Learning English as a second language in public schools

The melting pot metaphor is stronger than ever in American schools today.

With 40 million foreign-born residents currently in the U.S., 17 percent of whom have entered the country between 2005 and 2012 – English as a Second Language (ESL) programs in are booming in public schools.

The National Center for Education Statistics cites an increase in students speaking a language other than English at home, from 4.7 million in 1980 to 11.2 million in 2009.

Students who are learning to speak English are called English Language Learners and often referred to as ELLs. Students who qualify for ESL programs are between three and 21 years of age, are enrolled in an elementary or secondary school, were born in another country and do not speak English as their native language. Their English proficiency skills prevent them from accessing the grade-level curriculum and correlated standardized tests administered each year.

When foreign-born students first enter the school system, they are assessed for their current level of English language proficiency. Schools often have families fill out a Home Language Survey to establish the child's native language and the language currently spoken at home. Instructors will also conduct an informal interview with the student in both English and the native language, if possible, with the parent present, if need be. A formal assessment, such as the ACCESS for ELLs, will be administered to assess the student's skills in the areas of reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

More On This...

There are many strategies ESL teachers use to assist their students in learning English and familiarizing them with American culture. The use of visual cues is a tremendous support, as students may see the item or action being described. Technology has grown ESL instruction by leaps and bounds, as students can watch videos, engage in online language games, and gain hands-on practice hearing, watching, and speaking the English language. ESL teachers often work closely with other members of the school community to share their knowledge and to assist general education and special area teachers in fostering English language development in the classroom and throughout the school day.

Many ESL teachers also cite the importance of the home-to-school connection. Though many students learning English as a second language maintain their native language at home, it is important parents understand and be involved in their child's learning process.

In recent years, curriculum standards for ESL instruction have evolved, just as they have for general education instruction. The focus on ESL standards has been to connect students' English language skills to the content they are taught in the classroom and tested on each year. Now, educators have correlated English language proficiency standards to standards in areas such as language arts and math, which are assessed through state-implemented standardized tests each year.

In accordance with mandates from the No Child Left Behind Act, ESL goals must be aligned with general education content, and students must score in the proficient range on standardized tests by the 2013-2014 academic year.

The 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, then entitled No Child Left Behind, brought more changes to ESL education. NCLB included Title III, officially named the English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act, which consolidated older federal programs, set clear benchmarks for ESL instruction and provided funding to programs based on enrollment. This act also mandates teachers receive high-quality professional development to foster their skills. The ultimate goal of Title III is to increase English language learners' academic success through these measures.

In September 2011, President Obama announced that schools could receive wavers for some aspects of No Child Left Behind in exchange for approved reform proposals. Some states have looked to take advantage of this opportunity.

The Center for American Progress released a paper by Theodora Chang on August 31 entitled "Using No Child Left Behind Waivers to Improve English Language Learner Education." The paper examines the need for advances in ESL instruction and the states who are aiming to find creative and effective solutions for this need.

New York is cited as an example of a state changing or adding elements to its approach to ESL instruction, such as developing ESL and language arts standards in tandem, generating curriculum modules in the five most spoken foreign languages in the state, and creating Network Teams, groups of educational experts whose purpose is to provide direct and consistent professional development for classroom teachers.

The continuously growing field of ESL instruction has demanded national attention and has generated a great need for highly qualified educators in public schools across the country. With some estimates saying one in 10 students in classrooms today are English language learners, there is no doubt this group of students has changed the landscape of education in America. As education reform remains a prominent issue at both the local and national level, the topic of English as a Second Language instruction will continue to be part of the conversation.