How to Help the Rising Number of English Learners Succeed in School
In classrooms across the United States, there is a growing number of English learners (ELs)—students who need support in order to become proficient in English—and their numbers have been rising steadily since at least 2000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Per the center's data, just over 9 percent of all K–12 students qualify for EL services today, although this number is closer to 30 percent in states like California. While the vast majority of ELs were born in the United States and are native Spanish speakers, many schools serve students who speak an array of other languages at home, from Arabic to Haitian Creole. One thing is for sure: ELs are a diverse group.
Under the EL umbrella, there are myriad stories of students who lack adequate access to challenging coursework. A 2017 report by Claudio Sanchez of National Public Radio found that just 2 percent of ELs are identified as gifted, compared to 7 percent of their native English-speaker counterparts. And as Sanchez reported, the inequity doesn't stop there; in fact, researchers have found that “even when EL students are identified as gifted, the impulse is often to keep them out of accelerated programs despite evidence that they would benefit from more challenging work while they’re learning English.” In other words, there is a tendency to exclude EL students from content-driven work until their English language skills are considered strong enough.
An Education Week piece similarly highlighted this discrepancy by acknowledging that the skills many EL students possess—including how many “translate for their parents” while also “decoding in two languages all the time,” in the words of one Oklahoma administrator—do not fit into the way students are traditionally considered gifted. Being slotted into advanced or gifted classes has typically been based on one’s English language skills, which may be partly because EL instruction is a still-evolving field of study and practice. Indeed, National Public Radio's Sanchez noted that well over half of all states have reported a shortage of qualified EL teachers. While only a relatively small number of students (both native English-speakers and ELs) end up in gifted programs, a greater proportion of ELs are at risk of staying “stuck in academically segregated programs where they fall behind in basic subjects,” according to Sanchez’s research.
This situation can present a problem when it comes to preparing EL students for college. A post by educators Kristina Robertson and Susan LaFond on the EL-focused website Colorin Colorado made this point: “The challenge of helping ELs get on the path to college is one that many educators are already familiar with; given current demographic trends, however, it is a challenge that more and more schools around the country will face as the nation continues to diversify.” Just as gifted programs may need to evolve and become more inclusive, college prep courses might need to do the same. As it stands, EL students are less likely to graduate from high school on time (63 percent, compared to 82 percent for native English-speakers), far less likely to take the ACT and other college entrance exams (less than 2 percent), and much less likely to both enroll in and graduate from college.
So, now that the problem has been clearly identified, what are some of the solutions? Robertson and LaFond offered an extensive list of some key ways to support EL students on their journey to postsecondary educational opportunities. For example, they recommended that EL teachers embrace their role as advocates who may know their students “better than anyone else in the building.” From there, teachers can help students identify and work toward individualized goals by having high expectations for all and not allowing EL students to receive different or lesser forms of encouragement than their native English-speaking peers. Additionally, Robertson and LaFond made it clear that ELs “need to enroll in demanding courses that will prepare them for college.” Still, some students may need five years of high school in order to stay on track for college. Moreover, some may gain more confidence in their own abilities by taking an AP Spanish class if they are native Spanish-speakers, for instance.
Gaining access to more challenging courses can be beneficial for EL students, even those who are not yet proficient in English. Jennifer Pust, who teaches high school in California, provided a detailed look at how to help ELs succeed in demanding AP classes—a situation she was called to address when her school decided to encourage all students to take such classes. Pust found that the strategies she had “used in courses for struggling readers and writers could be adapted to meet the needs of [her] new AP students.” Building on her knowledge of how to help struggling readers grasp advanced content, Pust began including such techniques as “think-alouds,” reading workshops, and modeling how to respond to essay prompts. In a piece she penned for the National Writing Project, Pust also presented a variety of other strategies for interested teachers, including a nudge to “expand the canon” by including books that “reflect students’ linguistic and cultural heritage.”
The U.S. Department of Education also has resources available for EL teachers, and the main thrust of its guidelines appears to center on an important idea: that EL students need to be appropriately supported and challenged while at school. More specifically, they should not be segregated into separate and unequal classes or programs that may not be adequately preparing them for success in school or college. Indeed, a government-published toolkit for working with EL students makes mention of many of the issues touched upon here, including the low number of EL students who are enrolled in either gifted or AP classes. This toolkit, which offers a helpful framework for educators and administrators, includes equity-based questions that focus on whether assessments and classes are being adjusted to tap into EL students’ particular strengths and challenges. One of the government’s recommendations is to ensure that students are immersed in “literacy-rich school environments” that both honor their roots and help them gain meaningful experience in English, thereby helping them move forward into bright and fulfilling futures.
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