Faculty research: schools struggle to adapt to English-language learner needs

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A College of Education faculty member presented a research report that explores the relationship between school-district infrastructure in new-immigrant destinations and the marginalization of English-language learners (ELLs) in those districts. Megan Hopkins, assistant professor of education, and her colleague, Rebecca Lowenhaupt of Boston College, reported that in many schools, the teaching of English as a second language (ESL) and the teaching of academic subjects are separated and disconnected, which can cause ELLs to fall behind academically.

“This does not represent current thinking in the field,” said Hopkins. “While a separate ESL instructional block can be beneficial, ELL educators also advocate for content-based language learning that requires all teachers to have training related to ELL instruction, and that necessitates meaningful, ongoing collaboration between ESL and general-education teachers.”

Hopkins added that school districts that separate ESL and content require ELLs to become proficient in English before learning content. This often places them far behind in their learning of content and of content-based academic language.

“In addition, ELLs who are kept separate do not have access to English-proficient models, which research shows is essential for their language development,” said Hopkins. “Moreover, all students are afforded fewer opportunities to develop cross-cultural friendships that can facilitate positive intergroup relations.”

According to Hopkins, school districts are the primary administrative unit for delivering education in the U.S., and most states offer little guidance related to curriculum and instruction efforts.

“These decisions are typically left up to local school districts,” said Hopkins. “Thus, to understand how instructional policy is being formed in new-immigrant destinations, it's important to unpack how districts are designing instructional supports for their new populations.”

Hopkins added that many districts have virtually no infrastructure in place to support ELLs in new-immigrant destinations.

“District and schools are left on their own to figure out how to design supports for ELLs, often without the necessary expertise or capacity,” said Hopkins. “National reform in this area is needed.”

Hopkins said she believes that ELLs in these models will not be supported in achieving at the levels necessary to succeed in school and beyond, which ultimately will only exacerbate inequalities for immigrant groups who are learning English.

On a positive note, some school districts that have a gap in their ELL programs are aware of their shortcomings. Additionally, there have been efforts made to incorporate ESL into English-language arts instruction and to facilitate collaboration between ESL and general education teachers related to English-language arts. However, the gap remains, especially in subjects like mathematics.

“Thinking of ELL instruction as ‘just good teaching’ is problematic because it ignores the language- and culture-related issues at play,” said Hopkins. “Teachers’ instruction must be adapted to the significant differences in knowledge, background, learning style and first-language characteristics of every ELL.”

Hopkins said she believes the root of the issue stems from misunderstandings about language development and the sociocultural factors that affect ELL learning.

“These misunderstandings stem largely from a lack of teacher and leader preparation related to ELLs,” said Hopkins.

The research report is titled “Organizing Language Instruction in New Immigrant Destinations: Structural Marginalization and Integration.” It was presented at the Segregation, Immigration, and Educational Inequality Conference, cosponsored by the Civil Rights Project, Ghent University, Université Libre de Bruxelles, and the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, Ghent, Belgium.

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Last Updated July 28, 2017