Tuesday, August 23, 2011

English Language Learners: What the Research Tells Us

In the last 15 years, the number of students in U.S. schools who do not speak English has increased substantially from about 2 million to 5 million (Goldenberg, 2008). In 1990, 1 in 20 students in grades K-12 was an English language learner (ELL); currently 1 in 9 students are considered ELL with the number expected to be 1 in 4 in the next 20 years. ELL specifically refers to a student who either does not speak English at all or with enough limitations that he or she cannot fully participate in mainstream English instruction (Goldenberg, 2008). In terms of demographics, ELL students in the U.S. come from over 400 different language backgrounds; eighty-percent of these students are Spanish speakers while Asian language speakers (Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, etc.) comprise about eight percent of the ELL population (Goldenberg, 2008).

As was discussed in the above posted article, Lynn, MA has seen a substantial increase in the number of immigrants moving to the city. While this adds to the cultural diversity of Lynn, it does pose a problem in terms of education. The psychological, emotional and physical effects of poverty alone make it difficult enough to successfully educate children (see here); another layer of complexity is added when one considers the issues of how to educate a large population of students with limited English language proficiency who speak many different primary languages. On average, ELL students’ academic achievement tends to be low (Goldenberg, 2008). On the 2007 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), 4th grade ELL students scored 36 points below non-ELL students in reading and 25 points below non-ELL students in math; this gap was even larger on the 8th grade assessment as the gap between ELL and non-ELL students was 42 points in reading and 37 points in math (Goldenberg, 2008). In Lynn, nearly 53% of students speak English as a second language (ESL) while nearly 22% of Lynn students have limited English proficiency (LEP). The figures do vary by individual school such that some schools have higher numbers of ESL and LEP students than others. The Ford Elementary School, for example, is 63.3% ESL and 38.8% LEP while Lynn Woods Elementary is 14% ESL and 5.1% LEP. Still, educating ELLs is an important issue for the Lynn Public school system as half of the schools are 50% or more ESL with this number as high as 77% (Connery); the number of schools with 20% or more LEP students is 10 with the percentage as high as 47.3% (Cobbett). Moreover, LEP students were among the subgroups in Lynn that failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as defined by the No Child Left Behind legislation at all grade levels in 2010.

In Massachusetts, the law regarding ELL and LEP students refers to the following programs:

  • Sheltered English Immersion (SEI): MA law requires that all ELL students be educated in SEI programs. IN SEI classrooms, nearly all instructional materials and books are in English. This program is made up of two parts- 'sheltered content instruction' which uses specially adapted English to make academic instruction more understandable and 'language instruction' which helps ELL students develop speaking, writing, reading, and listening skills in English (PIRC). 
  • Two-Way Bilingual Education: Students who are learning English and native English speakers learn together in both languages. Instruction and books are in the student’s first and second languages (PIRC).
  • Transition Bilingual Education (TBE): Content instruction is given in the child's native language while he or she is learning English. Additionally, instruction in ESL is provided. As a student's proficiency increases, they transition from receiving instruction in their native language to receiving it in English (PIRC.
  • "Opt out" provision: Parents who wish for their child not to be in a program for English learners may "opt out" and their child will be placed in general education classes taught in English. Schools still must monitor the child's progress and provide academic assistance and assistance in ESL (PIRC).

But what does the research specifically say about ELL/LEP education?

Teaching Students to Read in their First Language Promotes Higher Levels of Reading Achievement in English

A meta-analysis of 17 studies concluded that teaching ELL students to read in their first language and then in their second language or teaching both simultaneously (at different times during the day) boosts their reading achievement in the second language. This was found to be true particularly when comparing students taught to read in both languages to students only taught to read in the second language (Goldenberg, 2008). Studies regarding this topic included students at levels (elementary, middle, and secondary school) as well as ELL students who were also designated as special education students (Goldenberg, 2008). Educational psychologists and cognitive scientists believe this finding is based on a concept called ‘transfer.’ Research suggests that literacy and other skills and knowledge transfer across languages; if a student learns something in one language, such as comprehension strategies, you either already know it in or transfer it to another language or can more easily learn it in another language (Goldenberg, 2008). Still, teachers cannot assume that transfer is automatic; ELL students are helped by instruction that points out what does and does not transfer from their home language to English (GoldenbergGoldenberg, 2008.) Unfortunately, instruction in the primary language is not always possible because often there is no qualified staff and/or because the students come from too many different language backgrounds. This is the case in Lynn which is beginning to see students who speak languages that few other people in the area speak or for which there is no written form. 

While research suggests that primary language reading instruction promotes reading achievement in English, there is still much that remains unanswered.  Questions that continue to be investigated and for which there is currently no clear guidelines include:
  • Is primary language instruction more beneficial for some learners than for others? Ex. weaker or stronger primary language skills? Weaker or stronger English skills?
  • Is primary language instruction more effective in some settings and with certain ELL populations than others?
  • What level of skill in the primary language does the teacher need to have in order to be effective?
  • In an English immersion program, what is the most effective way to use primary language to support student learning?
  • How long should ELL students receive instruction in their primary language?
  • Should English language development be taught as a separate subject at a distinct time or should it be integrated throughout the day?

Good Instruction and Curriculum in General is Important for ELL Students

Two separate national reports concluded that good instruction for students in general tends to be good instruction for ELL students in particular. All students benefit from clear learning goals and learning objectives, meaningful, challenging, and motivating contexts, periodic review and practice, feedback on correct and incorrect responses,  a curriculum rich with content, appropriately paced instruction and active engagement and participation among other things (Goldenberg, 2008). As is true with native English speakers, there are individual or group differences; some students might benefit from more or less structure, practice, review, or autonomy (Goldenberg, 2008). Other types of instruction that works with ELLs include cooperative learning (students working together on group tasks and learning goals), discussions to promote comprehension, and encouraging reading in English (Goldenberg, 2008). The CREDE report stated “The best recommendation to emerge from our review favors instruction that combines interactive and direct approaches" (Goldenberg, 2008). Interactive approaches refer to instruction with a give and take between teacher and student, where the teacher promotes higher levels of speaking, thinking and reading; examples include structured discussions, brainstorming and editing/discussing student or teacher writing (Goldenberg, 2008). Direct approaches emphasize the explicit and direct teaching of skills or knowledge; examples include letter-sound association, spelling patterns, or vocabulary words. There is mixed evidence regarding approaches where students are exposed to literacy materials but receive little direct teaching or structured learning (Goldenberg, 2008). An example would extended "free writing" opportunities as opposed to structured writing lessons. The CREDE report concluded that “Focused and explicit instruction in particular skills and sub-skills is called for if ELLs are to become efficient and effective readers an writers” (Goldenberg, 2008). 

Modify Instruction to Take Student’s Language Limitations into Account

In the early stages of learning to read (when the focus is on sounds, letters and word formation), English learners can make progress in English that is comparable to that of English speakers provided the instruction is clear and focused (Goldenberg, 2008). Furthermore, when language requirements are low, ELLs are more likely to make adequate progress although they still probably require some support due to language limitations (Goldenberg, 2008). ELL students’ language limitations begin to impede academic progress as vocabulary and content become more relevant for continued reading which usually occurs around the 3rd grade. Furthermore, as the students get older and academic content becomes more challenging as language demands increase, the need for instructional modifications to make the content more comprehensible will increase as well (Goldenberg, 2008). Thus, vocabulary development is particularly critical for ELLs. Also, in the beginning, teachers will have to speak slowly with clear vocabulary and diction and use pictures as well as other objects to illustrate the content being taught. As they gain proficiency, students should require fewer modifications (Goldenberg, 2008). Still, while conversational English can be learned in two to three years, proficiency in academic English can require six or seven years and in some case, much longer (Goldenberg, 2008). 

*All MCAs-related Data taken from: www.doe.mass.gov


  Goldenberg, C. (2008). Teaching English language learner: what the research does- and does not- say. American Educator, 8-44.

   Massachusetts Parent Information and Resource Center. Rights of English language learner.

1 comment: