Academic Achievement for English Learners What Can We Reasonably Expect?

By Cook, H. Gary; Boals, Timothy et al. | Phi Delta Kappan, November 2011 | Go to article overview

Academic Achievement for English Learners What Can We Reasonably Expect?


Cook, H. Gary, Boals, Timothy, Lundberg, Todd, Phi Delta Kappan


As the cultural and A linguistic diversity of U.S. schoolchildren grows and as federal legislation mandates greater accountability in school districts, states are feeling a sense of urgency to support successful outcomes for English learners.

Over 5 million students are learning English in America's public schools, accounting for more than 10% of the K-12 population. That's an increase of over 50% in the last decade alone. This demographic change has been matched by changes in national policy. Before No Child Left Behind, states set their own accountability policies. Now, they must demonstrate that English learners are making progress in English and achieving challenging academic content standards. When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is reauthorized, it will likely continue the trend of establishing and meeting explicit expectations for this growing population.

Assuring that English learners succeed has proven to be much more challenging than most educators assumed. The challenge appears to be rooted in what it means to "learn English" in school. Academically successful English learners do not simply learn to manage their everyday lives in English-speaking contexts; rather, they learn to negotiate multiple academic environments, make sense of complex content, articulate their understanding of that content in academic forms, and assess their own growing understanding. That is, they learn to use "academic languages."

Education research describes the language demands English learners face in American schools in terms of the linguistic and literacy skills associated with core academic subject areas (Anstrom et al., 2010). These skills involve more than specialized, content-specific vocabulary. Proficient use of English in science class, for example, involves the ability to communicate scientifically. That is, English used in science classrooms draws on vocabulary, grammar, and discourse unique to science.

For example, scientists seek to be objective. They often use the passive voice in their writing and speaking. For example, rather than stating what a plant root or leaf does (active voice), a biology teacher is more likely to describe a general process through which water and nutrients are absorbed by root systems and are transported to leaves where carbohydrates and sugars are produced (passive voice). Why? Because the passive voice suggests distance or objectivity. Similarly, each academic discipline uses specialized vocabulary, grammatical structures, and discourse features. All students must learn to speak, write, and think in these specialized ways, but the journey for English learners is longer and more difficult.

In this article, we share findings about the journey to English proficiency for English learners and offer insights on how to establish clear expectations for English learners and their schools. We address the relationship between academic language and academic content proficiency, the rate at which English learners acquire academic English, and the time needed for English learners to become English proficient.

Specifically, we focus on two questions:

* What does it mean to be "English proficient?"

* How long does it take English learners to reach this status?

There isn't enough good research in this area to give clear answers to those who teach English learners, but some studies provide valuable insights. Also helpful are discoveries from the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment Consortium (WIDA), a 27-state alliance that shares English language proficiency standards and assessments, and engages in research and professional development.

Federal policy

The English that teachers speak with students in the classroom is different from the English spoken on the playground, in the mall, or at home. English used in informal settings has less complex grammatical forms, few uses of technical vocabulary, frequent use of slang and idioms, frequent cultural and contextual references, and a much more personal sense. …

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Academic Achievement for English Learners What Can We Reasonably Expect?
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