English non-learners

Nearly 60 percent of English Learners haven’t mastered English reading and writing despite six or more years of U.S. education, concludes a study of California high schools by Californians Together, a coalition of education and civil rights groups. From the LA Times:

In a survey of 40 school districts, the study found that the majority of long-term English-language learners are U.S. natives who prefer English and are orally bilingual. But they develop major deficits in reading and writing, fail to achieve the academic English needed for educational success and disproportionately drop out of high school.

Few districts focus on long-term ELs, writes Ed Week’s Mary Ann Zehr.

“The onus is on the elementary schools in particular,” wrote Margarita Calderón, a professor emerita of education and educational research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, in an e-mail message. “They are the long-term-ELL factories. Middle and high schools simply fold their hands.”

Some of these students are in mainstream classes, where they receive no special help in developing reading and writing skills. Others are stuck in low-level English Language Development classes with new immigrants who are learning the basics. Many don’t realize they’re not proficient in English, the study found. But they’re not likely to succeed in college — which many plan to attend — with weak English skills.

Ventura Unified has moved more long-term ELs to proficiency by providing classes designed for their needs, the report found. The Southern California district created college-prep English Language Development classes for long-term ELs and updates each student on “where he or she stands in achieving English proficiency and meeting state academic standards.”

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  1. Cardinal Fang says:

    How bad is the English language learners’ performance compared to the performance of similar students born to English-speaking parents? I’m wondering how to disentangle the effects of growing up Spanish-speaking parents versus the effects of growing up with low-income parents. How are the monolingual English speakers doing in these schools?

    I presume many of these students failed to learn to read when they were five, six and seven either because they weren’t in American schools, or they at that time didn’t speak English well. In general, American schools are pretty poor at remediating students who have reached third grade without learning to read.

    I know it’s controversial, but it seems to me that faced with a six year old who spoke Spanish and didn’t know how to read, I’d want to teach him to read Spanish, and to speak English, at the same time. Once someone is literate in one language, the literacy transfers to other languages with the Roman alphabet. Or, at least it did with me. Didn’t the rest of you find that when you were studying German, or Spanish, or French, you could read anything you could say or understand orally– that is, reading itself wasn’t the problem? (Yes, yes, Russian and Chinese are a different story. But we’re talking about Spanish speakers here.)

  2. It’s simply insane the way ELLs are identified. One year, I was instructed to ID all Spanish-sounding surnames in my homeroom so they could be tested for ESL. I refused, saying I couldn’t do it, but my supervisor did. The following semester I had an Italian-American kid who’d been incorrectly identified as having a Spanish surname sitting in my ESL class.

    This inspired me to give a test for my master’s thesis comparing a group of ELLs with a group of freshman native English speakers. I don’t remember the precise results, but many native speakers tested into ESL based on my test, which was modeled after the test NY State was giving at that time.

    It’s ludicrous that administrators can’t be bothered having simple one-minute conversations that could clear up a whole lot many tests could not.

  3. Cardinal Fang,

    My wife speaks more Spanish than English, and my daughter favored it when she was very young. But the influence of Barney, Elmo, and the Teletubbies prevailed. Kids tend to favor the language their friends speak rather than that of their parents. My daughter got to a point where she would tolerate Spanish, but only respond in English.

    We placed her in a dual-language program in first grade that helped her recover her Spanish.

    You’re absolutely right that kids literate in one language can quickly transfer that skill to another, and I can tell you for certain it applies from Chinese to English. On the other hand, kids lacking L1 literacy are real hard cases–and that somewhat explains how monolingual English speakers are sent to ESL classes by troglodyte administrators who don’t know what the hell else to do.

    I think it’s harder for us, living in the US, to learn foreign languages. My kids have intrinsic motivation–they have to live here–while American kids know full well they can get by in this big country with English. I think Europeans are better language learners than we are simply because it’s practical–you can really use those languages by traveling relatively short distances.

  4. Cardinal Fang says:

    The report is here: http://www.calfund.org/pub_documents/reparable_harm_full_final_lo.pdf

    It paints a sad story of Long Term English Learners who, in many cases, are sitting in low-level mainstream middle school and high school classes, behaving themselves, getting middling grades, and thinking they are on track for college, when in fact they have serious deficiencies in writing and every other academic subject.

    The report is also scathing, in its mild way, about “sink or swim” mainstreaming of English learners. For the large number of kids discussed in the report, mainstreaming without any English support has been a catastrophe. We hear anecdotes about this or that immigrant kid who comes here, knowing no English, jumps right into a standard English-speaking curriculum, and ends up valedictorian of her high school. Fine, but a lot of kids who don’t speak English and who get thrown into English-speaking classrooms flounder and fail. They don’t learn to read English, they don’t learn science or math or history, they don’t learn much of anything.

  5. A classmate of mine in high school grew up bilingual with a French mom and an American dad. Although he was fluent in oral French, he’d never been formally taught to read or write it until high school. Our school’s French teacher did an independent study with the kid to bring him up to speed. From what the teacher told me one time, it sounded like a huge challenge. And this was a bright, motivated kid from an upper-middle class home. I can’t imagine how much tougher it would be to do the same with a disadvantaged student.

  6. I’m wondering how to disentangle the effects of growing up Spanish-speaking parents versus the effects of growing up with low-income parents.

    Yep. Very common profile. These kids speak fluent English, have an accent because they didn’t speak English until 7 or so (despite being born here), and can’t read or write very well because they are profoundly uninterested in school.

  7. Cardinal Fang says:

    Kids who start speaking a language at age seven normally don’t end up with a foreign accent; the accent window doesn’t close until about puberty. And it’s atypical for a child who is born in the US and remains here not to be fluent in English. The students described in this report are fluent in English. They just can’t read and write English. They’re illiterate in two languages.

    To the extent that the English learners in the report– who are, it seems to me, in the main more accurately described as illiterate English speakers– are “profoundly uninterested in school,” surely some of this is because succeeding in school requires the ability to read and write.

  8. Kids who start speaking a language at age seven normally don’t end up with a foreign accent; the accent window doesn’t close until about puberty.

    Not if they are only learning English primarily from people who also speak it as a second language (that is, their parents and family). Not if they are speaking Spanish and English together with others who speak it with an accent. Remember, these are kids living in cocoons, surrounded on all sides by people who don’t speak English well. It’s as common for Asians as it is for Hispanics.

    Plus, there’s an element of ability in picking up language. I’m well aware of the so-called “window”, but years of working with both Asian and Hispanic ESLs have made it clear that not every kid learns as fluently and with the same lack of accent. I’ve had kids who were speaking flawless English after learning it from age 10, and others who speak heavily accented English despite being born here and attending public school.

    surely some of this is because succeeding in school requires the ability to read and write.

    Cause vs. correlation. If they’re not interested in school, they won’t learn to read and write. Also, many of these kids I work with can read and write passably well. In many cases, they are failing to RFEP on the verbal side of things.

  9. Cranberry says:

    Cardinal Fang, I looked briefly at the report (thank you.) The recommended actions are… ambitious. I know that there are many kids born into English-speaking families who reach a certain point of schooling and then just stop making academic progress. Some of the steps recommended for long-term English learners resemble things you wish you could do for all students.

    Vocabulary expansion, rigor, an accelerated track, with support, into honors and AP classes–that would be a fine goal for all children. The US school system doesn’t do it at present for any children whose parents aren’t pushing from an early age for gifted programs. After a certain point many (most?) kids are tracked out of honors and AP.

    How is it possible to make a child into an AP scholar who won’t do her homework? How is it possible to teach students whose families may pull them out of the classroom for months at a time? Neither of those things are the fault of teachers and schools. Instead of trying to build something which has never existed before, wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to mount a program to explain to all families, from the beginning, the importance of good academic habits? Off the top of my head, come to class on time, bring a pencil with you, pay attention to the teacher (not your neighbor), respect others’ learning, ask questions if you don’t understand, go to school every day when it’s in session (barring illness), do your homework, and pass it in on time. When the students reach middle school, start talking about college. Explain the steps necessary to reach college. Just explaining all that to the families of kindergartners would be a good start.