Academic journal article Exceptional Children

What We Know about Effective Instructional Practices for English-Language Learners

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

What We Know about Effective Instructional Practices for English-Language Learners

Article excerpt

The wave of immigration that began 20 years ago is the second largest in American history. Yet, as Yzaguirre (1998) noted, the topic of how to educate this group of students invariably brings high levels of passion and low levels of rational discourse. This was also the case during the last large wave of immigration at the beginning of this century.

We believe that in order to improve the quality of educational services, it is critical to shift the focus of discourse away from broad sociological and political issues towards specific instructional issues. Researchers such as Moll (1988) have argued convincingly that research needs to move beyond the issue of which language should be used to teach English-language learners and delineate clearly the best methods for teaching students. As C. Goldenberg noted, "The language-of-instruction debate has so dominated discussion of how to best serve the needs of language minority children that other issues, which are at least equally important, have not been adequately addressed" (personal communication, October 8, 1994).

A decade ago, Figueroa, Fradd, and Correa (1989) noted that there was no "substantive body of empirical data on actual, well-controlled interventions ... that improve the academic abilities of students who are English-language learners" (p. 17). The situation has slowly improved over the last decade. The glacial pace of empirical research on effective instructional approaches for teaching English-language learners is detailed in a widely disseminated report by the National Academy of Sciences (August & Hakuta, 1997). That report was an attempt to synthesize empirical research conducted on the education of English-language learners.

At about the same time that the National Academy of Sciences group conducted their research synthesis, we independently conducted an exploratory meta-analysis (Baker & Gersten, 1997) of those experimental and quasi-experimental studies that met contemporary methodological standards as outlined in Cooper and Hedges (1994). The National Academy of Sciences' report corroborated our own observations regarding the paucity of controlled empirical investigations of instructional programs or practices. Because we could only locate nine studies with sufficient control, and the studies vary widely in terms of content taught and grade level, we could not develop any firm generalizations about which instructional components might lead to enhanced outcomes (Baker & Gersten). We decided to conduct a qualitative multivocal research synthesis (Ogawa & Malen, 1991), as described in the next section. The current synthesis examines and analyzes the current state of knowledge about the effective instructional practices for English-language learners.

The guiding question is seemingly straightforward: What do we really know about effective teaching practices for English-language learners in the elementary and middle school grades? However, developing a methodology to systematically answer this question was difficult due to the highly fragmented nature of the knowledge base and deep-rooted conceptual differences among scholars and researchers on this subject.

The term English-language learners is used (Rivera, 1994) to refer to students who are less than proficient in English. This term is usually deemed preferable to earlier terms such as limited English proficient and language minority. It also encompasses a broader range of students, including those whose conversational English is adequate, but who struggle with the abstract language of academic disciplines.

The term English-language development (ELD) refers to all types of instruction that promote the development of either oral or written English-language skills and abilities. This term replaces terms such as English as a second language (ESL) and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) that have been in use in various regions of the country. …

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