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Understanding the student population: Acting on information about young English learners

June 27, 2018
by Joanna Meyer

This post, the second in a two-part series on the use of data collection tools to understand and serve English learners, emerged from PEER’s ongoing work on supporting young English learners. In Part 1, we focused on Connecticut and Federal guidance about identifying English learners. In Part 2, we focus on how the data produced from identification procedures can be used to help schools better serve young English learners.

As noted in a recent report from the Migration Policy Institute, the diversity and size of the U.S. English learner population is increasing, and other evidence indicates that Connecticut mirrors this trend. In its 2015 data bulletin, the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) reported that 6.6% of K-12 students were English learners, representing 143 different dominant languages, compared to 5.3% English learners and 133 different dominant languages in 2010.

The diversity of young English learners extends beyond language to characteristics such as race, ethnicity, parental country of origin, family income, parental educational attainment, legal status, and English proficiency. In the United States, 95% of dual language learners (defined by the MPI report as children under the age of eight with at least one parent who speaks a language other than English) are U.S.-born and 65% have immigrant parents. This article focuses on how understanding the growing diversity of young English learners can allow schools to serve this population more effectively.

A new book published by TESOL Press, The 6 Principles for Exemplary Teaching of English Learners, describes the foundational principle of knowing your learners. The authors (including Norwalk’s Helene Becker) explain how a teacher’s knowledge of his or her English learner students can help the teacher to differentiate instruction to match students’ English proficiency and engage learners by connecting to their families’ countries of origin. The book recommends specific characteristics that teachers should know about their English learner students, including home language, which can also provide hints about other aspects of identity, such as cultural background.

As described in the first article in this series, the Connecticut Home Language Survey collects information about children’s linguistic background. Specifically, the survey asks parents to identify the the primary language used in the home, the language most often spoken by the student, and the language the student first acquired. In addition to helping districts to identify which children should be assessed for English language proficiency, the Home Language Survey provides basic information that may help teachers understand their students. Although the 6 Principles recommends that teachers gather a range of information about their students’ linguistic and cultural backgrounds, at a minimum, it is good practice for districts to make each child’s Home Language Survey responses available to his or her teachers.

A new report from the Society of Research on Child Development describes another reason to make information about students’ linguistic background available to teachers and other school personnel: English learners’ dominant language at school entry may remain relevant long after they are reclassified as proficient in English. This report describes the challenges of accurately assessing English language proficiency and notes that former English learners who are assessed as proficient in English at an early age may not develop academic language at the same pace as their native English speaker peers. Monitoring the progress of former English learners, even once they no longer receive English learner services, can allow schools to determine whether students need any additional support to promote their ongoing academic success.

The Migration Policy Institute report offers additional recommendations for how K-12 systems can use data about young English learners to allocate resources and provide supports. Knowledge of each student’s home language will allow districts to determine the languages in which parents should receive printed materials or real-time translation services, in order to facilitate family engagement. In addition to understanding the linguistic diversity of parents, districts should also consider the literacy levels of parents, as translated materials will be inadequate if parents are not comfortable with written language. Understanding rapidly changing school and district populations will also allow districts to make informed decisions about hiring, instructional approaches, and professional development. If most English learners share a common language (e.g. Spanish) and teachers who speak that language are available, a dual-language immersion approach might be appropriate. If the teacher cannot speak the students’ home language or if English learners speak a number of different home languages, such a dual-language approach is less likely to be successful.

The Migration Policy Institute report also provides advice surrounding culturally responsive teaching. The report reminds the reader that it is important to recognize English learners’ assets as well as their needs. Bilingualism is a valuable skill in a global economy, and studies have shown that bilingualism may be linked to greater empathy and cognitive flexibility. In terms of the teacher workforce, educators can build their awareness of each family’s home cultures, whether or not they can speak each family’s home language. In considering effective strategies for engaging families, it is important to consider barriers beyond language, such as unpredictable work schedules, cultural norms, and transportation. Finally, early assessments must account for the child’s home language. It is important to select child assessments that have shown evidence of reliability and validity for non-native English speakers, whether or not they qualify for English learner services.

In summary, knowledge of the English learner population can help K-12 schools to better serve these students. Connecticut’s new Early Childhood Landscape Analysis Tool for Connecticut Schools and Districts, part of the Connecticut State Department of Education and Office of Early Childhood PreK-Kindergarten Transition Resources, provides guidance about what information will help schools and districts to prepare for their kindergarten students before the school year begins and how they can gather this data. The Home Language Survey is a good start, but additional information about students’ linguistic and cultural backgrounds can support district and school leaders in making data-informed decisions about what services and resources are needed to support incoming students. The Landscape Analysis Tool can also help districts understand what student and community assets they might engage to support the transition to kindergarten. Kindergarten readiness includes the readiness of schools to receive kindergarteners, as well as the readiness of kindergarteners to transition to the K-12 educational system. Information about young English learners is a critical piece of the puzzle.

Submitted by Joanna Meyer on June 28, 2018