Updated 10/27 (see below)
The past month or so has seen several reports of schools posting lower test scores and singling out ESL students a one of the main causes. (for example, Des Moines, Evanston, Hattiesburg, San Diego, Sacramento, Joliet) These articles tend to follow the same storyline. If it weren’t for large and/or growing numbers of ESL students, all would be well. Each of these articles presents a more or less charitable view of the language learners (to be dealt with later), but the causes of the lower scores are generally the following.
Limited ESL Instruction
Many schools do not have dedicated language instruction for language learners. Rather, teachers come into the classroom and help individual students during the flow of the mainstream class. It’s difficult to imagine most students (and especially older ones) doing well without some kind of explicit, sequenced instrtuction about their new language. The most serious issue is students development of academic language skills (see Jim Cummins’ work) as opposed to conversational fluency.
Limited Number of ESL Teachers
Further complicating matters is the significant shortage of certified ESL teachers in most school districts. This is especially serious in districts that have not had significant ESL populations in the past. A sudden shift in demographics can leave a send a large influx of language learners to a district who has never had to address English acquisition in a concerted way.
Lack of Appreciation of Length of Time Needed to Learn a Language
Possibly the most serious challenge to any K-12 ESL program is understanding that students will need a relatively short period of time to become fluent enough to function with their classmates but will need much more time to develop the kind of academic knowledge and skills that they will be tested on. Some states limit ESL instruction to only lower grades as though no older students who immigrate do not need the same kind of classes as younger ones. Others limit the number of years that a student can take language classes to some arbitrary length of time (Oregon may be next)
I’m afraid that the scope of this blog (and my own background with adult language learners rather than children) limits proposing much in the way of solutions. Much could be addressed if there were more funding for ESL programs. That’s difficult to communicate to many parents who don’t take a very charitable view off language learners and who would prefer that the money go to other programs. The one good thing you’ll ever hear me say about No Child Left Behind is that it is raising the profile of students like English Language Learners and is sanctioning schools who don’t meet these students’ needs.
Update 10/27–Mary Ann Zehr over at Learning the Language raises some good points about this post. For example, she was absolutely on target that I missed the fact that
“the tests ELLs are taking are designed for native-English speakers and are not very good at measuring what second-language learners know and can do.”
In fact, the Evanston example above attributes much of their low scores to the fact that Illinois recently changed its policy about testing ELLs. In the past, ELLs were given a less complex test (one assumes less complex linguistically) than native English speakers.
Thanks, Mary Ann!