Promising Initiatives to Promote English Language Learner Success

California and Massachusetts are each pioneering new educational initiatives aimed at improving instruction for English language learners (ELLs), those students whose limited proficiency in English hinders their ability to achieve success in mainstream classrooms.  In September, California enacted legislation requiring schools and districts to identify “long-term English language learners,” a group of students who often spend years in U.S. public schools without ever becoming fully proficient in English.  At the same time, Massachusetts has unveiled a new statewide training program for educators working with ELLs.  Entitled “Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners” (RETELL), the Massachusetts initiative represents a new approach to preparing classroom teachers and school administrators to better understand and address the particular needs of ELLs.  Both state initiatives make sense and represent a commitment on the part of policymakers to address Chad Leith Photo lingering effects of statewide referendums that mandated English as the primary language of instruction and accelerated the placement of ELLs in mainstream classrooms. 

Since California’s passage of Proposition 227 in 1998 and Massachusetts’ voter approval of Question 2 in 2002, it has become clear in both states that that some ELLs are getting lost in the shuffle and potentially missing out on needed support and services.  California’s new long-term ELL law, featured in a recent Education Week article , represents an important legislative commitment to keeping tabs on such students and addressing their particular needs.  Many long-term ELLs have been enrolled in U.S. schools since kindergarten, yet languish for years without becoming fully proficient in English.  Ironically, long-term ELLs are often overlooked because they have managed to develop a native-like level of conversational fluency in English.  Yet their ease with the informal language of everyday social interactions can belie limited command of the academic English required for success in mainstream classrooms.  Such students typically perform poorly on achievement tests and are at elevated risk for dropout.  California’s new law not only requires districts to identify such long-term ELLs, it also requires schools and districts to review ELL program models and teacher qualifications.

Teacher qualifications are also at the center of the RETELL initiative in Massachusetts, where a multi-year effort to train teachers in the instructional methods that help make content accessible to those still learning English has been deemed largely ineffective.  This school year, Massachusetts is taking a fresh approach by replacing the previous sequence of professional development units (known as “categories”) with a comprehensive new graduate-level course.  The course syllabus includes over 65 hours of online and face-to face instruction, with practical assignments and current research addressing a range of relevant topics such as the social context of ELLs and their families, the process of second language acquisition, and techniques for sheltering content for ELLs in mainstream classrooms.  All those who teach ELLs in Massachusetts are expected to complete the RETELL course and receive a Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) endorsement by 2016.  Colleges and universities will also be required to ensure that pre-service teaching candidates acquire the skills and knowledge included in the RETELL syllabus before they graduate.

While the successful implementation of these two initiatives will depend upon the effort and commitment of local teachers and administrators, both California’s long-term ELL law and the introduction of beefed up professional training for teachers in Massachusetts represent opportunities for districts, schools, and educators to revisit the policies and practices they have in place to meet the needs of ELLs.  Should these states’ respective efforts lead to improved outcomes, we will likely see similar initiatives adopted by other states and districts struggling to meet the needs of their growing numbers of ELLs. 

Tell us what you think: How can we keep long-term ELL’s from falling through the cracks?

Chad Leith is an Assistant Professor at Salem State University and an Adjunct Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  His teaching and research focus on understanding and addressing the factors that shape the learning outcomes of ELLs in U.S. public schools.  Previously, Dr. Leith served in the Boston Public Schools as a classroom ESL teacher, a district-wide instructional coach, and as a school-based ELL administrator.