Millions of American Students Need to Learn English

But only a fraction of teachers have received training to help English language learners.
Julie Jacobson/AP Photo

More than 5.3 million American public school students would struggle to understand this sentence. 

These students need to be taught the English language in addition to the usual material in math, science, and social studies. This presents a monumental challenge for educators nationwide, according to Patricia Gandara, a UCLA education professor whom President Barack Obama appointed to the Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. She is also co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Speaking at the Education Writers Association's National Seminar, held in May at Stanford University, Gandara referenced a nationwide survey given to teachers already trained for the growing number of English-language learners, commonly called ELLs.

“In the words of teachers themselves, they don’t feel qualified,” Gandara said.

About 40 percent of American teachers have ELL students in their classrooms, but only a third of these teachers have training for them. However, this training usually amounts to just four hours over five years, said Granada on Saturday, laying the ground for a panel of ELL experts and teachers discussing why intensive efforts have failed to close the gaps of ELL students.

“This is really difficult to do,” said Gandara, quoting a bilingual teacher who still struggles to keep ELL students on track despite speaking Spanish, the native language of three-fourths of America’s ELL students.

Ashley Bessire teaches at a charter school that has managed success despite an enrollment that’s 82 percent ELL students. The approach of her Austin school,KIPP Comunidad, is “one face one language.” Each teacher sticks to one language in all their instruction, meaning students transition from Spanish to English-speaking classrooms throughout the day. And teachers of different languages overlap material. An English-based writing teacher might ask students to write about what they learned in their Spanish-based science course, Bessire told the EWA audience.

The school wants students to know their native language as well as English, but the goal is for students to actually score higher in comprehension of their native language than English, she said. 

Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford University education professor and co-chair of the Understanding Language initiative, was quick to point out that KIPP’s dual-language approach – although effective – wouldn’t be allowed in other states or, in many cases, outside charter schools. Schools can’t agree on whether to adopt bilingual education or just teaching English, treating native languages as a “crutch,” said Hakuta, who joined Gandara and Bessire on the panel.

“We’ve been at this since Congress passed the 1968 Bilingual Education Act,” he said.

But the newly implemented Common Core Standards will force schools to do something Bessire and other KIPP teachers already do, Hakuta said. Under the standards, students aren’t allowed to just produce an answer but must explain how they came to that answer, integrating language at all times.

Currently, students may go through an entire school day without speaking a word of English, noted the panel's moderator, Kathryn Baron of 

EdSource Today. If not verbally approached throughout the day, Common Core would force students to do it in writing. 

Whether Common Core alone would make a difference remains to be seen, but schools need to draw down their increasing number of ELL students from where it stands at 5.3 million, Hakuta said. To shed their label, ELL students must become proficient in English. 

"Ultimately, we need to put Humpty Dumpty back together again," said Hakuta, noting that some research suggests this takes five years.
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Trevon Milliard is a K-12 education reporter at the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

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