5 Things You May Not Know About English Learners

5 Things You May Not Know About English Learners
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English Learners are often thought of as a homogenous group, but in reality, they are extremely diverse. Although you likely know these common facts about ELs, you may not be as familiar with the underlying complexities of this often misunderstood population. 

Here are five things you may not know about English Learners:

Fact #1: English Learners compose one of the fastest-growing student populations in the country.

But did you know…? There are about five million ELs in the United States (about 9.6% of all public school students), and the number is increasing. In fact, by the year 2025, nearly one out of every four public school students will be an English Learner. Since the passage of the Bilingual Education Act in 1968, all public schools are required to offer ELs an appropriate level of education.

Fact #2:  All students have the same natural ability to acquire language skills, unless diagnosed with a language disorder.

But did you know…?  Based on their native language, some students have a more difficult time learning English. For example, students whose first language uses the Latin alphabet or has a sentence structure similar to English may have an easier time acquiring English language skills compared to those whose native language uses characters (like Mandarin) or is written from right to left (like Arabic or Hebrew). Additionally, depending on culture and parental literacy, ELs can face a number of challenges with regard to oral English language development, including limited exposure to spoken English in the home.

Fact #3:  Being bilingual promotes all areas of cognitive functioning.

But did you know…?  People who speak two languages have also been shown to have more efficient monitoring systems. In a study from the International Journal of Cognitive Science, monolinguals and bilinguals responded similarly when their brains' monitoring system was not under stress, but in conditions requiring high monitoring demands, bilinguals were faster. The bilingual brain is used to handling two languages at the same time, which aids in developing functional skills such as inhibition, switching attention, and working memory.

Fact #4:  Not all ELs are immigrants.

But did you know…?  More than half of EL students were born in this country. According to the National Education Association, second-generation students—defined as children born in the U.S. to at least one immigrant parent—currently constitute 23 percent of the nation’s children and 75 percent of elementary English Learners. According to the Obama-Biden Transition Project, 75 percent of EL students in grades K–5 and 57 percent of those in grades 6–12 are native-born.

Fact #5:  Spanish is the most common mother tongue of English Learners in the U.S.

But did you know…?  According to the Migration Policy Institute, English Learner students in the U.S. speak more than 150 languages, including Chinese, Vietnamese, and French/Haitian Creole. Of the top 10 first languages spoken by ELs, six (Chinese, Korean, Hindi, Arabic, Russian, and Hmong/Miao) are not based on the Latin alphabet.

What does this mean for teachers? 

The number of English Learners in the United States is growing rapidly and there are many states that have not previously had large immigrant populations. Here are a few classroom tips when working with English Learners.

  • Embrace modeling
    Model for students what they are expected to do or produce, especially for new skills or activities, by explaining and demonstrating the learning actions, sharing your thinking processes aloud, and showing good teacher and student work samples. Modeling promotes learning and motivation, and boosts student self-confidence.

  • Monitor your rate of speech and wait time
    Speak slowly and clearly, and provide students with enough time to formulate their responses, whether in speaking or in writing. Remember, they are thinking and producing in two or more languages! After asking a question, wait for a few seconds before calling on someone to respond. This "wait time" provides all students with an opportunity to think and process, and gives ELs a needed break to formulate a response.

  • Use  non-linguistic cues
    Use visuals, sketches, gestures, intonation, and other non-verbal cues to make both language and content more accessible to students. Teaching with visual representations of concepts can be immensely helpful to English Learners.

  • Give clear instructions
    Give verbal and written instructions. This practice can help all learners, especially ELs. In addition, it is far easier for a teacher to point to the board in response to the inevitable repeated question, "What are we supposed to do?"

  • Check for understanding
    Regularly check that students are understanding the lesson. After an explanation or lesson, a teacher could say, "Please put thumbs up, thumbs down, or sideways to let me know if this is clear. It's perfectly fine if you don't understand or are unsure." This last part is essential if you want students to respond honestly. Teachers can also have students quickly answer on a Post-It note that they place on their desks. The teacher can then circulate to check responses.

The increasing number of English Learners entering the education system presents unique challenges for teachers and educational leaders. While these students may have certain learning needs in common, it is important to understand that the EL population, like any population, is a great deal more diverse than one may think. While the above list is certainly not exhaustive, consider incorporating them and other strategies into your daily instruction to give your English Learners the support they need to be successful.

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6 Evidence-Based Strategies to Boost English Learner Achievement 

English Learners are one of the fastest-growing sub-groups among the school-aged population. Read the white paper by Lexia's Chief Learning Officer, Dr. Liz Brooke, CCC-SLP, to learn about the unique needs of ELs as well as 6 evidence-based instructional strategies that help boost academic achievement for this growing population.

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