Learning English

At some California elementary schools, English Learners learn English well and go on to middle school prepared to succeed. At others, they never develop the reading skills they need to tackle middle and high school work. I’ve got a column in the San Francisco Chronicle drawing on my Lexington Institute paper and a new EdSource study.

In a mainstream class at Typical Elementary, third-graders Maria and Jose listen to the teacher explain Thanksgiving, draw a turkey, study vocabulary words, look at a Mayflower picture, sing a Thanksgiving song, and act out Indians feasting with Pilgrims. An aide may help in English or Spanish; they’ll spend 30 minutes a day studying English with other “English learners.”

Maria will be proficient in English by fifth grade and go on to earn a high school diploma. Jose will remain an English learner into middle school, where he’ll drift away from the mainstream. He’ll take low-level high school classes, give up and drop out. While Maria is in community college planning a nursing career, Jose will be working on his uncle’s mow-and-blow crew.

About half of students from immigrant families aren’t making it academically.

About Joanne


  1. -No newcomer centers
    -Open Court all the time
    -No remediation/ intervention curriculum
    -No flex grouping by readiness
    -Pull-out approach to ELD
    -No attempt to provide L1 literacy
    -And some teachers still suck

    California schools, especially elementaries, are not doing what we know it takes to improve outcomes for ELLs.

  2. Wayne Martin says:

    This article ignores the role of parents in their kid’s success in school. While the article does claim that most of these kids come from low-income families, it seems to ignore any contribution from the parents in motivating their kid’s education. This is a serious oversight which seems to permeate education industry analysis.

    > Forty percent of English learners who started California schools
    > as kindergartners won’t be proficient in English by seventh grade,
    > according to a study by the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Others reach
    > even grimmer numbers: More than 60 percent aren’t proficient after
    > 10 years in California schools, estimates a state-commissioned study
    > on Proposition 227’s effects by two nonprofit research groups, the
    > American Institutes for Research and WestEd.

    While absolute numbers have not been used in this article, the numbers hinted at in the ratios used indicates that a sizeable number of kids is involved.

    The fact that so many kids are not being taught English to a level of “proficiency” should be seen as a scandal. This has to be seen as another example of how “local control” is broken here in California. While the State has the authority to take over school districts that have demonstrated significant financial irresponsibility, it’s time for the State to be given the authority to take over school districts that have demonstrated a failure to perform academically.

    > Not surprisingly, successful schools have more experienced
    > and certified teachers; principals report a higher percentage of
    > teachers understand their subjects, know how to link standards
    > to teaching, collaborate well with colleagues and are excited
    > about teaching. These schools are more likely to have
    > up-to-date textbooks.

    It would seem that some schools have figured out how to teach kids to learn English successfully. The State should use this template to reconstitute schools that fail to teach English successfully.

  3. I’m very surprised by this. While not every third grader may end up a Rhodes Scholar, there’s absolutely no reason every one without exception can’t be fluent in English in a few short years.

    That’s remarkable for such young kids. I suspect Jose’s problems run far deeper than English or no English.

    To be a kid and not learn English in this country, you almost have to be in a vacuum. My wife speaks Spanish and my daughter did too, exclusively, as a very young child. But once she discovered the Teletubbies and Elmo, it was full speed ahead in English.

  4. In my district many of our English learners are Hispanic and in the small town I teach in most students come from families that run several Mexican restaurants in the area. It has been my experience that the young boys generally lag behind the girls in academic motivation. When questioned about it many young men have told me, “I already work. I know my job. I don’t need to know how to do this stuff to run the restaurant.” They are simply marking time until legally they can take the “earning” place their family has provided for them. Most won’t even discuss the possibility of doing anything but what their family has already provided for them to do later in life. Cultural and family bonds are hard to break.

  5. Interesting post and one I will definitely be reflecting on for some time to come.

    TMAO may have several valid points. School factors may be to blame.
    Wayne may also have a valid point with parental factors.
    EHTs point on family and school culture may also be valid.

    I pose this question:
    Are we gauging their success on a White Middle-Class success scale? Do minorities learn differently because of other cultural/familial factors that are not accounted for in the WMC model?

  6. Catch Thirty-Thr33 says:

    There is something to be said for 100% full immersion. My mother’s first language was German, and when her family moved across the Atlantic all those years ago, and it was time for her to attend school, she was thrown into the English speaking world, sink or swim. It doesn’t seem to have affected her negatively at all.