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English as a Second Language: How American Public Schools Support English Language Learners

America’s schools are increasingly multilingual: one in every ten students in kindergarten through grade 12 is an English Language Learner (ELL). Data suggest that almost 75% identify Spanish as their native language, while Chinese, Russian, Somali, Vietnamese, and Arabic are among the other languages that are most commonly spoken at home. The majority of students in need of English language instruction reside in the western United States, but 43 states have seen a significant increase in the need for English language instruction in the last decade.

As a student’s mastery of English impacts their ability to learn other subjects, research into frameworks for developing both language instruction and curricula is ongoing. Teachers often receive specialized training, and with increased cultural sensitivity and a cultivated skillset, they work hard to position students to thrive in their new school setting and eliminate any stigma attached to learning English. Many schools actively seek out teachers with ESL (English as a Second Language) training, and some require them to have an ESL certification. Universities that offer degree programs in education are increasingly embedding ESL, cultural awareness, and history in their teacher training programs for elementary, middle, and high school education, as well as for special education.

Schools are required to offer English language instruction to help students become proficient pursuant to the 2001 No Child Left Behind mandate. There are multiple ways in which this is achieved. In some schools, students are part of full inclusion programs, meaning that they are enrolled in regular classes that are being taught in English, alongside fluent English speakers. There is a difference of opinion among educators about whether this approach is optimal for English learners and native speakers. Other schools offer specialized language support programs taught by teachers with specialized credentials, typically for a portion of the school day. There are many who believe that while these programs may accelerate proficiency, they may also lead to increased cultural bias. Finally, some schools earmark funds for increased external tutoring support, whether in person or online.

Families who are relocating to the United States and who have children who are not proficient in English will first complete the enrollment and registration process at their local elementary, middle, or high school, just as families with English speakers do. There is often an opportunity during that process to indicate that there is interest in ESL/ELL services; families are always welcome to inquire about English language programming and will likely find a great deal of useful information on the district’s or the school’s website. Once enrolled, students will be assessed for English language proficiency using tools that are age-appropriate. These "screener" tests include listening and speaking as well as reading and writing. A student’s score will determine their eligibility for services and support, although other criteria may be taken into consideration. Assessments are typically repeated annually to determine whether a student continues to qualify for support, to review the progress that is being made, and, ultimately, to determine whether they are sufficiently proficient to exit the ELL program. All ELL programs have standards and policies across a range of subjects, including how children with special needs are assessed, how parents are notified of progress, what the assessments entail, how classrooms are organized, how cultural awareness is maintained, and much more.

Finally, many communities offer myriad resources at no cost to children and adults who are interested in developing English language skills. Of equal importance, in regard to maintaining a family’s native language proficiency and their connection to their home country, there are often clubs or even schools whose mission it is to provide those services—and that connection to community.

By Annemiek Young

Annemiek Young, former Bennett Education Consultant, Director of Private Client Relations Emeritus, and good friend , is a regular contributor to our blog.

Bennett International Education Consultancy works directly with hundreds of families each year across the globe. We support families by helping them make informed decisions about the best-fit schools for their children; with our guidance, they secure placement in preschools, private day schools, public/state schools, boarding schools, colleges & universities, including schools with particular programs, such as special needs support.


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