Helping English language learners (ELLs) succeed and stay in school is a challenge faced by many schools and districts striving to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under the No Child Left Behind act. This challenge becomes acute in secondary schools, where the emphasis shifts from learning basic literacy skills to applying those skills to learn academic content. Students who have not mastered English must perform "double the work of native English speakers," according to a 2007 report published by the Carnegie Corporation. The success-or failure-of ELLs can "count double" in AYP calculations, since a student classified as ELL may also belong to one or more other subgroups, such as an ethnic group, special education, or free and reduced-price lunch.
The 2007 Carnegie report, and a 2006 report published by the federally funded Center on Instruction, examines the research on educating adolescent ELLs. Both reports cite National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data from 2005 showing that, on the reading portion of NAEP, only 4 percent of eighth-grade ELLs and 20 percent of eighth-graders classified as "formerly ELL," scored at or above the proficient level.
Many ELLs quickly develop verbal skills, but even those who have mastered "social English" may not readily comprehend "academic English," the kind of language they encounter in middle and high school textbooks. Most research says it takes three to seven years to master academic English.
Proficiency in academic language is "arguably the single most important determinant" of individual students' mastery of academic content, according to the Center on Instruction. The Center has identified several instructional elements that are especially important for adolescent immigrants who are new to U.S. schools.
Increased Educator Capacity
In most states, subject-area teachers have little or no training in developing literacy skills of adolescents, and even fewer have expertise in helping ELLs gain second language literacy. These teachers need sustained, job-embedded professional development in helping ELLs understand not only course content but also the academic language used to teach the content. Math, for instance, has a vocabulary of its own. Most math teachers, however, have not been trained in adolescent literacy or ELL instruction. Those with such training gain an arsenal of instructional techniques that can help ELLs and native speakers, especially low-performing students. Professional development in adolescent literacy and ELL instruction is most effective when it is sustained and job-embedded.
A Schoolwide Responsibility
Upon reviewing the research included in the Carnegie report, researchers at the Center for Applied Linguistics recommended a school wide approach to improving ELL instruction. One way for administrators to support this approach, in addition to high-quality staff development, is to provide collaboration among subject-area teachers, teachers of English as a Second Language, special education teachers and literacy coaches.
Also, when conducting classroom observations, administrators should look for the use of effective ELL instructional techniques: clear enunciation and few idioms, visuals and demonstrations, scaffolded instruction, targeted vocabulary development, connections to student experiences, student-to-student interaction as well as the appropriate use of supplementary materials.
The National Literacy Panel on Language- Minority Children and Youth concluded in 2006 that inclusion of some first-language instruction seems to have long-term benefits. The Center on Instruction recommends that school districts base ELL instructional guidelines on the size and characteristics of its ELL population.
Instructing Adolescent Immigrants
About 44 percent of the English Language Learners enrolled in U.S. schools were born outside the United States. Those who enter U.S. schools at the secondary level are trying to learn academic content while simultaneously learning oral and written English and adjusting to a new culture and new school routines.
The following instructional elements and interventions are vital to these students' academic success, especially during their first two years in U.S. schools: appropriate intervention for newcomers with word-reading difficulties; high quality classroom assessment; content-based literacy instruction; instructional emphasis on developing academic language; explicit comprehension instruction; instruction in writing for academic purposes.