Studies Suggest the Best Ways to Help Non-Native Speakers Learn English Well
by Susan Black / American School Board Journal
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, three teenage Lithuanian boys from different families landed in a small school in rural upstate New York. Their parents, hoping to provide them with the proverbial “better life,” remained in their homeland and put the boys in the hands of the school and foster families.
The three spoke very little English -- they could count to 10 and recite only a handful of words and phrases. They showed up with nothing but tattered copies of Lithuanian-English dictionaries and an unstoppable drive to succeed in academics and sports.
“Everyone in the school and community -- teachers, kids, townspeople -- took the boys under their wing,” the superintendent recalled. “Maybe we were inexperienced and a little naive, but we believed we could put a plan together to help them succeed.”
He was right. A first-grade teacher used picture books and phonics to teach the boys basic English, and other teachers chipped in, constructing vocabulary lists with pictures that corresponded to chapters in their high school textbooks. Some students became buddy-readers for classroom lessons and homework assignments, and still others volunteered to tutor the boys after school.
“It was something to see,” the then-counselor remarked. “These boys, each over six feet tall, practiced long shots on the basketball court, but during time-outs they sat on the bench studying their first-grade books.”
How did things turn out? In high school the boys earned GPAs over 3.5 and passed Regents exams with scores of 92 and above. In college they earned graduate degrees in computer science and business administration. Two went on to play professional basketball in Europe.
Learning English well
Will the 5.5 million English-language learners now enrolled in the nation’s schools have similar opportunities?
Or will their English remain rudimentary, increasing the chance that they’ll languish at the bottom of their class and drop out?
Not just learning English, but learning English well, makes all the difference, says Steven Klein in a 2004 report on language minorities for the National Center for Education Statistics. It’s a distinction that’s increasingly important, thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement that schools show adequate yearly progress for their English-language learners, as well as their other students.
And, as Klein and his colleagues report, the distinction is crucial for students:
• English-language learners are more likely to finish high school if they speak English “very well.” Students who say they speak English “not well” or “not at all” are more likely to drop out.
• Spanish-speaking students who do not speak English well are more likely to repeat grades and drop out.
• English learners who speak English “very well” enroll in college at about the same rate as native English-speaking students. Students who have difficulty speaking English are far less likely to try college.
• For Spanish-speaking students, 31 percent who speak English very well sign up for college, but only 6 percent of those who speak little English enroll.
The time factor
But learning English well takes time. The American Educational Research Association (AERA) says students who begin school speaking little or no English can gain reading and spelling skills equal to those of native English speakers in two years -- if they receive “skilled, explicit instruction” in phonics and the recognition of spoken sounds, as well as frequent in-class assessments and daily practice reading in English.
In Philadelphia, kindergarten children from low-income Asian families who received systematic reading instruction and individual tutoring read at close to grade level by the end of first grade. And in Canada, nearly 1,000 non-English-speaking kindergartners who had intensive lessons on word identification, spelling, and reading comprehension achieved on par with their classmates by the time they reached second grade.
Kindergartners who grow up speaking English have a repertoire of 5,000-7,000 words, but many English learners know only a handful of English words. Having these students memorize new words, a common strategy, has minimal effect. Instead, AERA recommends teaching words in context, especially through conversations, stories, science experiments, and other vocabulary-building activities.
English learners also need lessons in English grammar and word order, which are likely to be different from the linguistic structure of their native language. English learners of all ages benefit from the same kind of beginning reading instruction that works for English-speaking children -- but they need more of it, and they need immediate intervention to correct pronunciation and other errors. (For more on literacy, see “Reaching the Older Reader,” April.)
Many schools give English-language learners a scant one year to become proficient. But researchers such as Florida State University’s Vickie Lake and N. Eleni Pappamihiel say that’s unrealistic.
English learners can master social English -- or basic interpersonal communication skills, often referred to as “playground English” -- in a year or two. But Lake and Pappamihiel say it takes five to eight years to learn academic English, or cognitive academic language proficiency. And this is the English students need to read textbooks, pass tests, and otherwise excel in school.
Appearances can be deceiving, Lake and Pappamihiel caution, noting that many English learners quickly learn to communicate such things as favorite games and foods. But learning textbook words, such as “ecosystem” and “equation,” takes much more time. They recommend that teachers use visual and contextual clues, such as pictures and labels, to speed up these students’ learning during classroom lessons.
The federal government recently acknowledged it takes more time than previously thought for non-native speakers to learn English.
In February 2004, former Education Secretary Rod Paige introduced a new policy that “adds flexibility” to NCLB’s testing requirements for language-minority students. Schools had been required to test English learners in math and reading during their first year of learning English; now schools have “a little extra time” -- an additional one-year transition period -- to help students learn English.
What works and what doesn’t
But the question remains -- what’s the best way to teach English to English learners?
Some states have allowed voters to decide. California, for instance, passed Proposition 227 in 1998, followed by a student accountability mandate in 1999, requiring that English learners be taught and tested through English-only programs instead of bilingual programs. And Arizona passed Proposition 203 in November 2000, requiring public schools to conduct all instruction in English and placing English learners in “an intensive one-year English immersion program to teach them the language as quickly as possible.”
But some researchers say the English-only approach shortchanges English learners in the long run.
A five-year study by the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence examined 200,000 K-12 Spanish-speaking students’ achievement in a number of urban and rural school sites from Maine to Oregon.
Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier, the project’s principal investigators, reviewed English learners’ scores on standardized tests and found:
• Students in English-only immersion classes showed large decreases in reading and math achievement by fifth grade, compared with students in bilingual classes or classes in English as a second language. Most dropouts came from the immersion group, and those who remained in school through 11th grade fell to the 25th percentile on standardized reading tests.
• English learners who were given ESL content classes for two or three years, followed by immersion in English, improved their academic performance.
• English learners assigned to separate remedial programs remained deficient in overall achievement. Students in language-enrichment programs gained higher proficiency in English than those in remedial programs.
• Students with no proficiency in English who were placed in short-term programs of one to three years achieved far less than those in four-year programs. Four years was found to be the minimum required to raise English learners to grade-level performance.
• English learners schooled entirely in English initially outperformed those schooled bilingually when tested in English, but by the secondary grades, bilingually schooled English learners had higher achievement.
UCLA researcher Kris Gutierrez reached similar conclusions. In a 2002 study of English learners attending California schools, Gutierrez and her colleagues found that, contrary to public opinion, English-only programs “predict a very dismal future” for large numbers of elementary-age students.
School programs that are “subtractive” -- that is, they take away English learners’ native language and use English only for classroom learning and tests -- generally produce negative results, Gutierrez reported. Students are far more likely to master English and have higher achievement when schools use an “additive” approach -- that is, when they are allowed to use their native language while they’re learning English.
A 1974 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court supports that approach. In Lau v. Nichols, the Court found that Chinese students were excluded from educational opportunities, even though they had received the same instruction and materials as English-speaking classmates. The court decided that the Chinese students’ inadequate English left them unable to learn in an equal, fair, or developmentally appropriate manner.
Easing into English
All things considered, English learners seem to fare better when school leaders and teachers are welcoming and willing to help.
Kama Einhorn, a specialist in teaching techniques and teacher training, says schools need to remember that new English learners, especially those who are anxious and afraid, need “a little shelter from the storm.”
She recommends easing them into learning English with these strategies:
• Pair English learners with English-speaking buddies for such things as school tours, social conversations, and paired learning.
• Give English learners picture dictionaries, and label classroom items in both English and their native languages.
• Teach English-speaking students some basic vocabulary in the English learners’ home language, and incorporate classroom learning about the English learners’ culture and community into daily lessons.
• Provide translators for parents at school meetings and during home visits.
• Involve English learners by making lessons challenging but achievable.
• Correct language errors in a helpful, nonthreatening manner.
Remembering the Lithuanian boys in the rural New York school, perhaps the first and best thing schools and communities can do is take their English learners under widespread wings.
Susan Black, an ASBJ contributing editor, is an education research consultant in Hammondsport, N.Y.
Einhorn, Kama. “Welcoming Second-language Learners: Terrific Techniques to Ease Students from Every Nation into the School Year.” Instructor, September 2002, pp. 54-55.
Gutierrez, Kris, and others. “Sounding American: The Consequences of New Reforms on English Language Learners.” Reading Research Quarterly, July-September 2002, pp. 328-345.
Klein, Steven, and others. “Language Minorities and Their Educational and Labor Market Indicators -- Recent Trends.” National Center for Education Statistics, June 2004.
Lake, Vickie, and N. Eleni Pappamihiel. “Effective Practices and Principles to Support English Language Learners in the Early Childhood Classroom.” Childhood Education, Summer 2003, pp. 200-2003.
Resnick, Lauren, editor. “English Language Learners: Boosting Academic Achievement.” Research Points: Essential Information for Education Policy.” American Educational Research Association, Winter 2004.
Thomas, Wayne, and Virginia Collier. “A National Study of School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students’ Long-Term Academic Achievement.” Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence, 2002.
© 2005, NSBA