English Language Learners in the Classroom
Nordby, Ann, Teacher Librarian
In many areas of the United States, schools are struggling to find the best approach to teaching English language learners. As of 2005 there were about 5 million students in the United States that are English language learners (ELL), http://www.ncela.gwu.edu/ expert/faq/08leps.html.
Spanish is by far the most common native language of ELLs, at 75 to 80%. Five different Asian languages, Russian, and Arabic are in the top 10 but represent far fewer students, http://www.ncela.gwu.edu/resabout/research/descriptivestudyfiles/ native_languages1.pdf. The number of native Spanish speakers arriving in schools is a strain for teachers who do not understand Spanish and have not been trained in teaching English as a foreign language (EFL).
Not surprisingly, academic performance for ELL students lags behind their native English-speaking peers. On one 2007 national assessment, fourth-grade ELLs scored 36 points below native speakers in reading and 25 points below them in math. The gaps among eighth graders were even larger. Since the tests are in English, it is impossible to know whether the grades lagged behind due to poor understanding and skills, or because of their limited English proficiency.
LA LECON DIFICILE
What is the best approach for teaching these children? Should they be taught in English only, or should their education include some Spanish-language support or instruction? And if so, for how many years? The answers are not clear, and researchers are still investigating the many variables that make this such a complicated issue, such as age, literacy in the native language, similarity of English to the native language, parents' English competence, and how these variables contribute to English language learning and overall academic success.
There is more controversy than consensus. A recent article in American Educator by Claude Goldenberg (2008) of Stanford University reviews the findings of two major reports completed in 2006, both of which seem to say that no one approach fits all. Both reports attempt to find the best, most documentable approach to improving ELLs' success in school. The National Literacy Panel [NLP) study cataloged local outcomes for children and youth ages 3-18 around the world and took three years. The Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence (CREDE] report searched for empirical research reports on language minority students in the United States from Pre-K to high school and took two years.
The key conclusions were few. The most surprising of them is that teaching literacy in the native language tends to enhance literacy and fluency in English. This happens because of the transferability of concepts. For example, understanding nouns in one's own language makes it easier to understand what nouns are in another language. After 2-3 years of first- and second-language reading instruction, the average student can expect to score 12-15 points higher than the average student who receives only second language reading instruction. All five Spanish-English studies on which the NLP reported found positive effects of bilingual education on students' reading achievement on various measures of reading in English.
Another key conclusion was less surprising-good instruction is good instruction. English language learners tend to do better, whether instruction is in English or the native language, when goals are clear, context is meaningful, content is rich, and students are engaged. When learning to read, both native and non-native English speakers benefit from having ample opportunities for repetition and use of words, such as hearing stories read aloud and reading about things that were interesting to them.
A third key finding was that some of the comprehension strategy instruction that teachers employ to increase reading comprehension among native speakers were ineffective for ELLs. English language learners understood more from simplified text. …