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Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures (2017)

Chapter: 6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12

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Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
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6

The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12

Policies and practices with respect to educating English learners (ELs) in the United States have historically been driven largely by beliefs and attitudes about how best to ensure that they acquire high levels of functional proficiency in English as quickly as possible (Espinosa, 2013). These beliefs and attitudes have reflected a combination of what might be regarded as common sense and scientific theories about what is best for ELs with respect to learning English. Generally speaking, educational policies and practices concerning the role of language in the education of ELs reflect four commonly held beliefs (see Cook, 1992; Cummins, 1981; and Grosjean, 1985, for earlier renditions of these ideas), all of which have been challenged by empirical research (see Genesee, 2015, for a review of that evidence):

  1. Learning and using more than one language is burdensome and has associated costs and disadvantages.
  2. Young children are effective and efficient (second) language learners.
  3. Amount of exposure is a significant correlate of language competence.
  4. The languages of bi- and multilinguals are separate neurocognitive systems.

Taken together, these beliefs have had important implications for thinking about when and how ELs should learn English and about schooling for ELs in general. For example, and of particular importance for the discussion in this chapter, how long does it or should it take ELs to achieve

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×

proficiency in English so they can benefit from participation in classrooms in which English is the language of instruction? These beliefs have shaped thinking about other educational issues as well, including the following: To what extent should ELs begin to learn English before school starts so they are prepared for formal schooling in English? What is the importance of developing the first language (L1) during the preschool years in supporting English language development and academic success in school? Should ELs receive academic instruction in the home language to ensure their ability to meet academic objectives while they learn English? and Should achievement in nonlanguage subjects (such as mathematics or science) and in English (such as reading and writing) be assessed in the same ways and, in the case of English proficiency, using the same benchmarks as are used with monolingual native English-speaking students? The influence of these beliefs and attitudes has been most evident in educational programs during the elementary and secondary school years, but has also impacted thinking about preschool education as more and more children attend preschool programs.

Although the focus in this chapter is on the development of English proficiency, it is important to point out that language proficiency is not necessarily the only or even the most important barrier to academic success among ELs. Depending on the background of specific children or groups of ELs, their academic success can be jeopardized by issues related to such factors as poverty; poor health; trauma linked to immigration and/or preimmigrant experiences; cultural differences between home and school; state, district, and school policies and practices (including assessment requirements); the quality of educational materials, instruction, and curriculum; teachers’ attitudes; and inadequate teacher preparation. Individual ELs can experience a number of different challenges simultaneously (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2010), with significant and commensurate effects on their academic outcomes (Lindholm-Leary, 2010). Of these, socioeconomic status has been shown to be particularly potent (National Task Force on Early Childhood Education for Hispanics, 2007). For example, Kieffer (2008), using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS), found smaller differences between ELs and native English-speaking students who attended low-poverty versus high-poverty schools. As well, and in contrast to other research on the performance of language minority students, Lesaux and colleagues (2007) found few significant differences in reading comprehension between ELs and non-ELs where the ELs were distributed across the same schools and neighborhoods as the non-ELs. They speculate that EL status and low socioeconomic status are often confounded in other studies on ELs and that this may account for the difference in their findings.

The conclusion that EL status alone is not sufficient to explain the academic challenges of ELs in the United States also is supported by evi-

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×

dence that the academic performance of ELs or heritage language speakers can vary from country to country. Specifically, research has shown that immigrant ELs in Canada and Australia on average perform as well as or better than native-born students on standardized tests of academic achievement (Aydemir et al., 2008; Cobb-Clark and Trong-Ha Nguyen, 2010, respectively). Whatever the explanation for these between-country differences, suffice it to say here that the relative importance of proficiency in the language of instruction per se is an open question and probably reflects complex, national-level factors along with individual, family, and school factors. Overly simplistic notions of second language development in school and across-the-board stereotypes about the academic achievement of ELs are to be avoided, as noted in Chapter 1.

TIME TO PROFICIENCY

The question of 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 instruction1 has engaged researchers, policy makers, the media, and the public since the 1974 Supreme Court decision in Lau v. Nichols granted linguistic accommodations to students with limited proficiency in English (see Chapter 2). Understanding the time it takes for ELs to develop English language proficiency is critical to the discussion of how best to educate these children and youth for several reasons, notwithstanding the importance of other factors. First, states are required to develop and implement identification/classification systems for ELs whose level of proficiency in English is deemed too low for them to be educated in mainstream classrooms without additional support.2 States also are required to monitor ELs’ progress in English proficiency once they are reclassified as fully English-proficient (Hakuta, 2011; Linquanti and Cook, 2013). (More details about these policies and their implications are provided in Chapters 2 and 9.)

Empirical evidence concerning the typical time required to achieve levels of proficiency in English that would permit ELs to benefit from all-English instruction also is necessary to establish reasonable expectations about how long ELs require additional support in learning English for academic purposes. A common view is that young learners are efficient and effective second language learners who require little systematic or long-term

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1 This chapter is adapted from a paper commissioned by the committee for this study (Lindholm-Leary, 2015).

2 Children who are deemed as lacking sufficient proficiency in English to benefit fully from instruction in English-only classrooms (according to state definitions and criteria) are identified as ELs and are eligible for additional services and supports for a certain number of grades; more details are provided in Chapter 2.

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×

intervention to enhance their acquisition of English as a second language. Proposition 227 in California (overturned by voters in November 2016), for example, allowed ELs 1 year in classes where they received specialized support in learning English before being integrated into regular classrooms with native speakers of English.

There is growing recognition that educational research on and educational policies and practices with respect to the English language development of ELs need to distinguish between language for social communication and language for academic purposes. Numerous conceptualizations of language for academic purposes have been proposed (e.g., Scarcella, 2003; Schleppelgrell, 2004; also see Goldenberg and Coleman, 2010; Snow and Ucelli, 2009, for extended discussions of this topic). For illustrative purposes, the succinct and early definition proposed by Chamot and O’Malley (1994, p. 40) is useful: “Academic language is the language that is used by teachers and students for the purposes of acquiring new knowledge and skills . . . imparting new information, describing abstract ideas, and developing students’ conceptual understanding.” To expand on this definition, there is also general agreement that academic language refers to the specialized vocabulary, grammar, discourse/textual, and functional skills associated with academic instruction and mastery of academic material and skill, and it can be oral or written language. Goldenberg and Coleman (2010, p. 87) characterize academic language in comparison with social-conversational language as “more formal, abstract, used in academic and explicit teaching and learning situations, more demanding cognitively, and more challenging to learn (see also Bailey, 2007).” Snow and Ucelli (2009, pp. 119-120) offer an alternative conceptualization of “more academic” compared with “more colloquial” language. Specifically, they propose that academic language can be conceptualized in terms of the communicative challenges and goals to which academic language is meant to respond. These, they argue, include representing the self and the audience, representing the message, and organizing discourse.

Box 6-1 presents an example of a teacher’s use of academic language during a lesson on using graphs to represent change in the manufacturing industry in California. Specifically, this example illustrates that academic language is characterized by the use of

  • technical vocabulary (such as manufactured, line graph, trace, related rise);
  • sentence patterns that require complex grammatical constructions, such as “What might happen if there were not products to manufacture?” (e.g., Bailey, 2007; Wong-Fillmore and Fillmore, 2012);
  • explicit reference to what is being talked about (e.g., “. . . the graph would then indicate a decline. The line would go down. . . ”); and
Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×
  • specific background knowledge, as illustrated by the fact that without the necessary background knowledge that was part of this lesson, the language used in this interchange would be even more challenging.

In addition, from a language teaching and learning point of view, proficiency in language for academic purposes requires that students be competent at performing sophisticated “language functions,” such as the ability to

  • argue persuasively for or against a point of view;
  • analyze, compare, and contrast;
  • evaluate alternative points of view and factual information;
  • justify one’s point of view or debate different points of view;
  • synthesize and integrate information;
  • follow or give complex directions;
  • hypothesize about the causal relationship between events;
  • justify a predication, as in a science experiment on osmosis;
  • present a logical argument; and
  • question an explanation.
Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×

It is also thought that academic language differs from one subject to another; for example, the language of mathematics is different from the language used to discuss and write about science and history. The language of different academic subjects can differ in multiple ways. To start, each subject requires knowledge of specific technical vocabulary; sometimes this means that students must learn alternative meanings of common words, such as the mathematical use of the word table or times versus the day-today meanings of these words. Academic language also differs from subject to subject with respect to the specific grammatical forms and discourse patterns that are typically used when talking or writing about these subjects. For example, whereas science might call for grammatical skills that allow students to formulate hypotheses using subjunctive verb forms and to express relationships in probabilistic terms (e.g., “if the boats were heavier, then they would probably sink”) or to express causal relationships (e.g., “humidity is a function of both temperature and proximity to large bodies of water”), mathematics might call on these grammatical forms and discourse functions much less often. There is undoubtedly some overlap in the academic language associated with different domains, and therefore, it is usually a matter of what grammatical forms or discourse patterns are relatively common in each academic domain.

At present, however, there is no single conceptualization of academic language and the specific features it comprises. In fact, some researchers have contested the distinction between these forms of language use (e.g., MacSwan and Rolstad, 2010). In their review of work on academic language, Snow and Ucelli (2009, p. 113) note, “Despite these advances in delineating academic language, a conceptualization of academic language within a consensual analytic framework that could guide educationally relevant research is still lacking.” Moreover, as noted previously, test-defined levels of proficiency do not reflect a widely held theory of language for academic purposes. As well, there is a dearth of research that has examined the development of proficiency in English as a second language for academic purposes, the factors that influence its development, and its influence on academic success.

School- and district-based policies and decisions about ELs’ readiness to benefit from English-only instruction have often been based on “reclassification tests” devised by individual states using criteria that differ from state to state. Once ELs achieve defined cut-off scores on these tests and in some cases meet other criteria, they are deemed proficient and reclassified as non-EL or fully English-proficient. At that time, specialized services tailored to meet their English language learning needs are withdrawn, modified, or reduced on the assumption that they are ready to benefit from instruction in English without such supports. For the most part, the tests used to make these determinations have not been based on empirically validated theories of language proficiency for academic purposes and its development. Thus,

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×

the terms “proficiency” and “proficient” as used in the following section on time to reclassification refer to the level of performance achieved by ELs on reclassification tests, not their level of competence in English as defined by a validated theory of academic language proficiency.3

A large body of research is based on the results of such testing, and the committee believes it is important to review the results of this research, notwithstanding the above limitations, because the methods of classification and reclassification under investigation in these studies reflect policy and practice that until recently were prevalent. Since most studies were conducted prior to the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), they do not reflect policies associated with current legislation that is slated to be implemented in school year 2017-2018. To ignore these studies is to ignore a large body of evidence on how schools have identified ELs who require additional language support and, in turn, the suitability of policies and practices that have underpinned the use of reclassification tests. Reviewing these studies helps in evaluating policies and practices that have been in place until recently and could perhaps even inform evolving policies and practices.

The following section reviews research on time to reclassification of ELs, beginning with a discussion of methodological and other measurement issues associated with the use of reclassification tests; Chapter 11 provides more in-depth discussion of psychometric issues resulting from the use of these tests. The second section examines factors that influence reclassification rates among ELs in grades K-12. This is followed by sections on retention and loss of the home language of ELs and on cross-linguistic aspects of ELs’ language development. The former is intended to provide an understanding of the language development of ELs and, in particular, the extent to which they do or do not become bilingual in English and their home language. The section on cross-linguistic effects in the language development of bilinguals briefly considers research on the relationship of ELs’ two languages in their development. The chapter ends with conclusions.

TIME TO RECLASSIFICATION

Methodological and Measurement Issues

Existing research on time to reclassification raises important methodological and measurement issues that complicate interpretation of its results and limit the generalizability of its findings.

First, the tests and decision criteria used to make classification and

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3 This is a definition of convenience that was necessitated by the lack of relevant evidence on the development of English as a second language for academic purposes among ELs in the United States.

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×

reclassification decisions vary considerably across and within states, complicating the task of synthesizing this evidence. Moreover, the nature of the tests and procedures used to assess and classify ELs’ English proficiency has changed over the years (see Chapter 11 for a more detailed discussion). Variation from state to state and across time can be linked to the fact, noted previously, that there is no widely held theory of language for academic purposes.

Second, the validity of current instruments and procedures used to predict readiness to benefit from English-only instruction has not been fully determined. Without a widely accepted and valid theory of academic language proficiency, the development of valid test instruments is difficult if not impossible. The challenge of developing valid tests is complicated further by the fact that the expression of academic language proficiency, by definition, ultimately depends on knowledge and skills in specific content domains. As a result, poor performance on a specific test of academic language proficiency may reflect a lack of relevant and specific content knowledge rather than a lack of broadly based academic language proficiency.

Third, most of the studies reviewed are cross-sectional; longitudinal studies that follow the same students over time are limited (see, however, Conger, 2009; Thompson, 2015). Cross-sectional designs provide only a snapshot of proficiency at one point in time. Moreover, most studies have focused on elementary school students; much less is known about middle and high school students, although, as discussed later in this chapter, a large number of high school students are long-term English learners (Olsen, 2010; Thompson, 2015). And many, if not most, of the students in studies on students in middle school began school in the United States in the elementary grades, so it is difficult to interpret reclassification rates for these students as evidence concerning the effects of middle school per se. In a related vein, students participating in studies differed widely in grade level at school entry and at time of classification and reclassification as fully English-proficient, as well as in length of attendance in school. As a result, it is difficult to examine time to reclassification with respect to particular grade or age ranges, although trends on this issue are evident. Furthermore, studies that compare outcomes for different program types (e.g., monolingual English versus dual language immersion) fail to distinguish between ELs who participated in all-English programs from the outset and those who had some form of dual language instruction and were subsequently transitioned to an all-English program as a result of reclassification procedures.

Fourth, most U.S. studies are based primarily or totally on Hispanic students from low-income backgrounds. Few studies have been carried out to examine variation among groups that differ with respect to cultural and language background, socioeconomic status, country of origin/birth, years

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×

of prior schooling, and other variables. Studies examining these factors are discussed separately later in this chapter.

How Long Does It Take ELs to Be Reclassified as Non-EL?

For purposes of this review, studies of elementary/middle school ELs (grades K-8) were combined and reviewed separately from studies of high school students (grades 9-12). Disaggregating findings for elementary and middle school students would have been desirable to provide a more nuanced overview. As noted above, however, many if not most students who were tested while in middle school had begun school in the United States in the elementary grades, so it is difficult to isolate middle school from prior elementary school effects.

Elementary and Middle School ELs (K-8)

This review is based on a large sample of key studies on time to reclassification. Studies were included if testing was carried out between kindergarten and grade 7 or 8. Although the criteria used to reclassify students varied among studies, a rating of “proficient” on a test or tests always indicates a higher score than a rating of “not proficient.” Notwithstanding the caveats noted earlier, five general trends emerge from this review:

  1. Achieving high levels of English-L24 proficiency during the school years is a complex process that takes considerable time.
  2. Progress toward English-L2 proficiency tends to occur faster with earlier school entry and younger age at the time of entry.
  3. Individual ELs vary considerably in their success at achieving proficiency in English.
  4. A relatively high proportion of ELs fail to achieve proficiency in English even after many years of schooling.
  5. The difficulties faced by ELs who do not achieve proficiency after more than 7 years in U.S. schools (i.e., long-term English learners, discussed later in this section) can probably be attributed to failure of the school system to provide them with coherent, appropriate, and long-term instructional support.

The studies included in this review are discussed with respect to three different but interrelated indices of reclassification: (1) the median/average number of years to reclassification as proficient in English, (2) the percent-

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4 “L2” attached to the name of a language indicates a second or non-native language for the student; thus, “English-L2” indicates English as a second language.

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×

age of ELs who are reclassified as proficient at specific grade levels, and (3) the percentage of ELs who are not reclassified as proficient after a number of years of schooling. The percentage of ELs reclassified as proficient is calculated as a function of the number of students who were classified as ELs at the beginning of the study or at the beginning of the study period if the study examined data retroactively. The influence of grade level and age at entry on the attainment of a rating of proficient also is discussed.

Three studies report the average or median number of years required by ELs, on average, to attain reclassification as proficient in English, regardless of their starting grade. MacSwan and Pray (2005) estimate the average time to proficiency as 3.31 years in a group of K-5 ELs; Conger (2009) estimates the median number of years to achieve proficiency as 2 or 3 years for ELs who entered school in New York City at 5 and 6 years of age, respectively; and Umansky and Reardon (2014) estimate median time to reclassification as 8 years. Greenberg-Motamedi (2015), discussed in the subsection on high school ELs because the study also included high school students, estimate the time to reclassification as 3.8 years for all cohorts. There are likely several explanations for the variation found in these studies, including different conceptualizations of English language proficiency, technical differences among the tests themselves, and possibly student background characteristics, among other factors.

Median/average years to reclassification likely underestimates how quickly ELs achieve proficiency because these estimates are based on ELs who were (re)classified as English-proficient and do not include those who did not achieve proficient status (as in Greenberg-Motamedi, 2015, for example), or a default value is assigned based on students’ entry grade if the students did not achieve proficiency by the end of the study (as in Conger, 2009). Statistics on the percentage of ELs who are classified as proficient in English at specific grade levels or after a certain number of years of schooling reveal a more sobering picture than those on mean/median years to reclassification. In a detailed analysis of eight studies published in 2006, Saunders and O’Brien (2006) conclude that kindergarten to school entry ELs, including those in all-English programs, seldom were rated “generally proficient” (less than “native-like”5 proficiency) even by grade 3. In fact, none of the studies they review report average ratings of “native-like” proficiency-based on all ELs in a cohort until grade 5. The authors also note that rates of progress in attaining proficiency in English were “strikingly consistent” (p. 26) for students in different types of programs, including dual language and English-only programs. Students in 90:10 dual language

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5 The criterion “native-like” was determined by the test developers and reflects the highest level of performance on the test; it does not refer to the performance expected of or demonstrated by native speakers on the test.

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×

programs, in which ELs received 90 percent instruction in Spanish in grades K-3 and only 10 percent instruction in English, exhibited levels of proficiency in reading, writing, and speaking English that were just as advanced, or more so, than those of ELs in 50:50 dual language programs, in which 50 percent of instruction was in English and 50 percent in Spanish, or in all-English programs. Arguably, extensive exposure to English outside school and the overall sociocultural value of English as the majority language in the United States may account, at least in part, for these findings by affording more opportunities to hear and use English outside school. In contrast, exposure in school may be relatively more important for learning a minority language, such as Spanish, because these advantages are lacking.

Saunders and O’Brien’s (2006) estimated rates of time to proficiency are corroborated by the American Institutes for Research’s evaluation of the implementation of Proposition 227 in California6 (Parrish et al., 2006). These authors examined data between 1994-1995 and 2004-2005—before and after passage of Proposition 227—on how long it took ELs to be reclassified as “fully English-proficient” if they had previously been designated as “limited English-proficient.” Their analysis is based on data from the state-mandated California English Language Development Test (CELDT), which includes measures of both oral (speaking, listening) and written (reading, writing) language skills. They estimate the “current probability of an EL (English learner) being redesignated to fluent English proficient status after 10 years in California to be less than 40 percent” (p. III-1). They go on to state: “We estimate that 75 percent of EL students are not redesignated [as fluent English proficient] after five years of schooling [emphasis in original]” (p. III-33).

Notwithstanding variation in the estimates of time to proficiency across studies, they all indicate that ELs require several grades or years to be rated proficient—5-7 years is frequently reported. With the exception of Lindholm-Leary (2014), who tested ELs only until grade 2, the time most commonly reported for a substantial number of ELs to achieve proficiency is 5 years. These estimates are corroborated by earlier reviews of research on this issue, which indicate that it can take ELs 5-7 years to achieve proficiency in English for academic purposes (Cummins, 1981; Lindholm-Leary and Borsato, 2006; National Research Council, 1997; Thomas and Collier, 2002).

On the one hand, some of these estimates may appear positive (e.g.,

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6 Proposition 227, passed in 1998, required that students who were not proficient in English be taught almost completely in English—effectively eliminating bilingual classes. In addition, it shortened the time ELs stayed in sheltered English immersion classes to 1 year (under normal circumstances) and required that ELs move from such classes to mainstream classes once they had a good working knowledge of English.

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×

Carroll and Bailey’s [2016] and MacSwan and Pray’s [2005] estimates of 79 percent by grade 5 and 92 percent after 5 years, respectively). On the other hand, these studies also indicate that a substantial percentage of ELs fail to achieve proficiency in English even after 5 years of schooling in English. For example, this percentage is reported as 21 percent by MacSwan and Pray (2005), as 8 percent by Carroll and Bailey (2016), as 25 percent after 9 years by Thompson (2015), as 40 percent after 5 years by Lindholm-Leary and Hernández (2011), as 47 percent after 5 years by the California Department of Education (2014), as 28 percent by Greenberg-Motamedi (2015), and as 20 percent after 7 years among kindergarten to school entry ELs by Hakuta (2011). The full significance of these statistics becomes clear only in the context of these students’ overall education: fully 10 percent to possibly 45 percent of ELs lack full proficiency in English even by the upper elementary grades, when general academic instruction has become complex, abstract, and dependent on sophisticated uses of English for academic purposes.

These studies also reveal important differences among groups of learners. Greenberg-Motamedi (2015), for example, found that speakers of Arabic, Amharic, and Korean took relatively less time to achieve proficiency in English, whereas speakers of Samoan and Spanish took relatively longer; in general, Hispanic students took more time (4.2 years), while Asian students took less (3.4 years). These differences may be due, at least in part, to differences in socioeconomic status since, as the authors note, students in schools with a relatively high percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch take longer to achieve proficiency in English relative to students in schools with lower percentages of such students (Hakuta et al., 2000). Students eligible for special education services also were found to take longer than those who were not receiving such services (5.5 versus 3.7 years). Likewise, U.S.-born ELs took less time than foreign-born ELs (3.3 versus 3.5 years) if they entered in kindergarten, but both of these groups, especially the U.S.-born students, took longer if they entered after kindergarten (4.8 versus 3.7 years). It should be noted that other factors may influence the results for foreign-born students, such as the level and nature of their prior education, the socioeconomic status and education of their parents, the medical and emotional state of the children at the time of their immigration, the qualifications of teachers, and the quality of instruction.

Researchers working outside the United States have similarly concluded that achieving proficiency in a second language takes time, even when learning starts early. In these studies, unlike most of the reclassification studies reviewed here, proficiency is defined relative to the performance of native speakers of the target language. For example, in a longitudinal study of 24 ELs (termed “ESLs” by the author) in Edmonton, Canada, Paradis (2009) found that after 21 months of exclusive exposure to English in school, only

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×

40 percent performed within the normal range for native English speakers on a test of grammatical morpheme production (e.g., the use of “s” to pluralize nouns or “ed” to express past tense in verbs); the corresponding percentages for receptive vocabulary and story grammar were 65 and 90 percent, respectively. Research conducted in Sweden by Abrahamsson and Hyltenstam (2009) found that, compared with native Swedish speakers, only 40 percent of adults who had immigrated to Sweden during the preschool years scored in the native range on a battery of diverse language tests, even after more than 20 years of exposure. In a similar vein, research in Canada on children internationally adopted from China at ages 12-24 months showed that they scored significantly lower than nonadopted native French-speaking children matched on socioeconomic status on a variety of standardized measures of language ability, including expressive and receptive vocabulary and grammar. This was the case even after the adopted children had experienced more than 12 years of using French in their homes and been educated exclusively in that language (Delcenserie and Genesee, 2014). The adopted children did not show similar delays in general cognitive/intellectual, socioemotional, or nonverbal memory development, suggesting that their language development was uniquely affected by their delayed exposure.

These findings suggest that even when acquisition of a second language (L2) begins at an early age, several years can be required to acquire true “native-like” levels of proficiency and moreover, that L2 learners may always differ from native speakers. In a review of research on child L2 learners, Paradis (2006, p. 401) concludes that “obtaining oral language proficiency in the L2 on par with native speakers can take most of the elementary school years” and furthermore, that individual children vary considerably in their rate of L2 development. That it can take ELs so long to achieve proficiency in English for academic purposes probably reflects several factors. Of note, it probably reflects the complexity of academic language skills themselves. In addition, it could reflect a lack of systematic and explicit focus on instruction of academic English in classes with EL students. It undoubtedly also reflects the fact that native speakers of English are advancing in their level of proficiency in English for academic purposes from grade to grade. To the extent that ELs’ performance on reclassification tests is compared with that of native speakers, ELs are being compared with a moving target. As result, ELs must make more yearly progress in English if they are to achieve parity with native speakers. These findings have important implications for instruction and, specifically, indicate that ELs will benefit from systemic instruction in English for academic purposes and/or additional supports throughout their education if a native-like level of proficiency in English is expected.

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
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Effects of Age and Proficiency in English at School Entry

Evidence indicates that progress toward proficiency in English among ELs as measured by reclassification tests occurs more rapidly during the first year after school entry (and thus, presumably, during the early stages of English development in school) and declines in subsequent elementary grades. Attainment of proficiency also appears to be easier for ELs who are younger at school entry relative to those who are older (Bleakley and Chin, 2010; Conger, 2009; Greenberg-Motamedi, 2015; Johnson, 2007; Saunders and O’Brien, 2006).

To address the question of time to reclassification, Conger (2009) analyzed data from four cohorts of ELs with different ages of entry to New York City schools between 1996 and 1999. The majority of the students were eligible for free lunch, foreign-born, and from Spanish-speaking homes. A criterion of the 40th percentile on the Language Assessment Battery (LAB) was used to determine proficiency in English, which resulted in reclassification. The “probability of exit from EL status” (i.e., reclassification as non-EL) was highest for students 1 year after they entered the school system and lower in subsequent grades. The author also reports that students who were older at school entry were less likely than those who were younger to be reclassified within the first year. However, the decline in reclassification in subsequent grades was lower for ELs who were older at school entry than for those who were younger, suggesting that while older ELs make a relatively slow start in learning English, they show relatively better progress than their younger peers in subsequent grades. In a reanalysis of data reported in the eight studies included in their synthesis, Saunders and O’Brien (2006) similarly found that ELs made faster progress from low to intermediate levels of proficiency and slower progress from intermediate to high levels of proficiency. While this finding pertains to ELs regardless of the age at school entry, it most commonly applies to students who enter school in kindergarten.

The finding that younger ELs make relatively fast progress on reclassification tests initially may reflect the fact that the target for them is relatively low compared with that for ELs who are older at school entry. In other words, the language skills to be learned at older ages and in higher grades are more complex and thus more difficult to learn. In any case, the initial advantage of younger learners may have fueled the notion that they are better and faster second language learners overall relative to their older peers. Results from other studies, however, suggest that “older is better” in some cases, although this may be true only when L2 learners have had prior education, and especially literacy instruction, in their first language (L1). In these cases, the advantage of older learners may be linked to prior schooling and/or the acquisition of literacy and academic language skills

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
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in L1, both of which may transfer to L2 acquisition and facilitate the development of proficiency in that language (see also Chapter 4). Consistent with these possibilities, Lindholm-Leary and Borsato (2006) report that ELs in the United States who participated in dual language programs that provided instruction in L1 along with English in the primary grades (K-2) often attained the same or higher levels of proficiency in English, especially in domains related to academic literacy and oral language development, relative to students in all-English programs. This was true despite the fact that students in the dual language programs had had less instruction and a later start in learning English in school. Again, this finding may reflect the transfer of language, including literacy and cognitively based language skills, acquired in L1 to English.

Evidence that dual language learning can be an additive process comes from studies showing that ELs who develop high levels of proficiency in both L1 and English relative to those with low levels of bilingual proficiency are more successful at closing the achievement gap in reading with their native English-speaking peers (e.g., Lambert and Cazabon, 1994; Lindholm and Aclan, 1991; Lindholm-Leary, 2001; Lindholm-Leary and Howard, 2008). Thompson (2015) found that ELs who entered kindergarten with high levels of academic proficiency in both L1 and English were 24 percent more likely to be reclassified than students who entered kindergarten with low levels of academic proficiency in both languages. Likewise, bilingual Hispanic students have been found to have higher achievement scores, grade point averages, and educational expectations relative to their monolingual English-speaking Hispanic peers (e.g., Lindholm-Leary, 2001; Rumberger and Larson, 1998). In a related vein, Lindholm-Leary and colleagues (Lindholm-Leary, 2001; Lindholm-Leary and Hernández, 2011; Lindholm-Leary and Howard, 2008) found that former ELs (i.e., those reclassified as proficient in English) were more likely to be bilingual and to score higher on standardized tests of Spanish achievement relative to current ELs and that their English test scores were highly and significantly correlated with their scores on Spanish language tests. Thus, the highest EL achievers were those who maintained and continued to develop their Spanish, while relatively low-achieving ELs tended to have poor Spanish language skills.

In contrast, studies of ELs who enter kindergarten with relatively low levels of proficiency in English show that, while they make progress over the following grades, they usually continue to lag behind their native English-speaking peers:

  • Jackson and colleagues (2014) assessed the growth trajectories of receptive vocabulary development in both Spanish and English among migrant ELs of low socioeconomic status from kindergarten
Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
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  • through grade 2. These students began kindergarten with English receptive vocabulary scores 2 standard deviations below those of monolingual native speakers of English. They made significant progress by grade 2 and narrowed the gap, although they were still below their English-speaking peers. Their scores in Spanish vocabulary were initially at grade-level expectations, although more than half scored below grade-level expectations by grade 2. Of interest, their Spanish scores predicted their rate of English vocabulary growth; that is, students with low Spanish scores showed slower growth in English relative to students with average or higher Spanish scores.

  • Mancilla-Martinez and Lesaux (2011) also found that ELs began kindergarten with much lower vocabulary levels in English compared with national norms, but made good growth and narrowed the gap by age 8, although they were still below national norms at age 11.
  • Collins and colleagues (2014) studied five groups of Latino children of immigrants to examine their dual language profiles from kindergarten to grade 2: (1) dual-proficient, (2) English-proficient, (3) Spanish-proficient, (4) borderline-proficient (just below cut-off in one or both languages), and (5) limited-proficient in both languages (2 standard deviations below the norm). At entry in kindergarten, most students (63%) showed a low-performing (subgroups 4 and 5) profile in English, but most made substantial gains in both languages by grade 2; in fact, 64 percent had “proficient competent profiles” (groups 1, 2, and 3). Among the kindergartners in the “limited-proficient” subgroup, however, a third were still in this category in grade 2. Students who were “borderline-proficient” in grade 2 were “limited-proficient” in kindergarten and made only limited growth over the grades or remained “borderline.”
  • Lesaux and colleagues (2007) found a different pattern. They studied a linguistically diverse group of ELs, representing 33 languages, and found that although they started kindergarten with lower scores than those of native speakers, this gap had largely been closed by grade 4.

These findings are important for a number of reasons. First, they indicate that, indeed, students who begin school in kindergarten with relatively limited proficiency in English are at risk of not achieving proficiency during the early grades of schooling. Viewed differently, these findings run counter to the notion that such students are necessarily quick language learners. It would be useful to know in what other respects, if any, these two groups of ELs—those with low and those with relatively high levels of English pro-

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
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ficiency initially—are similar and/or different from one another and from their monolingual English peers. These findings also indicate that bilingual proficiency at kindergarten entry does not jeopardize ELs’ achievement in school and, to the contrary, may be advantageous, especially in the face of challenges linked to low socioeconomic status. The bilingual advantage could be linked to enhanced metalinguistic or executive functions, or both (see Chapter 4). More research on these ELs would be useful. Finally, these findings reinforce the importance of conducting early assessment to identify ELs who need additional support and the kinds of support they need, since it appears that the gap between ELs and non-ELs will otherwise widen.

High School ELs

Relative to grades K-8, much less research has focused on reclassification rates among high school ELs. Studies of newcomer high school students are particularly rare; the committee could identify only two such studies, and they are based on the same dataset (Carhill et al., 2008; Suárez-Orozco et al., 2010). Testing in the studies discussed in this section took place in grades 9 to 12; thus they are considered high school studies even though the participants may have entered their respective school systems much earlier than 9th grade. Therefore, as was observed earlier with respect to middle school ELs who entered U.S. schools in the elementary grades, the results of these studies cannot be attributed to the effects of high school alone. Nevertheless, these findings give some indication of time to reclassification among ELs who were often older when they started school in the United States and certainly older when assessed in comparison with the elementary and middle school students discussed above.

A study by Carhill and colleagues (2008) is of particular interest because the authors used a longitudinal design to examine the relationships between English proficiency and a number of contextual and individual student factors. The 274 adolescent EL participants in this study were foreign-born (from Central America, China, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Mexico), and all spoke a language other than English as their first language. On average, they had spent at least two-thirds of their lives in their country of birth, had been in the United States for 7 years, and were 16.7 years of age. There was a significant positive correlation between length of time in the United States and ratings of proficiency. However, even after 7 years of schooling in the United States, only 7 percent scored at norm for English speakers on the English language proficiency subtests of the Bilingual Verbal Abilities Test (Muñoz-Sandoval et al., 1998), and fully three-quarters scored more than 1 standard deviation below the average of their English-speaking peers. Also of interest, the authors examined the relationship between test performance and a number of contextual vari-

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
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ables. They found that students from China, those who had more exposure to English in informal out-of-school contexts, and those attending schools with a low percentage of students living in poverty and a high percentage of English-proficient ELs scored relatively high on the test. Results of regression analyses that included key background and contextual variables indicated that parental factors were significant predictors of students’ proficiency in English, but that opportunities to use English in informal contexts and attendance at schools with a high percentage of English-proficient ELs were stronger predictors of English proficiency. These results are important in emphasizing the number and complexity of factors beyond quality of schooling that can influence ELs’ performance on reclassification tests.

A study by Umansky and Reardon (2014) is also of particular interest because it examined time to reclassification in relation to instructional program. This is one of the few studies in both the elementary/middle school and high school corpus that investigated how time to reclassification may vary as a function of ELs’ educational experiences, an issue that deserves much greater attention since it provides potential insights of an educational nature about how to improve ELs’ English proficiency results. The study was conducted in a large school district in California with more than 50,000 students, half of whom were classified as ELs or reclassified as proficient in English and were from diverse backgrounds. More specifically, in contrast to many studies on reclassification, Latinos made up just 25 percent of the district population and almost 50 percent of the EL school population. The students attended four program types: traditional English immersion, a transitional Spanish bilingual program,7 a Spanish maintenance8 bilingual program, and a Spanish dual language immersion program (see Chapter 7 for descriptions of instructional program types). Only ELs who had entered the U.S. school system in kindergarten were included in the analyses. Several important findings emerged. Overall, 60 percent of the Latino students became long-term ELs. Relative to those in the other program types, Latino ELs enrolled in dual language programs were reclassified as English-proficient at a lower rate in the elementary grades but had higher overall reclassification rates; higher English language arts academic achievement scores; and higher English reading, writing, speaking, and listening test results in the long run.

In summary, studies of high school ELs demonstrate that they do not

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7 A program in which ELs’ home language is used for instruction along with English for the first 2-3 years of school, followed by instruction in English only. The goal of these programs is to promote full proficiency in only English and not the home language.

8 Programs, such as 90:10 or 50:50 dual language programs, in which both English and a non-English language are used for instruction throughout the elementary and sometimes the high school grades. The goal of these programs is to promote high levels of bilingual proficiency.

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
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achieve reclassification as English-proficient quickly, and a relatively large percentage are not reclassified even after several years in school. This finding is of particular importance as ELs enter the upper grades, when academic requirements become more demanding and more dependent on language proficiency. Studies by Umansky and Reardon (2014) and Carhill and colleagues (2008) indicate further that understanding the development of proficiency in English among ELs requires a multidimensional, longitudinal approach since development is not linear but fluctuates over grades, and is influenced by multiple factors. With regard to the latter, more attention to school-related factors, including classroom instructional practices, would be particularly useful in the future to elucidate what steps educators can take to improve the progress of ELs, especially in light of policy goals for the educational progress of ELs under ESSA.

Long-Term English Learners

The evidence reviewed to this point clearly shows the difficulty of achieving reclassification to English-proficient and, by implication, levels of English proficiency that are deemed sufficient for ELs to participate in classrooms where all instruction is in English. The most common estimates of time to reclassification range from 5 to 10 years, with 5 to 7 years being one of the more frequently reported estimates. Of course, some of these estimates are an artifact of how long the studies continued or what grade levels were examined; they also reflect the influence of a myriad of other factors, such as quality of instruction, prior schooling, literacy levels in L1 and in English, and family and community factors. Nevertheless, many ELs fail to be reclassified as English-proficient even after many years of schooling in English. Over the last 10 years, attention has begun to focus on ELs who demonstrate extraordinary difficulty in achieving proficiency in English as measured by state-mandated assessments. Also referred to as long-term English learners (LTELs) (Olsen, 2010), these most commonly are ELs who have not been reclassified after 7 years.9 As Olsen (2010)

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9 California has a formal state definition for LTEL as an EL to whom all of the following apply: (1) is enrolled in grades 6 to 12, inclusive; and (2) has been enrolled in a U.S. school for 6 or more years; and (3) has remained at the same English language proficiency level for 2 or more consecutive prior years, or has regressed to a lower English language proficiency level; and (4) for students in grades 6 to 9, inclusive, has scored at the “Standard Not Met” level on the prior-year administration of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress-English Language Arts (CAASPP-ELA). In addition, (1) students for whom one or more of the required testing criteria are not available are categorically determined to be LTELs; and (2) the assessment component of LTEL determination for students in grades 10-12, inclusive, is based solely on the CELDT criteria outlined above. For more information, see Education Code 313.1.

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
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notes with respect to California, schools and school districts in that state do not have a common definition of LTELs, and this is likely the case in other states as well. Olsen suggests that a simple binary distinction between LTEL and non-LTEL may not be the best or most useful way to understand and support the LTEL population:

It is most useful, therefore, to think of a continuum from those long term English learners who are failing and whose proficiency is actually falling to those who are stagnating at a level of English proficiency managing to get by in school with very low grades, to those who are slowly progressing and doing okay in school. (p. 12)

The lack of a common definition of LTELs makes it difficult to interpret and draw general conclusions from the existing, limited research on these students.

LTELs have attracted increased attention recently because they represent a sizable segment of the EL population. Menken (2013), for example, found that LTELs made up about 33 percent of high school ELs in New York City and Chicago, about 25 percent of ELs in Colorado, and 50 percent of ELs in California. California had the largest percentage of LTELs in grades 6-12, at 12 percent; more than 75 percent of current ELs were long-term in one of every three districts in the state. Olsen (2010) similarly reports very high rates, 59 percent, of LTEL status among California ELs. Using 2000 U.S. census data, Batalova and colleagues (2007) report that 5 percent of all students in grades 6-12 nationwide were ELs and 70 percent of LTELs were Hispanic, followed by Vietnamese speakers, at 3 percent. Abedi (2008) similarly cites ethnic group differences, with Hispanic LTELs spending almost 10 years in EL status and Asians and Caucasian LTELs spending about half that time, although these differences may be confounded by other variables, such as socioeconomic status. The question arises of how to account for such group differences.

LTELs often are proficient in everyday uses of oral English but have low levels of proficiency in academic language and literacy in both English and their L1. Commonly, LTEL students reach a plateau at intermediate or lower levels of language proficiency (Olsen, 2010). Indeed, longitudinal studies that have followed LTEL students into middle or high school have found that their rates of growth in language and literacy slow over time and then plateau (Kieffer, 2008; Mancilla-Martinez et al., 2011; Nakamoto et al., 2007). Umansky and Reardon (2014), for example, report that reclassification to fully English-proficient slowed in middle school in all instructional programs they examined, including English-only and transi-

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×

tional, maintenance, and two-way dual language programs,10 supporting Saunders and O’Brien’s (2006) conclusion that times to proficiency appear to be comparable regardless of program type. Attainment of proficiency in English in middle school can be thwarted because increased academic tracking of ELs often occurs in these grades. As a result, ELs are often assigned to low-level academic classes (Callahan, 2005; Callahan et al., 2008, 2010; Kanno and Kangas, 2014), presumably in an effort to support their learning, but often resulting in reducing their chances of advancing beyond EL status. Because they are in classrooms that lack academic rigor, it is difficult for many of these ELs to meet the academic standards in English needed for reclassification.

LTELs are to be distinguished from other struggling high school ELs who are new arrivals, and often refugees who have experienced interrupted or limited formal education (Boyson and Short, 2003; Menken, 2013). Like LTELs, these students often exhibit low levels of English language proficiency and academic achievement compared with their peers. However, their difficulties probably are linked to the challenge of initial adjustment to a new language and culture and of developing language and literacy in English in a relatively brief period of time (Boyson and Short, 2003; Menken, 2013). In contrast, LTELs are not newcomers to the United States, and their difficulties cannot be attributed in any simple fashion to adjustment or personal issues. Menken and colleagues (2012), for example, note that by definition, LTELs have often been in the United States for 7 or more years and in fact often were born here (see also Freeman et al., 2002, in Menken, 2013). Batalova and colleagues (2007) also found that about 57 percent of LTELs were U.S.-born; 27 percent were second-generation, and 30 percent were third-generation.

In a related vein, Freeman and colleagues (2002) and Menken and colleagues (2012) report that LTELs often have had inconsistent educational programming; they are “in and out of various ESL and bilingual programs” (Freeman et al., 2002, p. 5). They also often have experienced weak, no, or inappropriate language education programs; curriculum and learning materials that are not designed to meet their linguistic needs; and limited access to the full curriculum. LTEL status may be linked as well to the characteristics of the schools they attend. Specifically, several studies have found that ELs tend to be enrolled disproportionately in schools in urban areas with a high percentage of ethnic minority and economically disadvantaged students (Callahan et al., 2010; Clewell et al., 2007; Rumberger and Gándara, 2005), characteristics of schools that put students at risk for low academic achievement (Clewell et al., 2007; Rumberger and Gándara,

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10 Programs in which both native speakers of English and native speakers of the non-English language participate and are taught using both languages for significant periods of time.

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
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2005; Uriarte et al., 2011) (see Chapter 7 for more detailed discussion). A study conducted by the Urban Institute (Clewell et al., 2007) indicates that as of 2000, nearly 70 percent of ELs nationwide were enrolled in schools that fit this description.

Taken together, evidence on the family and educational histories of LTELs indicates that an explanation for the failure of LTELs to achieve English proficiency and to succeed academically is likely to be complex. In brief, explanations for the fate of LTELs can be linked to multiple dimensions of their education, including the quality and consistency of academic programming, the provision of appropriate and timely additional support services, and other characteristics of their schools (Callahan, 2005; Callahan et al., 2008, 2010; Kanno and Kangas, 2014; Menken et al., 2012). While these findings are distressing, they suggest specific areas in which changes could realistically be made to help address LTELs’ long-term needs and thereby enhance their educational success. Unfortunately, however, few studies have examined alternative support strategies for LTELs and their effectiveness. In one such study, Callahan and colleagues (2010) examined the impact of English as a second language (ESL) placement on the academic achievement and course taking of ELs in high school. While acknowledging the benefits of ESL placement in meeting the students’ linguistic needs, the authors also note that long-term ESL placement can marginalize students academically because of the low academic rigor in these classes. ESL placement also fails to provide ELs with opportunities to complete upper-level science and social science coursework or to take electives. Several studies have documented the potential adverse consequences of the long-term designation as EL:

FACTORS THAT INFLUENCE RECLASSIFICATION RATES AMONG ENGLISH LEARNERS IN GRADES K-12

Thus far, little attention has been paid to differences among individual ELs and subgroups of ELs whose backgrounds differ. Given the considerable variation in ELs’ personal, cultural, linguistic, and educational backgrounds, one would expect to see large individual variations among ELs in their reclassification rates (see, e.g., Suárez-Orozco et al., 2010). Identify-

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
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ing, documenting, and understanding these variations and their relationship to progress toward proficiency in English is critical for planning effective instruction that meets these students’ needs. Research has examined a variety of individual, family, school, and contextual differences among ELs alluded to earlier in this chapter, including gender, socioeconomic status, place of birth (U.S.- or foreign-born), ethnic/racial/linguistic background, prior schooling, density of minority students in the school/community, parental education, and language education program (dual language or all-English). Many of these factors, but not all—such as low socioeconomic status, ethnic minority status, and no/limited/interrupted prior schooling—frequently are associated with underachievement in school among non-ELs. Unfortunately, relatively little research has examined the influence of these factors on reclassification rates among ELs, and most studies address only one or two of these factors. In this regard, it is worth noting that, according to Lindholm-Leary (2010), achievement among ELs is lower the more risk factors individual students experience.

The existing research in this area has limitations. The samples in most of the studies reviewed by the committee comprised exclusively or largely low-income Hispanic Spanish-speaking ELs. Further, most studies included students who entered at kindergarten, or possibly first grade, and did not include students who were receiving special education services. Nevertheless, the available evidence is fairly consistent in showing that student characteristics influence time to reclassification, although the quality and quantity of evidence with respect to specific factors varies. Clearly, much more research in this area is needed.

Gender

Findings from the available studies on gender are inconsistent. Four studies (Greenberg-Motamedi, 2015; Grissom, 2004; Thompson, 2015; Uriarte et al., 2011) found higher rates of classification among girls. However, four studies (Abedi, 2008; Conger, 2009; Conger et al., 2012; Johnson, 2007) failed to find this difference.

Language Background

ELs whose native language is Asian tend to be reclassified sooner and to achieve at higher levels relative to Spanish-speaking ELs (Abedi, 2008; Carhill et al., 2008; Conger, 2009; Conger et al., 2012; Greenberg-Motamedi, 2015; Grissom, 2004; Hill, 2006; Lindholm-Leary, 2011; Mulligan et al., 2012; New York Office of English Language Learners, 2009; Thompson, 2015; Uriarte et al., 2011). The reason for this difference is unclear, but it could be due to multiple factors, such as prior schooling,

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×

culture, and family circumstances and characteristics. In addition, research has shown that ELs who speak Asian languages, especially Chinese, outscore their non-EL peers on assessments (Leung and Uchikoshi, 2012; Lindholm-Leary, 2011; Mulligan et al., 2012), even after controlling for socioeconomic status, suggesting that other factors also are at play.

Socioeconomic Status

Seven of the eight studies on socioeconomic status reviewed by the committee found that ELs from relatively high socioeconomic backgrounds achieve proficiency in English more quickly than ELs from relatively low socioeconomic backgrounds. Monolingual English-speaking students from high socioeconomic backgrounds have similarly been found to score significantly higher than their peers from relatively low socioeconomic backgrounds on a variety of measures (Reardon et al., 2012). Although not specific to oral language proficiency, research findings from Kieffer (2008) and Lesaux and colleagues (2007) indicate that differences in English reading ability between ELs and non-ELs are eliminated if differences in socioeconomic status are taken into account, illustrating the important and possibly overriding influence of this factor in many of the studies whose samples comprise largely students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Han (2014) reports that Asian ELs from relatively high socioeconomic backgrounds outperformed all other groups, while those of low socioeconomic status performed the worst. Her findings illustrate variation within a specific group, and point to the importance of factors other than race/ethnicity. They also call for caution in generalizing about ethnic groups.

U.S.- Versus Foreign-Born

All three of the studies reviewed that examined the influence of being U.S.- versus foreign-born found that this factor is important, but its effects may depend on age at entry. Conger (2009) reports that a higher percentage of U.S.-born than of foreign-born ELs achieved proficiency in English in 3 years. Greenberg-Motamedi (2015) similarly reports an advantage for U.S.-born ELs who entered school at kindergarten, but the opposite for those who entered in grades 2 to 5. Slama (2012) also found significant differences in English language proficiency favoring U.S.- over foreign-born ELs in grade 9, but these differences had disappeared by the end of grade 12. The underlying explanation for these differences is difficult to discern because of methodological issues.

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×

English Proficiency at School Entry

While no recent studies have looked at the effect of ELs’ prior schooling on the attainment of English proficiency, five studies have examined their level of proficiency in English at program entry (Greenberg-Motamedi, 2015; Johnson, 2007; Lindholm-Leary, 2013, 2014; Thompson, 2015). All five found that English proficiency scores at program entry had a positive influence on later English proficiency scores and reclassification rates. The challenge for parents and educators is how to promote ELs’ proficiency in English if they live in homes and neighborhoods where another language is solely or widely used.

RETENTION AND LOSS OF THE HOME LANGUAGE

Increased cross-cultural, cross-linguistic, and cross-national communication, whether through electronic channels or face-to-face conversation suggests the importance of examining the development of ELs’ proficiency in their L1s. One might argue that competence in other languages is unnecessary given the global status of English. However, evidence shows that second language speakers of English outnumber native speakers (Crystal, 2003). This fact speaks to the importance of not only learning English but also knowing other languages as well in order to interact effectively or compete for jobs with those who are bilingual in English and other world languages. Children who come to school with some competence in languages other than English are a logical place to begin an examination of this issue. Countries such as the United States with a high proportion of speakers of other languages could have an advantage in the multilingual global marketplace were ELs’ skills in their L1 developed along with those in English.

The association between bilingual proficiency and higher levels of academic achievement among ELs was mentioned earlier in this chapter and is discussed in greater detail in Chapter 4. In addition, research has shown that bilingual children experience higher levels of well-being than English-dominant ELs or English-monolingual children (Han, 2014; Han and Huang, 2010). Using cohort data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99 (ECLS-K), Han and Huang (2010) examined the behavioral trajectories of ELs up to grade 5. They found that the growth rate of problem behaviors was lower in fluent bilingual and non-English-dominant ELs than in white English-monolingual children. In contrast, monolingual ELs had the highest levels of problem behaviors by grade 5. Similarly, Collins and colleagues (2011) found that Spanish and English competencies significantly predicted dimensions of well-being and school functioning for Latino children of immigrants, and were far more important than child, home, and school variables. Taken together, the

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
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findings of these studies indicate that the optimal focus of support for the language acquisition of ELs goes beyond English because emotional, social, and behavioral benefits are associated with dual language competence. These findings corroborate the importance of cultural and personal dimensions of ELs discussed in Chapters 1 and 4 of this report.

In light of these findings, it is important to note that when the minority language of ELs is not supported at home or in school, it often undergoes attrition or may be underdeveloped relative to age-matched native speakers of the language (Block, 2012; Cohen and Wickens, 2015; Collins, 2014; Espinosa, 2007, 2010, 2013; Hammer et al., 2008, 2009, 2014; Jackson et al., 2014; Lindholm-Leary, 2014; Mancilla-Martinez and Lesaux, 2011; Oller and Eilers, 2002; Pham and Kohnert, 2014; Proctor et al., 2010). In fact, some researchers have found that ELs who began as dominant or monolingual Spanish speakers suffered so much language attrition that they were no longer considered proficient in Spanish (Lindholm-Leary, 2014; Mancilla-Martinez and Lesaux, 2011).

Loss and underdevelopment of L1 has been documented in preschool, early elementary, and high school ELs. This is the case even for Spanish, despite the fact that it is widely spoken in some communities in the United States. Loss of L1 among ELs has been documented in multiple ways, including reduced overall proficiency, reduced preference for use of the L1 (Wong-Fillmore, 1991), loss or incomplete acquisition of specific grammatical features of the language (e.g., Mueller Gathercole, 2002), reduced lexical knowledge, and slowed processing of the language relative to English (Kohnert et al., 1999, in Montrul, 2008). Language loss is not a uniform process, however. It tends to be greater

  • among simultaneous than sequential bilinguals, although both experience L1 attrition, and among younger versus older immigrants (e.g., Jia and Aaronson, 2003; Yeni-Komshian et al., 2000, in Montrul, 2008);
  • the earlier ELs are exposed to and begin to learn English; and
  • in homes where English is used compared with those in which parents use only the minority language.

Loss tends to occur more slowly and gradually the older ELs are when exposed to the dominant language in the society, arguably because their earlier, intensive exposure to their L1 consolidates competence in that language and thus serves to protect them from the eroding influences of English. Jia and Aaronson (2003) found that the young Chinese-English ELs in their sample, who varied in age at immigration, demonstrated a shift in preference for using English as early as 12 months after their first exposure to it. Montrul (2008, p. 136) suggests that “there is a threshold for vulnerability

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×

to language loss in sequential ELs.” More specifically, “minority-speaking children younger than 10 years of age show a more rapid shift to the L2 and a larger degree of L1 loss than children older than 10.” Hakuta and D’Andrea (1992) likewise suggest that exposure to English before age 10 contributes to language loss in Latino children.

Processing and acquisition of the structural/grammatical properties of L1 also are susceptible to negative influences from the dominant language. Influences on processing have been demonstrated by ELs having more difficulty accessing words in their L1 and processing the L1 more slowly than the dominant language (see Montrul, 2008, for a review). Although there has been little research on the morphosyntactic development of ELs in the United States, evidence indicates that ELs often fail to acquire full mastery of the morphosyntax of their L1 once they have been exposed to English. In an early study of this phenomenon, for example, Merino (1983) examined the morphosyntactic development of Spanish-speaking ELs from low socioeconomic backgrounds attending English-only schools in kindergarten to grade 4 (5-10 years of age) in the United States. She found a gradual decline in the children’s general production and comprehension skills in Spanish, as well as incomplete mastery of a number of features of that language, including gender and number marking and correct use of the past tense, the subjunctive, relative clauses, and conditional verb forms. Children who used only Spanish with their parents had the strongest Spanish skills, while those who used both Spanish and English demonstrated significant loss. More recent work confirms that ELs often show poorer mastery of the morphosyntax of the L1 relative to native speakers (see Montrul and Potowski [2007] and Mueller Gathercole [2002] for Spanish-English ELs, and Song et al. [1997] for Korean-English ELs).

A shift toward English emerges as exposure to, proficiency in, and the necessity of using English increases. For young ELs, this shift often is associated with preschool and school entry. In a national large-scale survey of 1,100 Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Khmer, and Vietnamese families in the United States, Wong-Fillmore (1991) found that 50 percent of the participating parents of ELs who were attending preschool programs in which English was used exclusively or along with the L1 reported a shift away from the L1 and toward English; in comparison, only 10 percent of parents who did not send their children to preschool programs reported such a shift. In contrast, Rodriguez and colleagues (1995) found that early exposure to English in preschool did not affect the comprehension, production, or vocabulary development of Spanish-speaking ELs in their study. Arguably, the difference in results here may be linked to differences in community language. Many of the languages spoken by the parents interviewed by Wong-Fillmore were not as well represented or used in the community at

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×

large as was Spanish, the language spoken by the parents who participated in the Rodriguez study.

Support for the primary language at home (e.g., Hakuta and D’Andrea, 1992; Wong-Fillmore, 1991) can reduce the chances and severity of loss (e.g., Collins, 2014; Collins et al., 2014; Hammer et al., 2009; Leung and Uchikoshi, 2012; Mancilla-Martinez and Lesaux, 2011). Mancilla-Martinez and Lesaux (2011), for example, found that use of Spanish in the home had a positive impact on children’s vocabulary growth and did not negatively affect their English vocabulary growth, while mothers’ increased use of English in the home negatively affected children’s Spanish vocabulary development. Similarly, attending school programs in which the L1 is used for instruction along with English can lead to retention of the L1 (e.g., Lindholm-Leary and Borsato, 2006; Mueller Gathercole, 2002). Working with school-age ELs in Florida, Mueller Gathercole (2002) found that by grade 5, Spanish-speaking ELs in two-way immersion programs had significantly greater proficiency in Spanish grammar than their peers in all-English mainstream programs, even when the latter came from homes in which Spanish was spoken.

However, even ELs who use their L1 at home and/or attend dual language programs in the elementary grades often experience a shift to English (Wong-Fillmore, 1991). Hammer and colleagues (2009) found that L1 interactions between ELs and their mothers changed upon the children’s entry to preschools in which they were instructed in English; that is, the percentage of mothers who spoke mostly English to their children increased from preschool to kindergarten. This change in mothers’ language usage slowed their children’s development of Spanish vocabulary. Similarly, Collins and colleagues (Collins, 2014; Collins et al., 2014) found that more use of Spanish in the home was an important predictor of academic proficiency in Spanish in the early elementary grades, but even when Spanish was the dominant language of the home, second-generation adolescents who had been schooled in English had trouble conversing fluently in Spanish with their parents or other family members (Block, 2012; Cohen and Wickens, 2015).

Participation in dual language school programs does not guarantee that ELs will continue to develop age-appropriate academic language in their L1. Proctor and colleagues (2010), for example, found that ELs who were instructed in Spanish literacy until grade 2 or 3 in transitional bilingual programs experienced decreases in Spanish reading ability relative to norms for native Spanish speakers; at the same time, ELs instructed only in English were not literate in Spanish by grade 5. Pham and Kohnert (2014) found that Vietnamese-speaking ELs who received some instruction in Vietnamese along with English showed growth in both languages from grades 2 to 5,

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×

but greater growth in English and a trend to shift to greater use of English over grade progression (see also Mueller Gathercole, 2002).

CROSS-LINGUISTIC ASPECTS OF LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT IN ENGLISH LEARNERS

A growing body of research dating back to the 1960s reveals that the two languages of bilinguals do not exist in isolation and to the contrary, are highly interactive. This interaction has been found in multiple domains of language learning and use, including acquisition, cognitive representation and processing, and use. That this process characterizes even 2- to 3-year-old ELs indicates that it is an unconscious one that is a by-product of being bilingual (see the discussion in Chapter 4 on code switching in preschool-age dual language learners). The two languages of bilinguals share a cognitive/conceptual foundation that can facilitate the acquisition and use of more than one language for communication, thinking, and problem solving. It is the sophisticated and complex management of two linguistic systems that is thought to engender the development of superior cognitive skills in bilinguals relative to monolinguals.

Research on the acquisition, comprehension, and production of two languages during second language learning and bilingual performance has revealed that both linguistic systems are differentially accessible and activated at virtually all times (e.g., Gullifer et al., 2013; Kroll et al., 2014). Even when using only one language, bilinguals access the meaning of words in both languages, although accessibility and salience of meaning in the active language are stronger. Of particular relevance to this study, extensive evidence demonstrates cross-linguistic correlations in performance in domains of language related to literacy and academic language more generally (Genesee and Geva, 2006; Genesee et al., 2006; Riches and Genesee, 2006). Extensive reviews and detailed descriptions of this research are provided by August and Shanahan (2006) and Genesee and colleagues (2006, Ch. 4). Correlations have been reported in numerous domains of language and literacy development across a wide range of language pairs, but the magnitude of the correlations can depend on the typological similarity of the languages, the level of proficiency of the learning in one or both languages, the stage of second language learning, and the specific measures used.

Research has shown that bilinguals who code switch do so in such a way as to avoid violating the grammatical constraints of both languages, indicating a profound sensitivity to extremely subtle, subconscious knowledge governing both linguistic systems (MacSwan, 2016; Myers-Scotton, 1993; Poplack, 1980). This view of code switching is especially apt in the case of young ELs, who use all of their linguistic resources to acquire language and to communicate when they are in a stage of early develop-

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×

ment. Notwithstanding such evidence, teachers often view code switching as a cause for concern (Ramirez and Milk, 1986; Valdés-Fallis, 1978). In a study involving 278 elementary school teachers from 14 elementary schools in South Texas, for example, Nava (2009) found that a large majority of teachers, particularly those in less diverse school settings, viewed code switching negatively and discouraged their students from using it. Teachers expressed the view that code switching reflects limited proficiency in both languages, and interferes with academic and cognitive development. The way teachers, researchers, and others view children’s language ability is important because it affects their views of what the children know and of their families and communities, as well as the treatment children receive in school and other service contexts.

That there are extensive and significant cross-linguistic relationships between the languages of bilinguals has significant implications for both raising and educating children bilingually since it indicates that the skills, knowledge, or strategies acquired in one language can be used to acquire or use another language. Indeed, cross-linguistic interactions are now viewed largely as facilitative or as evidence of linguistic competence or resourcefulness.

CONCLUSIONS

Conclusion 6-1: 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 6-2: Time to reclassification as a “fully proficient speaker of English” varies widely among English learners (ELs) with different background characteristics. Some language groups consistently take longer to attain proficiency and do so at lower rates than other groups, although variation is found within cultural and linguistic groups. This variation in time to reclassification may be due to differences in how academic language proficiency is assessed, in the adequacy of the tests

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×

used to reclassify ELs, in the quality of instruction provided to ELs, in teachers’ beliefs about ELs’ ability to meet high academic standards, and in teachers’ attitudes about the role they should play in supporting students in school. Research does not provide clear explanations for why some ELs have more difficulty than others in attaining the English proficiency necessary for reclassification. Research is limited on pedagogical factors, such as as teacher qualifications and expectations and the quality of instruction provided, as well as on student characteristics, such as their prior educational background, the economic status of their families, their motivation, and their cultural values.

Conclusion 6-3: The languages of bilinguals do not develop in isolation from one another. Evidence indicates that certain aspects of dual language learning, processing, and usage are significantly and positively correlated and that the development of strong L1 skills supports the development of English-L2 skills. This interrelationship has been shown to be most evident in domains related to the acquisition of literacy skills and in languages that are typologically similar.

Conclusion 6-4: Evidence reveals significant positive correlations between literacy skills in English learners (ELs’) L1 and the development of literacy skills in English-L2. Educational programs that provide systematic support for the development of ELs’ L1 often facilitate and enhance their development of skills in English, especially literacy.

Conclusion 6-5: Evidence indicates that English learners are at risk of losing their L1 when exposure to English begins early—during the preschool or early school years; this is true even when students are in dual language programs. Loss of or reduced competence in the L1 results in reduced levels of bilingual competence and, commensurately, the advantages associated with bilingualism—cognitive enhancements, improved self-esteem, and job-related opportunities associated with competence in English and another language(s).

Conclusion 6-6: Evidence suggests that many schools are not providing adequate instruction to English learners (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.

Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
×

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Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
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Suggested Citation:"6 The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K-12." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24677.
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Educating dual language learners (DLLs) and English learners (ELs) effectively is a national challenge with consequences both for individuals and for American society. 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.

Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures examines 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. This report makes recommendations for policy, practice, and research and data collection focused on addressing the challenges in caring for and educating DLLs/ELs from birth to grade 12.

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