Learning a New Language Takes Time and Support

It is important to recognize that learning a new language takes time and that indeed, as did previous generations of newcomers, many immigrant children struggle with acquiring Academic English. Among pre-kindergarten to 5th-grade immigrant children in the U.S., 62% of foreign-born children were found to speak English less than “very well” while 43% of the U.S.–born children of immigrants and 12% of the children of U.S.–born parents were categorized as such. It has been well established that the complexity of oral and written Academic English skills generally requires between five and seven years of optimal academic instruction for a student to develop academic second-language skills that are comparable to those of native English speakers.

Research in second-language acquisition suggests that when students are well-grounded in their native language and have developed reading and writing skills in that language, they are able to efficiently apply that knowledge to the new language when provided with appropriate instructional supports. We will later explore ways to incorporate these practices in the section titled “Tailored Second-Language Program Delivery.” Many immigrant students do not enter schools with this advantage, however. Further, EL students often cannot receive support for learning English from their parents. These students also have limited opportunities for sustained interactions with highly proficient native English-speaking peers in informal situations–contact that is strongly predictive of academic second-language proficiency outcomes.

Don’t Make Assumptions

It would be a mistake to make assumptions about a student’s academic potential and their intelligence based on their English proficiency. In fact, many ELs complain that they do not feel sufficiently challenged academically because of the work they are given based on their Academic English proficiency. Less developed Academic English proficiency, however, can mask the actual knowledge and skills of immigrant Second Language Learners (SLLs), which they are unable to express and demonstrate. Even when SLLs are able to participate and compete in mainstream classrooms, they often read more slowly than do native speakers, may not understand double-entendres, and simply have not been exposed to the same words and cultural information as native-born middle-class peers. Their academic language skills may also not allow them to be easily engaged with academic content and to perform well on “objective” assessments designed for native English speakers. Thus, it is not surprising that limited English proficiency is often associated with poor performance on standardized tests, lower GPAs, repeating grades, and low graduation rates.

Further, the strong emphasis on high-stakes assessments in the U.S.—first with No Child Left Behind and now with the Common Core—presents a particular challenge for ELs. There is considerable debate about whether and how educational assessments, and high-stakes assessments in particular, may lead to unequal outcomes for English learners. Standardized tests used to screen for learning differences or for making policy decisions were largely designed for and normed with middle-class populations or were adapted from work with those populations.

Such tests assume exposure to mainstream cultural knowledge and fail to recognize culture-of-origin content knowledge. This perspective can lead to underestimation of students’ abilities and competencies. In a climate of high-stakes educational assessment, school districts are sometimes pressured to prematurely reclassify students from ELs to fluent English proficient. In other cases, immigrant students suffer as “long-term ELLs”. With poorly implemented school assessments and an assortment of language-learning policies, there is wide variability among districts and states regarding this classification. Seldom is reclassification tied to the research evidence on what it takes for a student to attain a level of academic-language proficiency required to be competitive on standardized assessments. As higher stakes have become attached to standardized tests, this issue has heightened consequences for ELs and the schools that serve them. Many ELs complain that they do not feel sufficiently challenged academically because of the work they are given based on their Academic English proficiency.

“Many ELs complain that they do not feel sufficiently challenged academically because of the work they are given based on their Academic English proficiency.”

What are promising pedagogical practices for English Learners?

Systematically Addressing Second-Language and Literacy Acquisition

Research on second-language acquisition indicates that emerging bilingual students are most successful when placed in progressive and systematic programs of instruction that first identify their incoming literacy and academic skills, and that provide continued transitional academic supports—like tutoring, homework help, and writing assistance—as they are integrated into the learning environment. Furthermore, consistency of language instruction is essential for students as frequent transitions between classes and schools can place them at a considerable disadvantage. In addition to developing communicative proficiency in the new language, emerging bilingual students need to simultaneously build content literacies across the academic disciplines, an endeavor that can be a challenge for students to accomplish and an instructional challenge for teachers as well.

Tailored Second-Language Program Delivery

Successful programs tailor their second-language learning programs to the language backgrounds of their student populations. However, depending upon the concentration of language learners served, ESL or a variety of bilingual education strategies may be more appropriate. When many different languages are represented, an ESL approach will be the most feasible one. Optimally, ESL should be integrated throughout the curriculum with first-language literacy supported by having ample reading materials available in a students’ first language; curriculum should encourage the use of students’ first language to foster literacy in both languages while supporting content instruction. Once they completed the program, they transitioned into one of the core programs.

When large concentrations of students shared the same first language, well-implemented bilingual approaches have been shown to be highly effective. These can range from transitional bilingual methods, in which the focus was primarily on building literacy skills first in Spanish, for example, and then incrementally in English; to offering bilingual literacy courses and bilingual coursework in the content areas; to dual-language programs that, for example, matched native English with native Spanish (or Mandarin, for example) teachers to team-teach students content and literacy in both languages.

Learning Language Accommodations

Research has shown that immigrant students are highly motivated to learn the language of their new land, though they find the process daunting. They will often pass through a silent phase and will learn more quickly if they can draw on their skills from their native language. Native-speaking peers who are a little further along in their English language development can often serve as effective language brokers for learning. This arrangement is helpful both for the students who act as language brokers (as it builds their confidence and skills) and for the newcomer students (as they are not lost and can participate, keep learning, and stay engaged). This is an important strategy for educators to recognize and implement.

Teachers should provide supports for students to use their first language to help them learn their second language, even if the teachers do not speak the students’ first language. For example, during a writing activity, students can write a first draft in their first language, and then translate their writing into English. Informally, teachers should encourage students to translate for their newest immigrant students and to freely use bilingual dictionaries and translation software, while systematically encouraging them to use their new language.

Embedding Language Learning Across Subjects

Research has shown that it is essential to provide consistent schoolwide literacy strategies across all content areas. Teachers should receive extensive training in language-intensive curriculum to embed language learning across the curriculum. Team-teaching is particularly effective in order for teachers to establish shared strategies and protocols, and then to collectively reflect upon the effectiveness of the implementation of their literacy lessons. Reading comprehension strategies can be built on oral literacy and can be employed across subjects. For example, when determining the meaning of a math problem, students can be asked to plan a solution strategy that they can communicate orally. The technique of communicating and justifying solutions to partners serves to simultaneously promote higher order thinking and literacy and can be implemented across subjects.

Background Readings
Park, M., Zong, J., & Batalova, J. (2018). Growing superdiversity among young dual language learners and its implications. Washington, DC:
Migration Policy Institute. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/growing-superdiversity-among-young-us-dual-language-learners-andits-implications
Olsen, L (2014). Meeting the unique needs of Long-Term English Language Learners. Washington, D.C.: National Educational Association.
Orellana, M. F., & García, O. (2014). Language brokering and translanguaging in school. Language Arts, 91(5), 386