March 2007 | Volume 64 | Number 6
Responding to Changing Demographics Pages 90-91
Special Report / Focus on Adolescent English Language Learners
The United States can no longer afford to ignore the pressing needs of the English language learners (ELLs) in its middle and high schools, write Deborah J. Short and Shannon Fitzsimmons in Double the Work: Challenges and Solutions to Acquiring Language and Academic Literacy for Adolescent English Language Learners. These students represent a growing proportion of middle and high school enrollments in virtually every part of the country—including states and districts that have rarely encountered them in the past. Although more than 60 percent of ELLs in grades 6–12 still reside in five states (California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois), other states have rapidly growing numbers of adolescent ELLs. For example, from 1993 to 2003, North Carolina experienced a 500 percent growth, and the numbers of adolescent ELLs in Colorado, Nevada, Nebraska, Oregon, Georgia, and Indiana more than doubled.
Education research has concentrated on elementary-level ELLs, and education policymakers have often overlooked the needs of the growing population of older language-minority students. To fill the gap, the Carnegie Corporation of New York asked the Center for Applied Linguistics to convene a panel of researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to identify ways to improve the academic literacy of adolescent ELLs. The panel's report emphasizes the importance of this challenge by presenting sobering statistics about the literacy crisis within this group. For example, only 4 percent of 8th grade ELLs scored at the proficient or advanced levels on the reading portion of the 2005 National Assessment for Educational Progress. ELLs also drop out of high school at much higher rates than do native English speakers—31 percent compared with 10 percent.
Adolescent ELLs differ from native English-speaking students in the dual challenge they face: They must learn to speak, read, and write in English and master complex academic content at the same time. Aside from this common characteristic, however, adolescent ELLs come to the classroom with widely diverse education backgrounds and socioeconomic circumstances. Some are recent immigrants who received effective schooling in their countries of origin, are literate in their native language, and have excellent content knowledge even though they lack English skills. Others came to the United States as refugees fleeing violence, have attended school only intermittently or not at all, and lack basic literacy skills. Some are undocumented, which can affect both their socioeconomic status and, in some states, their postsecondary education opportunities. The largest group of adolescent ELLs (57 percent) were born in the United States but have not developed academic literacy in English for various reasons, such as high mobility.
The advisory panel found that the U.S. education system faces major institutional obstacles in responding to the needs of this diverse and growing population. For example, federal and state policymakers have developed no common definition of ELLs, nor are there consistent and reliable methods of measuring these students' status and progress. Existing standardized assessments are unequal to the tasks of gauging individual ELL's strengths and weaknesses, making placement decisions, and tailoring instruction to meet student needs. Few educators in secondary schools have had training to teach second-language literacy to adolescents. Therefore, teachers typically make little use of such promising practices as integrating reading, writing, listening, and speaking across the curriculum; focusing on vocabulary development; and building background knowledge.
The report recommends the following policy responses to strengthen instruction for adolescent ELLs:
- Set common criteria for identifying these learners and tracking their performance.
- Develop new and improved assessments of their native language abilities, English language development, and content-knowledge learning.
- Build capacity among preservice and current educators to instruct ELLs effectively.
- Design appropriate and flexible secondary school programs that offer time and coursework that account for the second-language development process.
- Use research-based instructional practices more widely and consistently.
- Fund and conduct more short-term and long-term research on new and existing interventions and programs and on the academic performance of adolescent ELLs.
The U.S. education system is committed to ensuring appropriate educational opportunities for all students, write Short and Fitzsimmons. “By helping ELLs learn and perform more effectively in the nation's schools, America's educational system and society as a whole will be strengthened and enriched.”
Double the Work: Challenges and Solutions to Acquiring Language and Academic Literacy for Adolescent English Language Learners was published in January 2007 by the Alliance for Excellent Education. The full report is available at www.all4ed.org/publications/DoubleWork/DoubleWork.pdf.
Deborah Perkins-Gough is Senior Editor, Educational Leadership; firstname.lastname@example.org.