, collectively, mean for the education of this growing segment of the school population? In numerous areas, there is insufficient research on which to base policy and practice. We can, nonetheless, lay claim to some things that matter. Chief among these are that (1) primary-language instruction enhances English-language learners’ academic achievement; (2) in many important respects, English-learners learn in the same way as non-English-learners; and (3) certain accommodations must be made when ELL students are instructed in English, and these accommodations probably must be in place for several years, until students reach sufficient familiarity with academic English to permit them to be successful in mainstream instruction.

Local or state policies, such as those in California, that block use of the primary language and limit instructional accommodations for English-learners are simply not based on the best scientific evidence available. As a profession and as a society, we have useful starting points for a renewed national, state, and local effort to improve the achievement of this fastest-growing segment of the school-age population. We must insist that practice and policy be based on the best evidence we have, rather than on politics or predilections.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 26, 2006 edition of Education Week as Improving Achievement for English-Learners


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