English Learners who speak only English

Complaints are growing that some school districts label English-speaking children as English Language Learners based on misleading surveys that ask if anyone in the home speaks a language other than English, reports Mary Ann Zehr on Education Week. Once labeled as ELL, students must test well in English to be reclassified as fluent — even if English is the only language they know.

Christina Chum, a parent of a 5th grader in Orange County, Fla., for example, says her son was mistakenly categorized as an ELL after she said on a home-language survey that Spanish was sometimes spoken in their home. She’s asked district officials to lift the label for her son, whose first and primary language is English, but she says they tell her state law doesn’t permit them to do so, unless her son proves on a test that he knows English.

. . . Lori Phanachone, now a freshman at Iowa State University, was suspended for three days from Storm Lake High School in Iowa last school year after she refused to take an English-proficiency test. The honor student declined to take the exam as a protest against the Storm Lake district’s labeling of her as an ELL solely because she had said on a home-language survey that she spoke Lao, the language of Laos, at home.

Arizona changed the home-language survey to ask only for the student’s primary language, not the language of the parents or grandparents who live in the home. Now “the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights is investigating a complaint that contends . . .  Arizona is discriminating against children who may be dominant in English but still need extra help to gain proficiency in it.”

It would make sense to give extra help in language development to kids who need it, regardless of whether their parents speak English or some other language.

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  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    It would make sense, but….
    The English-impaired industry needs bodies. There’s money in it.
    The PC crowd needs people who can be convinced they’re victims. There’s power in it.
    So, really, in public education, it doesn’t really make sense.

  2. That’s been happening for a while. Most of the native English speakers now know to lie on that question.

  3. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    My sister spent, if I recall correctly, about two months in ESL because of her last name. No one asked. No one tested. No one even notified my parents.

    She didn’t speak a word of Spanish. She didn’t know what was going on in her classes, but she didn’t tell anyone because she didn’t realize it was a mistake. My parents eventually found out and fixed the situation… but it’s hard not to think that some long-term academic damage was done.

  4. Ain’t government grand?

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    I have a colleague with a Spanish last name. She enrolled her daughter in ESL as the best way to learn Spanish.

  6. I have known a number of immigrant children who were fluently bi-lingual from a very early age. When will we outgrow the mistaken notion that the brain can only contain a single language?

  7. George Larson says:

    “I have known a number of immigrant children who were fluently bi-lingual from a very early age. When will we outgrow the mistaken notion that the brain can only contain a single language?”

    Margo, I agree with you, but does ESL produce fluently bilingual children? I had the impression it did not. I have lived in Germany where they do achieve it. What are we doing wrong?

  8. Many Germans are not that fluent in English. Some do reach fluency. The students spend more time learning English in the classroom –3 hours or more, from 1st grade on–than US schools devote to foreign language training.

  9. Sorry, I meant to say, 3 hours or more per week from the first grade, with some 6 hours per week in high school grades.

  10. We need more students like Lori.

  11. It’s an old topic. First, let’s separate bilingualism from the need to acquire a second language *in a hurry* when one happens to change countries.

    The best results for bilingualism (or even trilingualism) happen if we can immerse a child in early age (pre-teen, the earlier the better) in an environment where multiple languages are taught and used throughout the day. Kids don’t seem to get confused, and as long as there is sufficient time with each language every day (including both speaking as well as reading & writing) this seems to work very well.

    Teaching kids a second language as a foreign language from early age (e.g., 3-4 hours a week, or even an hour a day, starting in grade 3 or even before) seems not to work very well. Some kids get it, but for most kids it seems insufficient for any serious proficiency. Better results for such non-immersion type of acquisition happen with older kids starting, say, in grade 5 or 6, when children know enough about the formal underpinning of their first language and they can transfer it to the foreign language with focused and formal (not just conversational!) instruction.

    When one wants to learn another language in a rush, as when one relocates countries, the fastest is always to immerse the student in the target language, at most with a minimal and very short (few weeks to very few months) support in their first language. This assumes the focus is to acquire the new language, not to develop the first language beyond what is already there.

    But the Latino caucus hates the last idea… if kids truly acquire the host language, what would they need the racial politicos for?

  12. When will we outgrow the mistaken notion that the brain can only contain a single language?

    Where do you come up with these lunatic notions? What on earth have we hired millions of foreign language public school teachers for, if we have this “mistaken notion”?

    You really need to stop inventing these lovely strawmen to make your posts seem more dramatic.

  13. About twenty years ago all HS homeroom teachers in NYC were directed to inform admin of any kids with names that sounded Hispanic. I refused, as it was blatantly racist, but my supervisor went over my list and did it for me.

    This resulted in several Italian-American kids being forced to take the ESL assessment, and I got several in my ESL classes. It was preposterous, but there was nothing we could do until the kids tested out.


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