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A Journalist Highlights Long-Term English-Language Learners

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Washington Post writer and syndicated columnist Marcela Sanchez's March 2 column about the high number of English-language learners who are U.S.-born is a sign to me that some journalists at mainstream newspapers are taking a closer look at the nuances of issues concerning this population.

I still don't see a lot of articles on how to meet the needs of long-term English-language learners, but those such as the one by Ms. Sanchez are steps toward letting the public know more about this group of students. One blog reader pointed out to me that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer also published the column.

Ms. Sanchez cites figures from a 2005 Urban Institute report, which I mentioned in an earlier post, about how 56 percent of English-language learners in U.S. middle schools and high schools were born in the United States. "In an age when learning English is a priority for children around the world, it is appalling that children born in this country can get all the way into high school without being fluent in the dominant language," she writes in her column.

A couple of California researchers who specialize in studying English-learners have been copying me on their e-mail banter with each other about the column. One says that Ms. Sanchez doesn't seem to understand that a large percentage of long-term English-learners speak English quite well, but can't pass written tests of English-language arts, which would get them out of the English-learner category in many states. The researcher suspects they aren't learning enough academic English--the language of school--used at their grade level.

Ms. Sanchez isn't the first journalist to pay attention to these kinds of figures. For example, the fact that less than 40 percent of English-language learners in California become fluent after 10 years in California public schools has received some news coverage in California newspapers. That statistic was a finding of a study of California's Proposition 227, a ballot measure against bilingual education approved by California voters in 1998.

Interestingly, Herman Badillo, the Hispanic advocate and former U.S. representative, also cited that California statistic in his recent book, One Nation, One Standard: An Ex-Liberal on How Hispanics Can Succeed Just Like Other Immigrant Groups, which I described in a February post.

I'd like to hear from readers about what some schools are doing--or should be doing--to reach long-term English-language learners .

1 Comment

Dear Mary Ann,
Thank you for addressing this issue in your blog. I've actually just received funding from the New York City Department of Education to conduct a study of Long-Term ELLs in NYC high schools. Currently one in three high school ELLs in New York City are considered Long-Term ELLs (classified as ELLs for 6 years or more). There is very little research nationally about how best to serve this population - Freeman, Freeman & Mercuri have looked at the practices of 3 teachers serving LTELLs, and findings are published in their book entitled 'Closing the Achievement Gap.'
The study I'm doing is to first understand the characteristics of Long-Term ELLs. I don't want to get ahead of myself as we've just begun data collection, but so far the students are a mixture of US-born and foreign-born. A shared characteristic so far is limited literacy skills in English and the native language, which is very important as it would imply that high schools need to do a better job teaching literacy to ELLs. This makes sense - most of our high school ESL and bilingual programs assume literacy rather than teach it. Two of the high schools I'm studying are actively teaching native language literacy to LTELLs as a way to address their needs --- more on this to come by summer once we've completed the first round of data collection and analyzed the data!
Thank you,
--Kate Menken
Research Institute for the Study of Language in Urban Society, City University of New York Graduate Center
more about the project is on my website: http://web.gc.cuny.edu/Linguistics/people/menken/index.html

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