Monday / June 17

Harnessing the Potential and Possibilities of English learners

This post was also published on and Smart Blog on Education.

Many are using social networking to get word out that the US Departments of Education and Justice recently released guidance and tools about teaching English learners. The two agencies remind us all that ELs should “have equal access to a high quality education and the opportunity to achieve their full potential.” Educators across the nation are applauding the two Departments’ efforts to release this information and some are going further to say that more is needed to help this growing population of the nation’s students. The release of this guidance is an important time to remind us of the following.

English Learners are Not a Monolithic Group

English learners speak over 350+ languages and, while many come from countries other than the US, the majority of elementary-aged and a significant number of secondary ELs are born here. While some have had prior language and academic learning experiences that are similar to their American English-speaking peers, many don’t have the school matched language skills that are needed; live in extreme poverty; have experienced or are experiencing trauma, violence and chronic stress from civil strife, war, extreme poverty, and more; and/or are undocumented and fear deportation. One of two of the most comprehensive research syntheses about improving the outcomes of English learners shows that it takes many years to become competent in English, be active participatory members of a school community, and demonstrate proficiency on state exams of English language arts and mathematics. And, the amount of time it takes depends on many variables including the strength of our policies, programming and practices to harness the potential and possibilities of ELs.

Culturally Relevant and Meaningful Learning

Research shows that students learn more when their learning experiences are compatible with their social, cultural, and language experiences. For example, many ELs and others come from collectivist cultures that believe strongly in relationships and community membership as a way of life. This is different from typical, Western European individualistic cultures, which place a high value on independence and competition. With so much depending on the Standards and the high-stakes tests based on them, sometimes we can forget that the glue that binds education, for many, is the quality of human interaction and relationships.

Large-Scale Initiatives Have Not Been the Magic Potion

Historically, many initiatives have been targeted to improving the outcomes of our nation’s students. This includes President Johnson’s War on Poverty leading to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; President Clinton’s backing of charter schools; President Bush and the No Child Left Behind Act; and President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative. All intended to remedy the chronic opportunity gap between some groups of students and others—including ELs whose rates of graduation and performance on standardized test scores is chronically among the lowest.

Focus on Engaging English Learners

It may not be magic, but the two most comprehensive analyses of the research shows that education works when we build programming that is:

  1. Connected to our students’ and families’ personal, social, cultural, and world experiences to make learning meaningful and compelling. We use paired and small groupwork because it reflects the collectivist cultures of many ELs and requires students to interact—that binding ingredient to learning.
  2. Based on each EL’s stage/level of language and literacy learning. Our state’s English language development standards provide this information and we should use it with all we do and tasks that we assign.
  3. Drawn from students’ prior learning experiences and academic knowledge with clear learning goals and activities that students understand.
  4. Focused intentionally on teaching students how to think to learn, with multiple practice opportunities, visual displays, and authentic experiences to engage in this process.

To do this, we need to ensure that our policies, programming and practices reflect who English learners are. There is no better or more urgent time to do this than right now with the US DOEs guidance and tools in hand.

Written by

Debbie Zacarian, Ed.D. is a renowned expert in policies and practices for multilingual learners. She has written and supported numerous state education agencies and school districts in creating effective policies for the nation’s growing and rapidly changing population of multilingual learners. This article is drawn from her book Transforming Schools for Multilingual Learners: A comprehensive guide for educators.

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