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What’s the best way to master English?

Districts around the country are using a variety of methods to help English learners master the language.

A student writing on notebook paper.
Darryl Murphy

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

School districts around the country use many different methods and models for helping English learners (ELs) master the language.

Students are pulled out of classrooms where children whose first language is English also learn, and teachers are pushed into these classrooms. Early-exit programs transition English learners quickly to English-only instruction. Late-exit programs teach in a student’s home language for a longer period. In dual-language programs, students learn in two languages at once, and some programs are English-only.

Recently, there has been a heightened debate about which way is most effective.

Gabriela Uro, who directs English language learner policy and research for the consortium of big-city districts called the Council of the Great City Schools, said in a recent interview that “more and more districts are recognizing that they have to do something to improve achievement for ELLs.” The growing number of English learners is one reason, she said, and others include the fact that states are revamping educational programs and standards because of the Common Core standards and the adoption of the Every Student Succeeds Act to replace No Child Left Behind.

Still, she said, “districts continue to struggle to find the right combination of strategies, staffing, and any reform effort.”

Overall, the record of English learner education is dismal. On the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test, a nationwide measure of achievement, 71 percent of 8th-grade EL students scored below basic; only 21 percent of their non-EL counterparts tested at that level. In math, 69 percent of 8th-grade ELs scored below basic, compared to 26 percent of non-ELs. Many states and cities did worse, including some with large EL populations, such as California and New York City. Pennsylvania ELs scored below the national average in both subjects.

Even more distressing, while 8th graders’ EL math NAEP scores increased significantly over the decade or so after 1996, when results began to be broken out for English learners, they have showed little change in about the last 10 years. Reading scores for EL 8th graders have barely budged since 1998, when they started to be tallied.

Over the last 30-plus years, the overall student population increased by about 10 percent, but the number of children speaking a language other than English at home more than doubled.

In 2013-14, the latest year for which national figures are available, the United States had almost five million English learners, according to the National Center for Education Statistics – just over 10 percent of student enrollment. California had almost 23 percent ELs, while Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas had about 15 percent. Many districts in the top 25 nationwide for EL enrollment have more than 20 percent ELs.

Spanish is the home language of more than 76 percent of ELs; Arabic and Chinese speakers, the second and third most numerous groups, represented just over 2 percent each.

Finding methods that work

Much of the debate about EL education has focused on what teaching method works best. In recent years, the traditional pull-out model, where students go to an EL class for special help but spend much of their time with non-EL classmates, has come under fire. Push-in programs, where the EL instructor co-teaches in the regular classroom, have become more popular. By far the most attention is now focused on dual-language programs, where students receive instruction that alternates between English and another language. The classroom is often evenly split between students who speak English at home and students who speak another language at home. This satisfies concerns about not enough English speakers learning other languages, while improving instruction for ELs, advocates say.

In Portland, Oregon, the RAND Corp., a nonprofit institution that does research and analysis; the American Councils for International Education, which works to strengthen research and training in less commonly taught languages and the Portland School District conducted a four-year randomized study in a dozen schools. It compared achievement by students who were not in dual language programs to that of students who were, and the results were striking: English reading achievement in dual-language programs was about nine months better by 8th grade, and more EL students tested out of that classification by the 6th grade – many more, in fact, if the classroom language taught with English matched the language they spoke at home.

“The advantage is very clear,” said Jennifer Steele, a RAND researcher and a professor at American University. “It’s very exciting.”

Some districts have had trouble finding teachers who are good at dual-language instruction. Portland, Steele said, is working on training a home-grown crop of instructors.

Many other districts have greatly increased dual-language instruction over the last decade or so. New York City, the nation’s largest district, which has the second-largest EL enrollment, has gone from 90 dual-language schools in 2011 to more than 200 this school year. It pledges to keep expanding dual language, making it available to all EL students by the 2018-19 school year.

Dallas, where more than 35 percent of students are ELs, now offers dual-language courses in 51 of about 150 elementary schools, with five more to be added in 2017-18.

Utah started a dual-language program in 2008; by 2015-16, it had grown to 29,000 students in 163 schools. San Francisco also has a robust dual-language program, using parent-signed waivers to get around English-only state laws.

Expectations are important

Uro, of the Council of the Great City Schools, said that dual-language programs work well when properly executed. But she warned that it takes much more than a good model to make an effective EL program. What’s key, she said, is buy-in from everybody and participation in planning and decision-making by EL experts from the state level all the way to the classroom. “It’s about expectations,” she said. “That has to permeate everything you do … District leaders have to expect that the teachers will have the highest expectations of ELLs’ ability to learn; if teachers don’t think the kids are capable of learning, it’s very hard for them to shift how they approach instruction” to achieving better outcomes.

“Districts where they don’t feel satisfied with what they’ve done are districts that are doing better. They don’t settle [for what they have already achieved]. They use many pathways to get where they want to go, and they are always trying to improve. … ELL achievement is an onion we just keep unpeeling.”

Diane August, who directs the Center for English Language Learners at American Institutes for Research, said that regardless of what EL model is used, some well-documented teaching techniques have proven effective. They are “things like explicitly focusing on vocabulary, dedicating some time to writing, allowing kids to work in heterogeneous groups, and working in small groups for kids who are struggling.”

If ELL students have a good grasp of a topic in their home language, she said, they “just have to learn the [English vocabulary] associated with [that subject]. That is not a small endeavor, but these kids do not come to English with a blank slate.”

Instruction for students who start learning English when they are older often needs to be conducted in different ways than if they start in elementary school. Sometimes, immigrant students’ education in their homeland has been interrupted, so they lack a strong educational base in their first language as well.

Some districts have created newcomer programs to help recent arrivals make a smoother transition to a regular school or to allow them to complete high school in the newcomer school. The Seattle World School has both kinds of programs, and also offers school-based health and social services. The Internationals Network for Public Schools operates a dozen highly regarded schools in New York City, California, Virginia and Washington, D.C., for recent arrivals who score poorly on English language tests when entering high school.

Both the Seattle World School and the Internationals Network help students feel welcome by celebrating their cultures and creating an inclusive setting. And they feature content-rich lessons, combined with high expectations for student achievement.

That emphasis on a rigorous education with rich content is key, said Uro.

“In any program where content is the anchor, whether dual language or not, you will see large gains,” she said.

Dan Hardy is a freelance writer who covers education issues in the Philadelphia area.

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