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English language learners: Archived chat

Recent focus on academic achievement coupled with the persistent achievement gap between English language learners (ELL) and non-ELLs have caused researchers and educators to take a closer look at how to help ELLs master oral English and academic content as well. On November 1, 2007, the Center for Public Education hosted a live online chat on the topic. For more insight, see the Center's review of research  on ELLs, prepared by Edvantia, an education research and development not-for-profit corporation.


Patte Barth, Director, Center for Public Education, comments:

Welcome everyone! Let's chat about English Language Learners.

An association staff member from Washington, DC writes:

What percent of ELL students are Spanish speaking? What other languages are typically spoken by ELL students?

Center for Public Education answers:

About 4 out of 5 ELL students has Spanish as his or her first language. The rest speak any of 400 other languages at home. Vietnamese is a distant second at 2 percent of all ELL students.

A school board member from NY writes:

The research review says that instruction in the child's first language can be beneficial. Our school district enrolls ELL students speaking approximately 30 different languages. How can we provide first-language instruction for all of these children?

Center for Public Education answers:

You raise one of the great challenges for teaching ELL students. While the research is pretty persuasive about the benefit of some first language instruction, in language diverse districts like yours it can be really difficult to provide qualified teachers for each of the languages your students bring to the classroom. Your best resources might come from your community in the form of bilingual volunteers or aides who can help bridge the language gap. Some of the new technologies might also help.

A superintendent from TX writes:

Is it important for students to have bilingual teachers, even in subjects like math and science?

Research Team, Edvantia, answers:

Having a math teacher who is bilingual is less important than having one who is trained in ESL and knows how to help ELL students master the field's academic language and content. For example, words such as odd, root, and field have a special meaning in math. Teachers need to know that students need 12 to 14 exposures to these and other words commonly used in math (e.g., determine, whereas, factor). Sometimes we forget that learning math involves much more than numbers, or that science has a vocabulary of its own.

A parent from DC writes:

How long should it take for a non-English speaking kindergartner to learn English?

Research Team, Edvantia, answers:

Many factors influence the length of time an individual child takes to learn English. Usually ELLs begin to learn enough "social English" rather quickly to get by on the playground. One California study that tracked English language learners starting in kindergarten found that, on average, they took 3–5 years to develop oral proficiency. However, they took 4–7 years to develop proficiency in "academic English," the sort of language used in textbooks and classrooms.

We sometimes expect young children to learn a second language more quickly because of the often-repeated belief that "it's easier for children than it is for adults." But what linguistic studies actually show is that young children are more likely to develop more native-like pronunciation–not that they learn the language faster.

A school board member from VA writes:

What role do parents play in helping their ELL students succeed in school? Is it important for teachers to work with the parents of ELL kids?

Research Team, Edvantia, answers:

In 1997, the National Research Council found that family involvement is one component of effective schooling for ELL students. For ELL and non-ELL students alike, parents can help students succeed in school by letting their child know that they think school is important, ensuring regular attendance, and involving them in learning activities at home. Teachers can honor the home cultures of ELL students, make ELL parents feel welcome, and show them what to do at home to support their child's education. For teachers, the challenge is often finding ways to overcome communication and cultural barriers. To be effective, they may need professional development and other supports.

A parent from Milford, CT writes:

Isn't true that most ELL students are not only trying to learn the language but also learn our culture, since they are coming here from another country?

Research Team, Edvantia, answers:

That may be true of immigrant students, but more than half of the ELLs in U.S. schools were born in the United States. Family immigrant status is one of the many factors that influence a student's acquisition of English.

An educator from IL writes:

Does the time it takes to learn English vary by the child's country of origin? Do other factors have an effect?

Research Team, Edvantia, answers:

Large California studies have shown differences among students from various countries, but these differences were related to ethnic-group differences in family income and parent education. As is often the case, socioeconomic status matters. Another important student background factor is the amount of formal schooling the student has experienced in his or her first language.

An educator from Myrtle Beach, SC writes:

Which is a more effective practice, bilingual or English-only instruction?

Research Team, Edvantia, answers:

In their massive review of the literature, the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth concluded that the inclusion of some first-language instruction and support seems to have long-term benefits. Many small studies and meta-analyses of small studies have reached the same conclusion.

However, large-scale comparisons between bilingual education and English-only programs have not been possible because the way a school or district labels its program is not necessarily an accurate description of what happens in the classroom.

An educator from Columbus, OH writes:

Are state assessments, like the Ohio Achievement Tests, proper tools to measure English proficiency?

Research Team, Edvantia, answers:

According to NCLB, assessments of English language arts and/or reading cannot be used to measure students' English language proficiency, nor can assessments of English language proficiency be used to measure students' achievement in English language arts or reading.


An educator from Columbus, OH writes:

Why is it that oral proficiency often doesn't translate to academic proficiency?

Research Team, Edvantia, answers:

You have hit upon the difference between "social English," the kind you might use on the playground and in the supermarket, and "academic English," the kind of English used in classrooms and textbooks. Often, a student who seems to be a fairly fluent speaker in social settings may struggle in the classroom. Students can begin to pick up on social English very quickly.

On the other hand, some students who do not speak English very well may perform well academically. This is especially true of students with a strong academic background in their native country or students whose parents are well educated.

An educator from NC writes:

Are there misconceptions that can cloud policy around ELL students? Do people bring some of their preconceived ideas into the debate about how to best teach English to ELL students?

Research Team, Edvantia, answers:

Sometimes people have bought into myths about educating ELLs. For example, some people may fear that teaching a child in his or her native language may keep the child from learning English. As mentioned previously, some people may think that young children pick up the language quicker than adolescents or adults. This is not true. There is also the mistaken belief that because a student is reclassified as English proficient, he or she does not need additional ESL support services.

A school board member from LA writes:

Can testing accommodations provide better information about what ELLs really know and can do?

Research Team, Edvantia, answers:

Several studies have found linguistic modifications of test questions with excessive language demands to be effective. A recent meta-analysis from the Center on Instruction found that allowing students to use an English dictionary had the greatest effect, but the researchers noted that "for this accommodation to be successful in the testing situation, students must have experience with it during regular instruction." The research that has been conducted, however, has been on a fairly small scale, and more research is needed before we will really have good answers to questions about testing accommodations that can help ELLs succeed.

An educator from KS writes:

Do ELL students drop out more than others?

Patte Barth, Director, Center for Public Education, answers:

Several researchers have found this to be true, but it's hard to find real data. We know that Latino students drop out at higher rates, although not all Latino students are ELL. However, we also know that struggling students and students who are not engaged in school are more likely to drop out, so keeping kids feeling like they are part of the school culture and on track academically should help ELL kids, too.

An educator from MD writes:

Is it harder for high school students who come in not speaking English to become English proficient, than younger ELL students?

Research Team, Edvantia, answers:

Research has consistently shown that adolescents and adults learn academic English more quickly, presumably because they have more background knowledge and a more developed frame of reference. That said, we must remember that if an ELL student is in high school and not speaking English, that student could be an immigrant who must adjust to a new culture while trying to master advanced academic work. In fact, about half of all secondary ELL students are foreign-born, and the rest were born in the United States.

A parent from TN writes:

We're seeing a huge influx of students from other countries. I was wondering what other states, besides those on the border, are seeing more ELL students?

Patte Barth, Director, Center for Public Education, answers:

You're right that California and Texas have by far the largest number of ELL students. In California, about one in five students is ELL. But nearly every state is seeing growth in ELL populations, including Tennessee. New York, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey are seeing big growth. These states account for two-thirds of all immigrants, and 69 percent of all elementary school children, according to the 2000 Census.

A school board member from MN writes:

Is there an achievement gap between ELL students and English-speaking students in other subjects like math and science?

Research Team, Edvantia, answers:

Yes, and this should not be surprising. After all, we use English to teach and discuss these subjects. And each of these subjects has its own unique vocabulary. For example, a table in the lunchroom is not the same thing as a table in mathematics. This points to the importance of providing explicit vocabulary instruction to ELLs in the content areas. Research on the effectiveness of different types of ELL programs has shown that student achievement in the content areas can differ significantly based on the type of ELL program in which the student is enrolled.

A school board member from MD writes:

Do you know the percent of ELLs who have little or no formal education in their native countries? I understand that half of the ELLs were born in the United States, what are the other half's formal education backgrounds?

Research Team, Edvantia, answers:

We don't really know the answer to this question, and it is unlikely that the states are consistently gathering data that would answer the question at this point. But we do have information about the level of education parents of ELL students have. For example, about half of the students from Mexico and Central America have parents who did not complete high school. But the prior educational experience of ELL students is something that school districts should collect to better serve their ELL students.

A school board member from ID writes:

Will focusing on academic English specifically for ELLs take away from other students?

Research Team, Edvantia, answers:

Definitely not. In fact, Fred Genessee and colleagues concluded that an emphasis on academic English is likely to yield a payoff in student achievement "even in English-only school settings." Research is showing that direct, explicit instruction in literacy strategies, including vocabulary development, helps students learn in all content areas.

An educator from Capitol Heights, MD writes:

What states have more success with ELL students in their academic programs in elementary, middle, and high school?

Patte Barth, Director, Center for Public Education, answers:

It's difficult to say because states use very different criteria to classify ELL students and reclassify them as English proficient. For example, there are 24 different tests being used to measure English proficiency. You might want to refer to the What Works Clearinghouse which just evaluated effective elementary ELL programs. Also check the list of resources posted on the Center for Public Education website for more information about effective programs.


Patte Barth, Director, Center for Public Education, comments:

Thanks for joining our chat. And a special thanks to the researchers at Edvantia for participating. Please check the Center website for more information on this topic. www.centerforpubliceducation.org.

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