Action Brief on English Learners in PreK to 3rd Grade

by Jennifer Kobrin on July 21, 2011

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Back in November, Illinois drew national attention to English Learners in early childhood by being the first state to mandate that preschool programs offer bilingual instruction, as I reported in this blog. The Foundation for Child Development is now building awareness on this worthy issue, partially by releasing a PreK-3rd action brief about raising the educational performance of ELs.

The action brief calls for more focused action and increased research on ELs in the early grades, pointing out that half of the total population of limited-English speakers K-12 are in elementary school, and that only 6% scored proficient in reading by 4th grade as reported by the NAEP.

One challenge in particular—students’ lack of academic English—is an issue that many of our eight Making Connections schools around the country have expressed. The main problem is how long it takes ELs to master CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency), which is usually cited at 5-7 years, and a lack of teacher professional development in related instructional strategies. In my personal experience, it’s easy for teachers to overlook their ELs’ lack of academic language, since a lot of these students pick up conversational English quickly and appear fully bilingual when they aren’t.

Another theme that came up several times in the issue brief was the lack of standardized measures of achievement. Title III of NCLB mandates that all ELs make annual progress, but exactly what “making progress” means is determined by individual states and varies widely. In Kansas and New Mexico only 20% of ELs must improve each year to meet this criteria. On the other hand, in Illinois and Tennessee over 80% of ELs must improve each year. This problem is compounded by differences in how states determine when and how students recieve and exit out of EL classification.

The action brief offers several suggestions for helping ELs in the early grades, including an EL-themed addition to the Common Core standards which seem to be underway. If I could make one suggestion, it would be to add a focus to the importance of afterschool and other expanded learning opportunities as a sustainable, cost-effective method for improving younger ELs’ oral academic language skills.

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