Children of immigrants are the fastest-growing student population in the U.S. Half of these New American children are not fluent in English. They are called English learners, yet the federal government offers no guidance to states on how to teach them. Schools need to address the language, literacy and academic needs of English learners more effectively since there are achievement gaps between those who are fluent in English and those who are not, according to a 2011 report from the Immigrant Children issue of The Future of Children.
In elementary school, English learners are typically pulled out of their regular schedule for 30 minutes of English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction, the report explains. At all other times during the day, English learners are placed back into general education classes without any additional help and often with teachers who are not prepared to teach them.
English learners in middle and high school sometimes face an even tougher situation, since they are expected to master more complex material with less time to master the language, the report says.
The report shared some helpful teaching methods and tools that could assist English learners to get a firm grasp on the language in a comfortable environment. One suggestion placed heavy importance on the instructor’s respect of the student’s primary language.
“In programs where English is the primary language of instruction for literacy development, it is critical for teachers to show respect for the student’s primary language and home culture,” the report stated. “Just as language and identity are interwoven, so are culture and identity.”
Such respect could encourage students to work with peers and use their native language to help them understand English.
Parental support, and a good connection between home and school were also cited as essential to the success of English learners. It is important that parents are on board with their children’s work, because then they are more likely to make sure their children are at school every day and to help with homework.
Researchers conclude by offering one final thought. Teachers should first go through comprehensive professional development so they understand how best to serve and instruct English learners.
“Closing the achievement gaps means, in part, closing similar gaps in teacher preparation programs and ongoing professional development,” the report stated. “Today most English learners spend their time in regular classrooms with teachers who feel that they are ill-prepared to meet their needs.”
The Future of Children is a collaboration of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and the Brookings Institution. It aims to translate social science research about children and youth into information that is useful to policymakers, practitioners, grant-makers, advocates, the media, and students of public policy.