When it comes to helping English language learners make adequate yearly progress in school, most people agree on one point: the sink-or-swim method won't work. Research strongly supports this conclusion, and federal law (Lau v. Nichols, 1974) requires that students who are learning English get some extra help. The $64,000 (or considerably more) question is, What kind and how much?
Instruction for English learners varies greatly among districts, falling roughly into two camps: bilingual education and immersion. In bilingual education, students are taught some subjects in their native tongue while they are learning English. This can last for months or years.
In immersion, all or most instruction is offered in English, usually a simplified form supplemented by
verbal and contextual clues to aid understanding. The primary goal is fluency in English, not bilingual development. But the terms bilingual and immersion can be deceiving, because native-language instruction
of different degrees and duration can be involved in each, and programs labeled as one or the other often include components of both. Don't rely on a program's label alone to describe its method.
Existing research suggests that district administrators can take six steps to help English learners make adequate yearly progress:
Address the community served Consider the number, diversity and mobility of the English learners you serve. Be responsive to changes in student population. Use resources wisely. A caution: pullout programs are up to six times as expensive as in-class programs, and some argue that they penalize English learners by isolating them and depriving them of core content instruction.
Include bilingual instruction in the early grades The National Research Council recommends teaching students to read in their native language so they can easily transfer literacy skills to English. In addition, a recent study by the Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence shows that bilingual instruction yields long-term benefits. When English learners first exit bilingual programs, they were outperformed by those exiting all-English programs, but they caught up during middle school and surpassed the all-English group during high school. They were also less likely to drop out.
Inform parents When children are referred to language-support programs, parents who choose to mainstream their children should be informed that this decision could have a long-term negative effect on their child's achievement. In the study mentioned above, such students showed large decreases in reading and math achievement by the fifth grade and were more likely to end up dropping out.
Provide language support services of adequate duration English learners might quickly develop verbal skills, but most research says it takes three to seven years to master academic English. One study concluded that even the most effective language support programs can close only half of the achievement gap in two to three years. After-school or summer programs may help.
Train or recruit teachers who can reach more English learners More than half of U.S. classrooms include at least one English learner, yet two of five teachers lack qualifications to help them succeed.
Make effective, cost-effective testing accommodations Provide extra time, a glossary of key terms on the test plus extra time, or reduce the language complexity of the test questions (but don't translate test items from English to other languages). Evaluate the effects of accommodations and do a cost-benefit analysis.