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What research says about English language learners: At a glance

Across the country, public schools are opening their doors to more and more children who speak a language other than English. Nearly every district faces the challenge of helping these children become proficient in the English language while also providing them with a high-quality education.

English language learners (ELL), like all children, bring a range of experiences and instructional needs into the classroom. Understanding the lessons research offers can help educators and policymakers shape policies and practices that will advance both the English language proficiency and academic gains of students for whom English is a second language.

  • In the year 2000, there were 3.2 million ELL students enrolled in our schools, representing six percent of the school-aged population. The large majority (79 percent) speak Spanish as their first language; the rest speak one of more than 400 languages. Over half of all ELLs were born in the U.S. (Capps et al. 2005, NCELA 2007). 
  • Currently, it takes between four and seven years on average for ELL students to become proficient in academic English—the language needed to succeed in classroom. Current measures of English proficiency may be classifying students as English proficient based on oral proficiency, which may not guarantee readiness to succeed in English-only classrooms (Collier 1995, Francis et al. 2006a, Genesee et al., 2006, Hakuta et al. 2000, Moore and Zainuddin 2003, Oakely et al. 1998).
  • ELL students with formal schooling in their first language tend to acquire English proficiency faster than their peers without it. Other individual factors that have a positive affect on students’ rate of English acquisition are higher literacy skills at kindergarten entry, native-born status, parents with more education, motivation, and absence of learning disabilities (Collier 1995, Garcia-Vazques et al 1997, Genesee et al. 2006).
  • ELL students who attend high-poverty schools tend to acquire English at slower rate than other ELLs. (Abedi and Dietel 2004, Hakuta et al. 2000, Jepsen and de Alth 2005)

There are steps school districts can take to help ELL students become English proficient and successful in school:

  • Make proficiency in academic English the goal for ELLs.
  • Provide ample professional development to help teachers meet the educational needs of ELL students.
  • When possible, include some first-language instruction when teaching ELLs.
  • Make ELL achievement a schoolwide focus.
  • Base assessment policies and ELL classification decisions on meares of proficiency in academic English.
  • Continue to monitor ELLs’  progress even after they have been reclassified as English proficient.

This summary is based on a review conducted for the Center for Public Education by researchers at Edvantia, an education research and development not-for-profit corporation founded in 1966.  For more information, see Research Review: What research says about preparing English language learners for academic success.

Posted: October 30, 2007

©2007 Center for Public Education

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