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DOUBLE THE WORK: New Alliance Report Calls for Increased Focus on English Language Learners in Discussions on Improving Adolescent Literacy

“The ELL population is growing rapidly across the country, and these are students at serious risk of dropping out of high school,” said Bob Wise

A new report by the Alliance for Excellent Education finds that the nation’s growing English language learner (ELL) populations, which increased by more than 65 percent between 1994 and 2004, have been largely ignored as policymakers consider ways to improve adolescent reading and writing proficiency levels.

Double the Work: Challenges and Solutions to Acquiring Language and Academic Literacy for Adolescent English Language Learners, a report to Carnegie Corporation of New York, argues that this rising number of immigrants and the demands of an increasingly global economy make it clear that the nation can no longer afford to ignore the pressing needs of ELL students, who must work twice as hard to meet the same accountability standards as their native English-speaking peers. It contends that the unique needs of ELL students must be identified and addressed with targeted strategies if the reading and writing skills of all middle and high school students are to improve.

“The ELL population is growing rapidly across the country, and these are students at serious risk of dropping out of high school,” said Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. “They require support and resources that reflect their language challenges, their diversity, and the fact that they have to work even harder than native English speakers to achieve a high school diploma. They have unique challenges that call for special solutions. We know how to help them—now we have to do it.”

Currently, 31 percent of ELLs fail to graduate from high school, compared to only 10 percent of young adults who speak English at home. In addition, only 4 percent of eighth-grade ELLs and 20 percent of students classified as “formerly ELL” scored at the proficient or advanced levels on the reading portion of the 2005 National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP). More than 70 percent of ELL students scored below basic on NAEP.

Low graduation rates among ELL students are especially troubling considering that, in virtually every part of the country, middle and high schools are experiencing expanding enrollments of students whose primary language is not English. In fact, 14 states saw their percentages of limited English proficient students (LEP) grow by more than 200 percent from 1993 to 2003. According to the report, this rapid growth raises important questions about whether states have the resources (e.g., trained teachers, language support programs, curricula, and materials) and infrastructures to accommodate these students and the ability to ensure that the children have appropriate and effective academic and language instruction.

Authored by Dr. Deborah J. Short and Shannon Fitzsimmons of the Center for Applied Linguistics, and informed by a distinguished panel of researchers, policymakers, and practitioners, Double the Work discusses the diversity of the English language learner populations in American secondary schools and recommends techniques to improve the way they are taught. It cautions that the same literacy interventions will not necessarily work for both native English speakers and ELL students. And because adolescent ELLs enter schools with different levels of literacy proficiency, both in English and in their native language, there is no simple, one-size-fits-all solution to the literacy challenges that confront them. However, the report does recommend an array of different strategies for surmounting the six challenges it identifies to improving literacy development among ELLs.

One challenge is the lack of a uniform national definition for what constitutes an ELL student. Without this information, it is very difficult to determine precisely who these students are, how well they are doing academically, and what kinds of services they need. To help with this problem, the report recommends common criteria for identifying these learners and for tracking their performance. As an example, it lists the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment Consortium (WIDA), which consists of fifteen partner states and jurisdictions that are developing common definitions that could serve as a model for the nation.

Double the Work also laments the lack of appropriate assessments for ELL students—a deficiency that is especially important given the No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement that ELL students make progress in meeting academic standards and in becoming fully proficient in English. Unfortunately, the standardized tests that are used to measure academic knowledge are not sensitive to second language literacy development. Far too often, low test scores are perceived as a lack of mastery of the content, rather than as the normal pace of the second language acquisition process. To gauge a student’s progress more effectively, the report calls for a diagnostic evaluation before a student enters a program and additional assessments at regular intervals.

The report also seeks to build capacity among preservice and current educators to instruct these learners effectively. Currently, many of the educators working in secondary schools have had little professional development for teaching literacy to adolescents. Fewer still have had training to teach second language literacy to adolescent ELLs. Among its recommendations, the report says that teachers need professional development to teach content effectively to students who are learning academic English at the same time that they are trying to meet content standards. It notes that only three states (Arizona, California, and Florida) have enacted policies to ensure that teacher candidates have some preservice courses that will help them work successfully with ELLs.

The report also calls for flexible secondary school programs that offer time and course work that take into account the second language development process. It notes that finding an appropriate program that will accelerate students’ English language development and let them make progress in content-area course work is the ultimate goal. In addition, the report recommends a wider and more consistent use of research-based instructional practices and more short- and long-term research on new and existing interventions and programs and on the academic performance of these adolescent ELLs.

“Adolescent ELLs are a diverse group of students whose needs, overall, have not been well served by the country’s educational system,” the report concludes. “Yet with programs targeted to their language development needs, they can be successful in learning English and the content of their secondary school courses. … By helping ELLs learn and perform more effectively in the nation’s schools, America’s educational system and society as a whole will be strengthened and enriched.”

The complete report is available here.

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