Effective Instruction for English Learners

By Calderon, Margarita; Slavin, Robert et al. | The Future of Children, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview
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Effective Instruction for English Learners

Calderon, Margarita, Slavin, Robert, Sanchez, Marta, The Future of Children

During the 1960s, public schools in the United States served a student population that was about 80 percent white. Today, non-Hispanic whites make up 57 percent of the student population (1) and are a minority in most large urban districts. The fastest-growing student population in U.S. schools is children of immigrants, half of whom do not speak English well enough to be considered fluent English speakers. In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974), held that school districts must take affirmative steps to help students overcome language barriers so that they can participate meaningfully in each school district's programs. The U.S. government requires every school district that has more than 5 percent national-origin minority children with no or limited English proficiency to "take affirmative steps to rectify the language deficiency in order to open its instructional program to these students." (2) To that end, school districts across the country determine whether children are Limited English Proficient (LEP), (3) a federal designation for children whose English proficiency is too limited to allow them to benefit fully from instruction in English. (4) Such students are also called English language learners and English learners. (5) But although the federal government requires districts to provide services to English learners, it offers states no policies to follow in identifying, assessing, placing, or instructing them. States, therefore, vary widely in the policies and practices by which they identify and assess English learners for placing within and exiting from instructional programs.

For the past sixty years, educators' discussions of English language learning have focused on whether instructors should use English or students' native languages to enable nonnative English speakers to become proficient in English and in core content. We focus instead on identifying the elements of effective instruction, regardless of the language in which instruction is carried out. We set our discussion in the larger framework of whole-school reform as the basis of all students' academic success and examine eight characteristics of instruction for English learners that have generated successful outcomes for students in elementary, middle, and high schools.

A Fast-Growing Population

Mid-decade data reveal rapid growth in the U.S. English learner population. (6) During the 2007-08 school year, English learners represented 10.6 percent of the K-12 public school enrollment, or more than 5.3 million students. (7) In fact, English learners are the fastest-growing segment of the student population, with their growth highest in grades seven through twelve. (8) Figures 1 and 2 show the dramatic increases in English learner populations, particularly in states that are not accustomed to serving their instructional needs. These students have lower academic performance and lower graduation rates than native white students and have affected the nation's overall educational attainment. (9)

About 79 percent of English learners in the United States speak Spanish as their native language; much lower shares speak Chinese, Vietnamese, Hmong, and Korean. About 80 percent of second-generation immigrant children, who by definition are native-born U.S. citizens, are what schools call longterm English learners. These students,who have been in U.S. schools since kindergarten, are still classified as limited English proficient when they reach middle or high school--suggesting strongly that preschool and elementary programs are not adequately addressing the needs of English learners. (10)


Alongside the long-term English learners, whose language and literacy gaps must be addressed if they are to graduate from high school, exist other categories of English learners with very different needs. One group is in special education. A second group was inappropriately reclassified as general education students after passing their district's language test.

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