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Reshape Reclassification Policies for Youngest Language Learners, Report Says

If we don't make policy changes soon, according to a new report, America runs the risk of losing its fastest-growing resource: students who speak two languages.

In a report on dual language-learner policies released Tuesday, New America Foundation senior researcher Conor P. Williams called the country's growing population of students who speak a language other than English at home a "precious resource." Unfortunately, he said, it's a resource many public schools are squandering with policies that don't address the needs of the language learners.

"It takes at least four years to develop fluency," Williams said. "If students start (learning English) in kindergarten, that means the earliest they'll get to reclassification (to English fluency) is 4th grade, a year beyond most literacy benchmarks. And because so many states do English-only instruction, kindergarten is a particularly vulnerable time to start the process."

The problem, Williams said, is that no 5-year-old is finished developing whatever language he or she started speaking as a toddler.

"It's like they're halfway to learning the piano and we're like, 'OK, here's a guitar,'" Williams said.

In a perfect world, all dual learners (or English-language learners as they're commonly known in schools) would begin receiving structured bilingual support at age 3, he said. Such a practice would allow students to develop two languages simultaneously in a way that research shows is best for long-term fluency.

Head Start has actually already adopted this policy, especially for their migrant programs, but the quality of teacher training and dual language curriculum implementation varies widely. Still, it's the right direction for an agency where 1 in 3 students was a dual language learner in 2013, Williams said.

Nationally, 22 percent of all public school students between the ages of 5 and 19 were classified as dual-language learners in 2011, according to the New America report. Williams estimates that number has grown since.

To better serve those students, Williams' report proposes major shifts in the policies that determine when and how a student becomes "reclassified" from a dual language learner to one fluent in English. Among other changes, the report suggests that school districts offer different, more age-appropriate standards for students in 3rd grade or below; that states come up with uniform qualifications for what constitutes English-fluency; and that the federal government bulk up its Title III funding to levels adequate to a growing dual learner population.

Though changing reclassification policies is only one of the things Williams thinks must be done to better serve children who arrive at school speaking a language other than English, he hopes more comprehensive reclassification standards are a first step.

"I have this hunch that if you could get reclassification right, it might coerce [schools] into improving how they serve these students," Williams said.

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