Although the average time needed to acquire social English skills is two to three years, acquisition of academic English proficiency, essential for full academic parity with English-speaking peers, usually takes five to seven years. Students with strong academic or primary language backgrounds will typically transition more quickly (approximately four to five years). Conversely, students with weak academic or primary language backgrounds may take up to eight to ten years to reach full academic parity. Students who enter high school as new arrivals to the United States have a particularly difficult time accruing academic credits while attempting to gain the necessary academic English proficiency. A student arriving at age 16, with no prior exposure to English, will not be likely to reach full English proficiency or academic parity before graduation. This should not be viewed as a problem per se, as many university and technical colleges offer English as a Second Language (ESL). The goal in high school should be to provide for accelerated English literacy development while providing the key concepts and skills necessary to graduate and move into postsecondary preparation programs or pre-employment career-related education.
While it is important to keep realistic timelines in mind when considering how long support may be needed, there is evidence that the process can be accelerated to some degree if adequate support is provided and innovative methodologies are used. Successful bilingual/ESL support programs around the country are taking students from beginner to near native English proficiency and academic parity with grade-level peers within four to six years.
Short-Term Action Options
Make sure that English language learners have access to English-speaking peers
Teachers can facilitate English access by assigning and rotating English-speaking “peer buddies.” Peer buddies can assist in vocabulary acquisition by using dual language dictionaries or thematic picture dictionaries to create a context for conversation. They can also help recent arrivals adjust to the school culture or re-explain difficult “teacher talk.” Using several peer buddies over time allows for wider participation and sharing in both the privilege and responsibility of assisting the newcomer.
Teachers should not force production of English before students are ready
Avoid overcorrection of attempts to speak English, as this likely will lead students to be self-conscious about their speech and to practice less. Teachers should instead continue to model clearly spoken, correct English for their students without interrupting the normal flow of the conversation.
Utilize various sources of literature to inspire learning and literacy
For English Language Learners who have reached a second- or third-grade reading level in English, illustrations or comic books can provide an excellent supplemental literacy development tool. Search for text that is at an appropriate reading level, while equivalent in content and student interests for their chronological age. Children can often guess the meanings of unfamiliar words by looking at the illustrations; therefore, less time is lost looking up new words in dictionaries.
Respect the student’s primary language and culture
Schools should send home a strong message that the family language and culture represent valuable assets to be preserved as students learn English and master new content in English. Additionally, schools should not prevent students from using their primary languages during the school day, even when bilingual instruction cannot be offered. Two or more students speaking the same language can be an effective way to share content information learned in classes and can provide an important break from English, particularly for recent arrivals.
Ensure that educators and parents are familiar with English language learner levels
Level 1—Beginning/Preproduction (World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) level = Entering)
A pupil shall be classified level 1 if the pupil does not understand or speak English, with the exception of a few isolated words or expressions.
Level 2—Beginning/Production (WIDA level = Beginning)
A pupil shall be classified level 2 if all of the following criteria are met:
a) The pupil understands and speaks conversational and academic English with hesitancy and difficulty.
b) The pupil understands parts of lessons and simple directions.
c) The pupil is at a pre-emergent or emergent level of reading and writing in English, significantly below grade level.
Level 3—Intermediate (WIDA level = Developing)
A pupil shall be classified level 3 if all of the following criteria are met:
a) The pupil understands and speaks conversational and academic English with decreasing hesitancy and difficulty.
b) The pupil is post-emergent, developing reading comprehension and writing skills in English.
c) The pupil’s English literacy skills allow the student to demonstrate academic knowledge in content areas with assistance.
Level 4—Advanced Intermediate (WIDA level = Expanding)
A pupil shall be classified level 4 if all of the following criteria are met:
a) The pupil understands and speaks conversational English without apparent difficulty but understands and speaks academic English with some hesitancy.
b) The pupil continues to acquire reading and writing skills in content areas needed to achieve grade-level expectations with assistance.
Level 5—Advanced (WIDA level = Bridging)
A pupil shall be classified level 5 if all of the following criteria are met:
a) The pupil understands and speaks conversational and academic English well.
b) The pupil is near proficient in reading, writing, and content area skills needed to meet grade-level expectations.
c) The pupil requires occasional support.
Level 6—Formerly Limited English Proficient/Now Fully English Proficient
A pupil shall be classified level 6 if all of the following criteria are met:
a) The pupil was formerly limited English proficient and is now fully English proficient.
b) The pupil reads, writes, speaks, and comprehends English within academic classroom settings.
Level 7—Fully English Proficient/Never Limited English Proficient
The student was never classified as limited English proficient and does not fit the definition of a limited English proficient student outlined in either state or federal law.
Long-Term Action Options
Be aware of the options you have to best serve your population of English language learners
Both English as a Second Language (ESL) and bilingual programs are supported by the Department of Public Instruction. Know the difference between the methods of these two programs, and ensure that your school develops a program that best serves your students. ESL is the teaching of English and academic content to students who are ELL students. Bilingual education encompasses any of a number of approaches that use to varying degrees the language of the child and English in the teaching of academic content and literacy skills.
Ensure that teachers utilize a variety of student-centered methodologies with English language learners
Cooperative or small-group learning, thematic instruction, and integrated approaches to language arts enhance the context for learning for ELL students. Storytelling activities, for example, provide a wonderful vehicle to integrate English language learners into the classroom. Students can use drawings and actions to support the stories they tell in either English or their native language.
Encourage the use of content-based sheltered English methodologies in the classroom
Sheltered English instruction teaches language through content by contextualizing the English but maintaining the crucial academic content and concepts. Sheltered strategies will benefit not only second language learners, but also any student who is struggling with class material. The guiding principle for sheltering English is to keep the standards for academic content and skill development as high as possible while simplifying the language, making it more accessible to students. Beyond the obvious example of avoiding complex syntax and vocabulary, language simplification usually involves creating enhanced contexts in which language and content are presented. Teachers enhance context by providing visual props, hands-on learning experiences, drawings, pictures, graphic organizers, and small-group learning opportunities.
Utilize a balanced approach to literacy instruction
A balanced approach is just as important for ELL as it is for students with English as their primary language. This includes a combination of teaching techniques such as systematic and explicit reading instruction with consistent feedback, guided reading, teaching learning strategies, and free reading. A combination of both teacher-directed and experiential techniques may be used according to the student’s individual learning profile. Supplement these techniques with children’s picture books/storybooks, both in print versions and on tape. Audio-taped versions of children’s books are particularly helpful as second language learners can listen to the spoken English, follow the printed words, and use the pictures to facilitate meaning. Children’s storybooks are now available in CD-ROM versions that offer an audio component, good visual support, and bilingual versions. Such strategies should be used in conjunction with other bilingual/ESL strategies, not as the sole strategy for language acquisition.
Integrate a priori teaching into your supports for English language learners
A priori teaching requires support staff to stay at least a week ahead of regular classroom teachers, pre-teaching the most important concepts, language, and skills soon to be presented within the regular class. This bolsters student prior knowledge of the topics and the specific language needed to make sense of what is taught in the regular classroom. Teachers using a priori teaching utilize the same highly visual, hands-on methods described earlier but simply make sure they are preteaching what their students will need for the following week. This is far more effective than a “mop-up” model of helping students after they have already fallen behind. There is no question that a priori teaching requires careful collaboration and, often, significant restructuring of support services. For those who do it, however, the testimonials of increased academic comprehension are compelling.
Ensure that all staff members are receiving professional development directed at supporting the success of English language learners
It is important that all staff members receive training in language acquisition, cultural awareness, and instructional strategies for ELL students. Consider structuring professional development around strengthening educational staff in the following areas: student-centered instruction, content-based sheltered English instruction (e.g., Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach [CALLA] or Sheltered Instructional Observation Protocol [SIOP]), balanced literacy instruction, a priori teaching, and alternate assessments.