Double the work: Challenges and solutions to acquiring language and academic literacy for adolescent English language learners
Despite the growing societal awareness of the need for interventions and programs to increase literacy levels of adolescents, education policymakers and school reformers have mostly overlooked the needs of the large and growing English language learner (ELL) population. Though recent reports have helped to focus attention on the adolescent literacy crisis, they offer very little guidance on how best to meet the varied and challenging literacy needs of adolescent ELLs. In virtually every part of the country, middle and high schools are now seeing expanding enrollments of students whose primary language is not English. Rising numbers of immigrants, other demographic trends, and the demands of an increasingly global economy make it clear that the nation can no longer afford to ignore the pressing needs of the ELLs in its middle and high schools who are struggling with reading, writing, and oral discourse in a new language. Although many strategies for supporting literacy in native English speakers are applicable to adolescent ELLs, there are significant differences in the way that successful literacy interventions for the latter group should be designed and implemented. These differences have serious implications for teachers, instructional leaders, curriculum designers, administrators, and policymakers at all levels of government. Moreover, because adolescent ELLs are a diverse group of learners in terms of their educational backgrounds, native language literacy, socioeconomic status, and more, some strategies will work for certain ELLs but not for others. It should be understood that adolescent ELLs are second language learners who are still developing their proficiency in academic English. Moreover, they are learning English at the same time they are studying core content areas through English. Thus, English language learners must perform double the work of native English speakers in the country’s middle and high schools. And, at the same time, they are being held to the same accountability standards as their native English-speaking peers. To bring the issues and challenges confronting adolescent ELLs into clearer focus, the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), working on behalf of Carnegie Corporation of New York, convened a panel of researchers, policymakers, and practitioners working in the field to offer their expertise (see list in Appendix A).The panel agreed to a focus on academic literacy, that which is most crucial for success in school, and defined the term in the following way: Includes reading, writing, and oral discourse for school • Varies from subject to subject • Requires knowledge of multiple genres of text, purposes for text use, and text media • Is influenced by students’ literacies in contexts outside of school • Is influenced by students’ personal, social, and cultural experiences The panel identified six major challenges to improving the literacy of ELLs: • Lack of common criteria for identifying ELLs and tracking their academic performance • Lack of appropriate assessments • Inadequate educator capacity for improving literacy in ELLs • Lack of appropriate and flexible program options • Inadequate use of research-based instructional practices • Lack of a strong and coherent research agenda about adolescent ELL literacy During the course of the project, CAL researchers reviewed the literature on adolescent ELL literacy and conducted site visits to three promising programs. In addition, a sub-study was commissioned from researchers at the Migration Policy Institute to collect and analyze valuable information on the demographic trends and academic achievement of ELLs. At the conclusion of the process, the panel recommended an array of different strategies for surmounting the six challenges by making changes in day-to-day teaching practices, professional training, research, and educational policy. As a result, each “challenge” section in the body of this report is followed by an extensive “potential solutions” discussion. With the small but growing research base on the best practices for developing adolescent ELL literacy becoming more widely disseminated through increased dialogue among educators, researchers, and policymakers, the right strategies for helping these students attain their full potential are being determined. For example, policymakers should consider the following: • Tightening the existing definition of Limited English Proficient (LEP) and former LEP students in Title III of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) to ensure that states use identical criteria to designate LEP students and to determine which students are to be considered Fluent English Proficient (FEP) • Developing new and improved assessments of the adolescent ELLs’ native language abilities, English language development, and content knowledge learning • Setting a national teacher education policy to ensure all teacher candidates learn about second language and literacy acquisition, reading across the content areas, and sheltered instruction and ESL methods • Adjusting school accountability measures under NCLB to avoid penalizing districts and schools that allow ELL students to take more than the traditional 4 years to complete high school successfully Encouraging the use of proven and promising instruction for ELLs in schools • Funding and conducting more short- and long-term research on new and existing interventions and programs, and on the academic performance of these adolescent ELLs Although the potential solutions in this report are not exhaustive, they are meant to provide a sound starting point for better addressing the needs of ELLs in the nation’s schools. Moreover, by helping ELLs learn and perform more effectively in school, America’s educational system and society as a whole will be strengthened and enriched.