Recognizing and Changing Low Expectations for English Learners
The number of English learners, or EL students, has been rising steadily in recent years. According to data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, there are now 12 million EL students in classrooms across the United States, with the majority clustered at the elementary school level—an increase of more than 1 million students in just the last decade. (Note that ELs are defined as students whose primary language is not English; however, many may speak three or four languages before they enter an English-speaking classroom.)
That said, numbers from the National Center on Education Statistics make it clear that EL students are anything but a monolithic bunch. California has the highest percentage of EL students at just over 20 percent, while other states, such as West Virginia, have negligible EL numbers. Most EL students speak Spanish as their first language, but many other languages are also listed, including Karen (Myanmar), Somali, Arabic, and a host of others from around the world. Although some ELs are recent immigrants, refugees, or unaccompanied minors, most EL students are born in the United States, and according to federal guidelines, many come from low socio-economic backgrounds.
A complicated picture
What does all of this add up to? Broadly speaking, a complicated picture of who EL students are and what their academic needs may be. Many education observers have argued that, in addition to facing language barriers, EL students also frequently grapple with the low expectations of others at school simply because they are not yet proficient in English, which may be due to the fact that many teachers reportedly lack the necessary resources and training to work successfully with them. (A 2017 National Public Radio report chalked this up to EL students being concentrated in “low-performing schools with untrained or poorly trained teachers.”)
Another potential problem can be traced to the broader lack of understanding around the assets and challenges that EL students bring to the classroom, as well as the overall complexity of language acquisition. For one thing, EL students typically learn how to verbally "get around" in English long before they are able to excel academically. A guide published by the New York State United Teachers union included this salient point: “While ELLs may acquire social language within three years, it may take up to seven years for an EL to achieve academic proficiency in English.”
When it comes to reading instruction, for example, many EL students can pick up the basics rather quickly (within one or two years, according to some sources), but gaining complex reading comprehension and writing skills may take far longer. Researchers have noted that EL students’ ability to become “conversant in English” can mask the fact that many still need direct instruction in the acquisition of academic language skills. This apparent fluency in English can lead to mainstreaming or a reduction in services, even when EL students may still be struggling to engage with more rigorous academic content.
For EL students, more rigorous academic work often looks like it does for native English speakers, and includes such higher-level thinking tasks as being able to contribute to class discussions or conduct independent research projects. Many would argue that these are the exact skills needed for post-secondary success, and so the question becomes how to help more EL students push past low expectations and into high-quality instruction. Fortunately, there is a wealth of resources and information available for educators in search of better ways to help EL students reach their full potential.
One place to start involves thinking positively about EL students through an asset-based approach. A 2017 blog post on the website of Positive Learning, an ed tech company that specializes in EL students, offered four ways to view EL students as valued members of a classroom community. First, the blog advised, try embracing the multilingual perspectives EL students carry with them, including the ability to express (or learn to express) ideas and insights in more than one language. This can include a broader base of knowledge about what it is like to move between cultures, including the different worlds at home and school, and how various life experiences can impact how we view the world around us.
Starting with an asset mindset is an important way to shake off what some researchers say is a tendency for teachers to assume EL “students and their families are at fault for their low performance.” Embracing cultural and linguistic differences can lead to a more positive, productive place, according to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Indeed, a 2017 guide from the NCTE may prove useful for many teachers in terms of providing a guide for moving from characterizing EL students in a negative way to a positive way. Viewing these students as “problems” is negative, of course, while appreciating them as “contributors” laden with potential is positive.
Beyond this, there are specific strategies that teachers may use when it comes to raising expectations for EL students. Some tips offered in this EL-focused blog post from Colorín Colorado (a national website serving educators and families of English Learners in grades Pre-K–12) focus on being aware of students’ need to have academic content “introduced and reinforced,” as well as the need to “create assessments that measure knowledge in a meaningful way.” Other suggestions include acting out new words in a skit, asking students to draw or otherwise create a visual for new vocabulary words, and making classroom work as interactive, multidimensional, and hands-on as possible.
Some strategies involve using peer tutors in addition to teachers, incorporating frequent assessments into classroom work to help students track their own progress and gain self-confidence, and incorporating both humor and games to make learning fun and worthwhile. Meanwhile, another resource from a 2017 volume of the Journal of Practitioner Research provided a host of detailed, evidence-based ideas about how to help boost the reading comprehension levels of EL students. One key takeaway is to become more aware of students’ backgrounds: What is their home language? What are they interested in?
The practice of incorporating background and increasing student engagement aligns well with a personalized learning approach to instruction and may go a long way toward helping EL students become not only proficient in English but skilled enough to tackle more challenging academic coursework.
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