Educating dual language learners (DLLs) and English learners (ELs) effectively is a national challenge with consequences both for individuals and for American society.1 Despite their linguistic, cognitive, and social potential, many ELs—who account for more than 9 percent of enrollment in grades K-12 in U.S. schools—are struggling to meet the requirements for academic success, and their prospects for success in postsecondary education and in the workforce are jeopardized as a result.
A defining characteristic of DLLs/ELs is their demographic diversity. They are members of every major racial/ethnic group and include both U.S.- and foreign-born youth. Most come from Latin America and Asia, with Mexico being their leading country of origin. They speak a wide range of languages, including Chinese, French Creole, Fulani, Korean, and Spanish, as well as other languages spoken in Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world. Relative to other U.S. children, DLLs/ELs are far more likely to live in poverty and in two-parent families with low levels of education.
At the same time, DLLs/ELs have assets that may serve them well in their education and future careers. Those who become proficient in both a home or primary language (“L1”) and English (“L2”) are likely to reap benefits in cognitive, social, and emotional development and may also be
1 When referring to young children ages birth to 5 in their homes, communities, or early care and education programs, this report uses the term “dual language learners” or “DLLs.” When referring to children ages 5 and older in the pre-K to 12 education system, the term “English learners” or “ELs” is used. When referring to the broader group of children and adolescents ages birth to 21, the term “DLLs/ELs” is used.
protected from brain decline at older ages. In addition, the cultures, languages, and experiences of English learners are highly diverse and constitute assets for their development, as well as for the nation (Conclusion 3-1).2 This report addresses both the assets that DLLs/ELs bring to their education and the factors that support or may impede their educational success.
The Committee on Fostering School Success for English Learners: Toward New Directions in Policy, Practice, and Research was convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine through its Board on Children, Youth, and Families and the Board on Science Education. The committee’s task was to examine how evidence based on research relevant to the development of DLLs/ELs from birth to age 21 can inform education and health policies and related practices that can result in better educational outcomes.3
Educational Achievement and Attainment
The committee identified key challenges that may impact the language development and educational attainment of DLLs/ELs. The available evidence clearly indicates that these children and youth lag behind their English-monolingual peers in educational achievement and attainment. Limited proficiency in English poses a high barrier to academic learning and performance in schools where English is the primary language of instruction and assessment. Moreover, DLLs/ELs face a number of additional barriers to educational success and the availability of learning opportunities that go beyond their English proficiency, such as poverty and attending underresourced schools.
Competing Views Held by Society
Both society at large and many educational and health professionals hold competing views about whether dual language learning should be supported early in a child’s development and later in school. Some believe that learning two languages early in a child’s life is burdensome, while others
2 The conclusions and recommendations in this report are numbered according to the chapter of the main text in which they appear.
3 This study was sponsored by the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Foundation for Child Development, the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Education.
believe that young children are “hardwired” to learn one or more languages easily and that nothing needs to be done to promote their language development. In their extremes, both of these views can be detrimental to the development of effective policies and practices concerning the education of DLLs/ELs.
Language of Classroom Instruction
One of the most intensely debated aspects of educational policy and practice for ELs focuses on the language of classroom instruction. Educators and researchers agree that to succeed in school and participate in civic life in the United States, all children must develop strong English proficiency and literacy skills. The debate centers on the questions of the best ways to support the acquisition of English and the ongoing role of children’s L1 as their English skills deepen, the social and cultural costs of losing proficiency in L1, the role of education programs in systematically supporting L1, and community and parental values that may promote English-only approaches.
Diverse Social, Cultural, and Linguistic Backgrounds
Given the steady increase in diversity among DLLs/ELs in the United States, a key challenge for educators is understanding the social, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds of the children they serve and creating the conditions of trust and respect necessary for effective instruction. Educators draw on their own experiences with cross-ethnic relations, language learning, and racialized understandings of U.S. society and may feel unprepared to support the school success of ELs.
WHAT SCIENCE REVEALS ABOUT BILINGUALISM
Scientific evidence clearly points to a universal, underlying human capacity to learn two languages as easily as one. DLLs have an impressive capacity to manage their two languages when communicating with others. For instance, they are able to differentiate the use of each language according to the language known or preferred by the people to whom they are speaking. Recent research evidence also points to cognitive advantages, such as the ability to plan, regulate their behavior, and think flexibly, for children and adults who are competent in two languages. At the same time, however, there are striking individual differences among bilingual children in their pathways to proficiency and ultimate levels of achievement in their two languages. Language competence varies considerably among dual language learners. Multiple social and cultural factors—including parents’ immigrant generational status and years in the United States, socioeconomic
status, exposures to the risks of poverty, the perceived status of the home language in the community, and neighborhood resources—may help explain this variation (Conclusion 4-7).
The Relationship Between First and Second Languages
The available evidence is mixed as to whether there is a critical period for learning a second language, although researchers agree that there is no strict cut-off point after which it is no longer possible to acquire an L2. A key question is the extent to which ability in the first language supports or hinders the acquisition of a second. Some immigrant parents may fear that talking with their child in the L1 will compromise the child’s ability to learn English and succeed in U.S. schools because development of the L1 will slow and perhaps even interfere with English acquisition. Teachers also express this concern. Yet there is no evidence to indicate that the use of two languages in the home or the use of one in the home and another in an early care and education (ECE) setting confuses DLLs or puts the development of one or both of their languages at risk. Given adequate exposure to two languages, young children have the capacity to develop competence in vocabulary, morphology, syntax, and pragmatics in both (Conclusion 4-2).
L1 language skills have been shown to promote a variety of L2-related school readiness skills. While DLLs typically show greater competence or dominance in one language, transfer between languages is likely to occur once they build a sufficiently strong base in their L1. More advanced language learners are able to transfer or apply strong skills in their first language to learning or using an L2. However, transfer is less likely to occur when DLLs’ overall language skills are underdeveloped. In contrast, children given the opportunity to develop competence in two or more languages early in life benefit from their capacity to communicate in more than one language and may show enhancement of certain cognitive skills, as well as improved academic outcomes in school (Conclusion 4-3).
Moreover, research indicates that children’s language development benefits from the input of adults who talk to them in the language in which the adults are most competent and with which they are most comfortable. DLLs’ language development, like that of monolingual children, benefits from the amount and quality of child-directed language—that is, language that is used frequently in daily interactions, is contingent on the child’s language and focus of attention, and is rich and diverse in words and sentence types. For most DLL families, this quantity and quality of child-directed
language are more likely to occur in the home language, not English (Conclusion 4-5).
Achievement of English Proficiency
One of the major and most puzzling questions for researchers, policy makers, the media, and the public since the 1974 Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Lau v. Nichols4 has been how long it does or should take ELs to achieve proficiency in English so they can benefit from participation in classrooms in which English is the language of instruction. Decisions about ELs’ readiness to benefit from English-only instruction have been based largely on “reclassification” tests devised by individual states. Once ELs achieve defined cut-off scores on these tests and meet other criteria in some cases, they are reclassified as non-EL or fully English proficient. Research shows that it can take from 5 to 7 years for students to learn the English necessary for participation in a school’s curriculum without further linguistic support. This is due in part to the increasing language demands of participation in school learning over time, especially with respect to the language used in written texts beyond the early primary years. Thus, students may require help with English through the upper elementary and middle school grades, particularly in acquiring proficiency in the academic uses of English. While of critical importance, “academic language” has been difficult to define, and is variously characterized in functional, grammatical, lexical, rhetorical, and pragmatic terms. As a result, efforts to support its development in classrooms have been inconsistent, just as efforts to assess its development have been problematic (Conclusion 6-1).
Long-Term English Learners
Over the past decade, increasing attention has been paid to students labeled as “long-term English learners.” Typically these are students who have not been reclassified as English-proficient after 7 years, although no common definition of the term exists across schools, school districts, and states. Evidence suggests that many schools are not providing adequate instruction to ELs in acquiring English proficiency, as well as access to academic subjects at their grade level, from the time they first enter school until they reach the secondary grades. Many secondary schools are not able to meet the diverse needs of long-term ELs, including their linguistic, academic, and socioemotional needs (Conclusion 6-6).
4 A landmark court case granting linguistic accommodations to students with limited proficiency in English.
WHAT IS HAPPENING IN PRACTICE
Early Care and Education
Most, if not all, ECE teachers and staff will work with DLLs during their careers and will need to understand effective practices that promote these young children’s healthy development, learning, and achievement. Although no empirical studies have examined the impacts of ECE programs on DLLs’ development in particular, findings from the developmental literature can guide the design of services for the youngest DLLs and their families, with special attention to their dual language status. In particular, the quality of language interactions in ECE for infants and toddlers in general has been shown to be related to later verbal and cognitive development. All ECE teachers of DLLs can learn and implement strategies that systematically introduce English during the infant, toddler, and preschool years while simultaneously promoting maintenance of the home language—an important principle. Not all teachers can teach in all languages, but all teachers can learn specific strategies that support the maintenance of all languages (Conclusion 5-6).
Oral language skills, such as vocabulary and listening comprehension, grammatical knowledge, and narrative production, have received particular attention from both researchers and educators seeking to identify and meet the learning needs of DLLs, who often do not receive support for advanced levels of oral language development. Early proficiency in both L1 and English at kindergarten entry is critical to becoming academically proficient in a second language. When DLLs are exposed to English during the preschool years, they often show a preference for speaking English and a reluctance to continue speaking their L1. DLLs who fail to maintain proficiency in their home language may lose their ability to communicate with parents and family members and may risk becoming estranged from their cultural and linguistic heritage. DLLs benefit from consistent exposure to both their L1 and English in ECE settings. Research is limited on how much and what type of support for each language is most effective in supporting bilingual development (Conclusion 5-5).
The federal Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program targets a population that includes a high proportion of families who are non-English speakers with DLLs. It is critical that, as they serve these families, home visiting practitioners and policy makers understand the strategies and elements of effective practices for promoting the healthy development, learning, and achievement of these children, with the goal of promoting optimal developmental and educational outcomes.
Pre-K to 12 Practices
Attention to how ELs are faring in grades pre-K to 12 comes at a pivotal time in American schools, when schools throughout the nation are teaching to higher curricular standards in core subject areas, including math, English language arts, and science. All students, including ELs, are expected to engage with academic content that is considerably more demanding than it used to be, and they must now demonstrate deeper levels of understanding and analysis of that content. ELs face the tasks of simultaneously achieving English proficiency and mastering grade-level academic subjects.
Two broad approaches are used to teach English to ELs in grades K-12: (1) English as a second language (ESL) approaches, in which English is the predominant language of instruction, and (2) bilingual approaches, in which both English and students’ home languages are used for instruction. Syntheses of evaluation studies that compare outcomes for ELs instructed in English-only programs with outcomes for ELs instructed bilingually find either that there is no difference in outcomes measured in English or that ELs in bilingual programs outperform ELs instructed only in English. Two recent studies that followed students for sufficient time to gauge longer-term effects of language of instruction on EL outcomes find benefits for bilingual compared with English-only approaches (Conclusion 7-1).
Oral language proficiency5 plays an important role in content area learning for ELs. Instructional approaches developed for students who are proficient in English offer a learning advantage for ELs as well. However, these approaches are likely to be insufficient for improving the literacy achievement of ELs absent attention to oral language development. The following characteristics of instructional programs support ELs’ oral language development: specialized instruction focused on components of oral language proficiency, opportunities for interaction with speakers proficient in the second language, feedback to students during conversational interactions, and dedicated time for instruction focused on oral English proficiency (Conclusion 7-2).
Research has identified seven practices or guidelines for educating ELs in grades K-5:
- Provide explicit instruction in literacy components.
- Develop academic language during content area instruction.
- Provide visual and verbal supports to make core content comprehensible.
- Encourage peer-assisted learning opportunities.
5 The committee defines oral language proficiency as both receptive and expressive oral language, as well as specific aspects of oral language, including phonology, oral vocabulary, morphology, grammar, discourse features, and pragmatic skills (August and Shanahan, 2006).
- Capitalize on students’ home language, knowledge, and cultural assets.
- Screen for language and literacy challenges and monitor progress.
- Provide small-group academic support in literacy and English language development for students.
Young adolescent ELs enter middle school (typically ages 10-14) at what can be a turning point in their educational trajectory. Whether they are classified during their middle school years as long-term English learners or are newcomers to American classrooms, ELs face new challenges in middle school that influence their opportunities to learn both English and the rigorous academic subject matter required by today’s higher state standards. Their degree of success in meeting these requirements will have consequences for their career and postsecondary education prospects. Research points to three promising practices for middle school EL instruction: (1) teachers should use the L1 to develop academic English in specific content areas in middle schools; (2) teachers should use collaborative, peer-group learning communities to support and extend teacher-led instruction; and (3) texts and other instructional materials should be at the same grade level as those used by English-proficient peers.
Research on ELs’ language and academic subject learning in middle school is consistent with findings from studies conducted with children in the previous grades and supports the identification of promising practices during the primary grades (pre-K to 5). However, the developmental needs of young adolescent ELs—specifically their cognitive and social development—and their adaptation to a different organizational structure and expectations for student independence in middle school are important factors to consider in designing and implementing instructional strategies in middle school. The processes of identity formation and social awareness, which increase during adolescence, point to the importance of teacher beliefs about ELs and their attitudes toward learning English when working with middle school ELs (Conclusion 8-3).
Research on instructional practices for ELs in high school is less available than that on practices for elementary school. Nonetheless, recommendations for instructional practices associated with positive language and literacy outcomes for adolescents in general are applicable to ELs as well, and practices for ELs in elementary and middle school continue to be relevant in high school instruction. Research has identified nine promising practices with clear relevance to the education of ELs in high school:
- Develop academic English and its varied grammatical structures and vocabulary intensively as part of subject-matter learning.
- Integrate oral and written language instruction into content area teaching.
- Provide regular structured opportunities to develop written language skills.
- Develop the reading and writing abilities of ELs through text-based, analytical instruction using a cognitive strategies approach.
- Provide direct and explicit comprehension strategy instruction.
- Provide opportunities for extended discussion of text meaning and interpretation.
- Foster student motivation and engagement in literacy learning.
- Provide regular peer-assisted learning opportunities.
- Provide small group instructional opportunities to students struggling in areas of literacy and English language development.
Assessment of DLLs/ELs
Assessment of the educational progress of DLLs/ELs can yield concrete and actionable evidence of their learning. Sound assessment provides students with feedback on their learning, teachers with information with which to shape instruction and communicate with parents on the progress of their children, school leaders with information on areas of strength and weakness in instruction, and system leaders with an understanding of the overall performance of their programs. Well-established standards for assessing students and educational systems exist to guide practice. However, there is a gap between these professional standards, developed by consensus among relevant disciplines in the scientific community, and how assessments of DLLs/ELs at the individual student and system levels are actually conducted.
Current assessment practices vary across states, which will have primary responsibility for these assessments as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015 is implemented in school year 2017-2018, with its directive that school districts within a state share common assessment practices for identification of students as ELs and their exit from EL status. To conduct an accurate assessment of the developmental status and instructional needs of DLLs/ELs, it is necessary to examine their skills in both English and their home language. During the first 5 years of life, infants, toddlers, and preschoolers require developmental screening, observation, and ongoing assessment in both languages to support planning for individualized interactions and activities that will support their optimal development (Conclusion 11-1). Moreover, the appropriate use of assessment tools and practices, as well as the communication of assessment results to families and decision makers, requires that all stakeholders be capable of understanding and interpreting the results of academic assessments administered to ELs in Eng-
lish or their home language, as well as English language proficiency assessments. Collaboration among states, professional organizations, researchers, and other stakeholders to develop common assessment frameworks and assessments is advancing progress toward this end (Conclusion 11-4).
SPECIFIC POPULATIONS OF ENGLISH LEARNERS
In accordance with the statement of task for this study, the committee sought evidence on promising practices for ELs who are homeless and those who are unaccompanied or undocumented minors. However, such evidence is generally not specific to these populations or is lacking altogether. Systematic evaluations of practices with these specific populations are therefore needed. Evidence on promising and effective practices for migrant ELs is very limited as well. Services for migrant students vary considerably, with some states and districts having well-planned and coordinated services and others having less adequate programs and services.
Gifted and Talented ELs
Three factors have the strongest influence on the identification of ELs for gifted and talented programs: (1) the assessment tools used, including measures of real-life problem solving; (2) professional development for teachers, which leads to a reduction in their bias toward ELs; and (3) district-level support. Evidence on the effects of programs for gifted and talented ELs is limited.
Children and Youth Living on Tribal Lands
Language revitalization is an urgent matter for members of communities whose languages are in danger of extinction. Speakers remain for only 216 of the perhaps 1,000 indigenous heritage languages once spoken among American Indians and Alaska Natives in North America. For most American Indian groups, language is a key to cultural identity, and efforts to revitalize their language by teaching it to young tribal members is an important step toward maintaining and strengthening tribal culture. The reclamation of indigenous heritage languages is an important goal for many American Indian and Alaska Native communities. Some school systems see this goal as being in conflict with the school’s efforts to promote English language and literacy. However, the evidence indicates that participation in strong language revitalization programs can have a positive impact on student achievement in school (Conclusion 9-2).
DLLs/ELs with Disabilities
DLLs/ELs with disabilities constitute a relatively small and understudied portion of the K-12 population. They make up about 9 percent of the DLL/EL population and 8 percent of all students with disabilities, yet these small percentages represent more than 350,000 children. DLLs/ELs are less likely than their non-DLL/EL peers to be referred to early intervention and early special education programs, with potentially serious consequences. Evidence indicates that early childhood education, home visiting, health, and other professionals are not identifying all DLLs/ELs with special needs—such as those with autism spectrum disorder and language impairment—who could benefit from such programs (Conclusion 10-1).
The Care and Education Workforce for DLLs/ELs
Adults who interact with DLLs/ELs bear a great responsibility for their health, development, and learning. For ECE professionals, each state sets its own policies regarding employment qualifications for both the public and private sectors. Exceptions are Head Start and Military Child Care, for which requirements are set by the federal agencies. In public and private preschools, about 25 percent of teachers meet state licensing requirements. Within state-funded pre-K programs, certification, licensure, or endorsement is required.
Similarly, each state has its own requirements for K-12 teacher certification. Some states have established criteria at the preservice level, whereas others have specialist requirements beyond initial certification. Although all 50 states plus the District of Columbia offer a certificate in teaching ESL, the range of knowledge and skills required by each state varies. The professional preparation and quality of teachers and administrators, including principals and superintendents, differentiates between more and less effective schools.
Among the many factors that affect student performance, research conducted on all populations of students has produced strong evidence that the quality of the teacher has a significant impact on students’ educational success. The issue of preparing teachers to educate ELs effectively is especially salient for states with large EL populations and those with increasing numbers of these students. Across the nation, more than 340,000 teachers are certified/licensed EL teachers working in Title III programs. Three of the nine states6 with the highest percentages of ELs plus the District of Colum-
6 Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington.
bia estimate a need for more than 15,000 certified EL teachers in the next 5 years, and Nevada alone will require more than 16,000, an increase of 590 percent. The educator workforce, including ECE providers, educational administrators, and teachers, is inadequately prepared during preservice training to promote desired educational outcomes for DLLs/ELs. The great variability across state certification requirements influences the content offered to candidates by higher education and other preparation programs to provide them with the knowledge and competencies required by effective educators of these children and youth. The emergence of alternative teacher preparation programs is promising, but traditional institutions of higher education remain the major source of new teachers, and changes in these institutions may therefore be required to increase the pipeline of well-prepared teachers of DLLs/ELs (Conclusion 12-1).
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR MEETING THE CHALLENGES
The committee formulated 14 recommendations for policy, practice, and research and data collection focused on addressing the challenges described above in caring for and educating DLLs/ELs from birth to grade 12. The 10 recommendations related to practice and policy are listed below.
Recommendation 1: Federal agencies with oversight of early childhood programs serving children from birth to age 5 (such as the Child Care and Development Fund and Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program) and state agencies with oversight of such programs should follow the lead of Head Start/Early Head Start by providing specific evidence-based program guidance, practices, and strategies for engaging and serving dual language learners and their families and monitor program effectiveness.
Recommendation 2: Federal, state, and local agencies and intermediary organizations with responsibilities for serving children birth to age 5 should conduct social marketing campaigns to provide information about the capacity of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers—including those with disabilities—to learn more than one language.
Recommendation 3: Federal and state agencies and organizations that fund and regulate programs and services for dual language learners (e.g., Office of Head Start, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, state departments of education and early learning, state child care licensing agencies) and local education agencies that serve English learners in grades pre-K to 12 should examine the adequacy and appropriateness of district- and school-wide practices for these children and
adolescents. Evidence of effective practices should be defined according to the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Recommendation 4: Federal and state agencies and organizations that fund and regulate programs and services for dual language learners (DLLs) (e.g., Office of Head Start, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, state departments of education and early learning, state child care licensing agencies) and English learners (ELs) in grades pre-K to 12 should give all providers of services to these children and adolescents (e.g., local Head Start and Early Head Start programs, community-based child care centers, state preschool and child development programs) and local education agencies information about the range of valid assessment methods and tools for DLLs/ELs and guidelines for their appropriate use, especially for DLLs/ELs with disabilities. The Institute of Education Sciences and the National Institutes of Health should lead the creation of a national clearinghouse for these validated assessment methods and tools, including those used for DLLs/ELs with disabilities.
Recommendation 5: The U.S. Department of Education should provide more detailed guidelines to state education agencies (SEAs) and local education agencies (LEAs) on the implementation of requirements regarding family participation and language accommodations in the development of individualized education plans and Section 504 accommodation plans for dual language learners/English learners who qualify for special education. The SEAs and LEAs, in turn, should fully implement these requirements.
Recommendation 6: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education should direct programs to strengthen their referral and linkage roles in order to address the low rates of identification of developmental disorders and disabilities in dual language learners/English learners (DLLs/ELs) and related low rates of referral to early intervention and early childhood special education services. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education should address underidentification of DLLs/ELs in its analyses, reports, and regulations in order to examine the multidimensional patterns of underrepresentation and overrepresentation at the national, state, and district levels in early childhood (birth to 5) and by grade (pre-K to 12) and for all disability categories.
Recommendation 7: Local education agencies serving American Indian and Alaska Native communities that are working to revitalize their
indigenous heritage languages should take steps to ensure that schools’ promotion of English literacy supports and does not compete or interfere with those efforts.
Recommendation 8: Research, professional, and policy associations whose members have responsibilities for improving and ensuring the high quality of educational outcomes among dual language learners/English learners (DLLs/ELs) should implement strategies designed to foster assessment literacy—the ability to understand and interpret results of academic assessments administered to these children and adolescents in English or their primary language—among personnel in federal, state, and local school agencies and DLLs/ELs families.
Recommendation 9: State and professional credentialing bodies should require that all educators with instructional and support roles (e.g., teachers, care and education practitioners, administrators, guidance counselors, psychologists and therapists) in serving dual language learners/English learners (DLLs/ELs) be prepared through credentialing and licensing as well as pre- and in-service training to work effectively with DLLs/ELs.
Recommendation 10: All education agencies in states, districts, regional clusters of districts, and intermediary units and agencies responsible for early learning services and pre-K to 12 should support efforts to recruit, select, prepare, and retain teachers, care and education practitioners, and education leaders qualified to serve dual language learners/English learners. Consistent with requirements for pre-K to 12, program directors and lead teachers in early learning programs should attain a B.A. degree with certification to teach dual language learners.