Today, approximately 5 million students are considered English-language learners (ELLs) in the United States. ELL is a broad term that refers to students who are learning English as an additional language, but identification varies from state to state. Recent trends show that the number of ELLs continues to rise across the nation. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that the percentage of ELLs in public schools increased from 8.1% in 2000 to 10.1% in 2017.1 While most ELLs are in elementary school, nearly 800,000 are in high school. As for middle school, in 2015, 33% of ELLs were in grades 6–12 (which includes the middle grades), according to the Pew Research Center.2
Spanish is the most prevalent home language and represents 75.2% of all ELLs (3.8 million students) and 7.7% of all public school students.3 After Spanish, the next most common languages are Arabic and Chinese. However, within the U.S., ELLs speak more than 400 languages.
Bilingual Education in the United States
Bilingual education programs involve sustained use of a student’s home language in which instruction occurs in English and the home language, with students developing bilingualism, biliteracy, and multicultural understandings.4 While there are different types of programs for ELLs, with many only in English, it is up to schools to decide which method is best for their students.
ELLs face numerous obstacles to education in the U.S. According to Education Week, a lack of resources and adequate support from school staff are a few of the challenges to bilingual education.5 ELLs are most successful with trained support and teachers who recognize “similarities and differences between first- and second-language development, and the importance of nonverbal communications and visual aids in language acquisition” and who also “recognize the difference between conversational language and academic language.” NCES has found that students who speak English as a second language are more likely to struggle with academics and less likely to graduate than students who are not ELLs when they are not provided with the kind of instruction and advanced academic coursework they need.6 In the 2016–17 school year, only 66% of ELLs graduated from high school on time compared to 85% of non-ELLs who did so.7
While there are five common methods for addressing ELLs’ language needs, the most successful is a high-quality Dual Language program.8 Another option is a “maintenance bilingual education” program, which allows students to become literate in their home language by providing them language arts classes in their home language. This approach supports biliteracy rather than focusing solely on becoming proficient in English. Dual Language or “Two-way Immersion” programs involve both native and non-native English speakers. These programs aim to have ELLs and native English speakers learn the same content in both languages, benefiting all students (ELLs and native English speakers) in the classroom.
Legislative Background of Bilingual Programs
In 1839, Ohio became the first state to adopt a bilingual education law, and many states followed suit by the end of the 19th century. The Bilingual Education Act was passed in 1968, which provided federal funding to encourage local school districts to incorporate native-language instruction but did not require it in schools. Eventually, many programs that taught home languages in addition to English closed, and the Act proved to be a weak piece of legislation.9
In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lau v. Nichols “that simply placing ELLs in mainstream classes taught in English without attending to their language needs denied those students a meaningful education.” Since the court ruling, federal policy has worked to address the needs of ELLs by including the adoption of bilingual education programs that allow students to become proficient in English while also having access to instruction in their home language. However, restrictions on bilingual education across the country, such as Proposition 227 in California—which was later repealed—have made it harder for school leaders to make the appropriate instructional decisions for their ELLs.
The Vineland Public School system in NJ has been recognized for its successful bilingual education and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, which have garnered the district four Model Program designations from the state department of education. JoAnne Negrin, supervisor of ESL and bilingual programs in Vineland, says that ELLs’ success stems from the “real emphasis on building academic knowledge in their first language.”10 Given students’ results on state standardized tests, the program has shown that ELLs can succeed academically while learning two languages at once.
Another step that educators can take in supporting ELLs is to create more equitable opportunities for standardized tests. Currently, federal law under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires schools to assess all students. However, for some ELLs, standardized test scores may not reflect how much they have learned if the test is conducted solely in English, which has resulted in ESSA encouraging states to offer home-language assessments. As of Spring 2020, only 31 states and the District of Columbia offered them, most commonly in math or science and sometimes in reading/language arts and social studies.11 Broadening such assessments can accurately reflect ELLs’ progress and help them succeed academically.
For bilingual education and ESL programs, principals play an important role in the success of implementation by being knowledgeable about bilingualism, biliteracy, and their school’s emergent bilingual population. Each school and school leader can advocate for expanding bilingual education programs through local policy implementation. In a Colorín Colorado article (available at bit.ly/3aybsgR), Kate Menken offers recommendations based on her experiences working with ELLs in New York City schools:
- Developing schoolwide language policies that are consistent and cohesive with the desires of the community. They should be used to establish coherent K–12 language programming for ELLs in which diversity is regarded as a resource.
- Having research, rather than tests, drive instruction for ELLs. Teachers must have the space for instruction that goes beyond test preparation.
- Supporting home-language instruction—doing so will aid students’ development of English literacy.
For policymakers, researchers propose the following:12
- Supporting schools in developing clear and cohesive schoolwide language policies and in their decisions to teach ELLs their home language.
- Moving away from over-reliance on standardized tests to allow other measures of student achievement in addition to tests.
- Including ELLs in accountability systems that are valid, appropriate, and fair.
- Allowing for the measurement of progress rather than simply outcomes on high-stakes exams.
Advocating for ELLs must occur at both the local and federal levels by implementing direct changes to language policies in schools and demanding federal support. School leaders can advocate for ELLs and make decisions based on the research that finds that teaching home languages in schools is best for both ELLs and the entire student body.
Jenny Rodriguez is a senior at American University in Washington, D.C. She was an intern with the NASSP Policy & Advocacy Center during the summer of 2021.
1National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.) English language learners.
2Bialik, K., Scheller, A., & Walker, K. (2018). 6 facts about English language learners in public schools. Pew Research Center.
3National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). English language learners in public schools.
4Menken, K. (2017). Leadership in dual language bilingual education. Center for Applied Linguistics.
5Mitchell, C. (2019, May 14). Overlooked: How teacher training falls short for English-learners and students with IEPs. Education Week.
6U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). Academic performance and outcomes for English learners.
7National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Table 219.46. Public high school 4-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR), by selected student characteristics and state: 2010–11 through 2016–17. Retrieved from nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_219.46.asp.
8Roberts, C. A. (1995). Bilingual education program models: A framework for understanding. The Bilingual Research Journal, 19(3&4), 369-378.
9Goldenberg, C., & Wagner, K. (2015, Fall). Bilingual education: Reviving an American tradition. American Educator.
10Marko, D. M. (2018, June 6). Vineland ESL, bilingual programs win state honors. Daily Journal.
11Education Commission of the States. (2014). What methods are used to identify English language learners?; and Sugarman, J., & Villegas, L. (2020, June). Native language assessments for K–12 English learners: Policy considerations and state practices. Washington, D.C.: Migration Policy Institute.
12Menken, K. (n.d.). Language policy recommendations for policymakers and educators. ¡Colorín Colorado! Retrieved from colorincolorado.org/article/language-policy-recommendations-policymakers-and-educators.