February 21, 2007

The English Language Learner Problem

Virginia doth protest too much.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has been doing quite a bit of moaning about its English language learner problem under NCLB:

Officials in some school districts with a high number of immigrants are threatening to defy a federal law that requires all children to take the same reading tests, even those struggling to learn English.

This month, the U.S. Department of Education threatened sanctions against Virginia – including the possibility of withholding funds – if the state doesn't enforce the provision, which is part of the No Child Left Behind law.

The Virginia Department of Education had sought an exemption for another year, contending that the rule is unfair.

Immigrants who have been in the U.S. a short time "are simply unable to take a test written in English and produce results that are meaningful in any way," said Donald Ford, superintendent of the Harrisonburg city school division.

NCLB is scheduled to be rewritten this year and it is likely that the rules for older students who are recent immigrants will be changed to give them additional time to learn English. In my opinion, however, there really is no reason to make an exception for younger students who are recent immigrants and just entering school.

The problem is not that many of these ELL kids don't know English, but that they don't know concepts in any language. Engelmann addressed this problem (chapter 2 (pp. 61-62) of his book (no longer available online)) of low performing ELL children such as the ones at the Uvalde, TX school system which was a Project Follow Through site:

The children in Uvalde had a large range of skill variation. The lower performers were lower than any of the Portuguese children I had worked with. Teachers felt that these children were progressing slowly because instruction was in English. I had a teacher test some of the lower-performing children in Spanish on their knowledge of prepositions, colors, and words like left and right. Not one of the children knew more than a third of the words the teacher tested. I tried to make the point that if children don’t know the “concepts” in either English or Spanish, the most efficient practice is to teach in English. We knew that they would need understanding of them in English to perform on tasks the teacher would present later.

Higher performers who know concepts in Spanish merely have to learn the associated word in English which is easier than teaching the underlying concept to a child who doesn't know the concept in the first place.

So, this criticism of NCLB is a non-starter with me, as is the meme that NCLB is underfunded. The underlying problem remains poor instruction being doled out to ELL children and that is what NCLB intends to fix.


Kilian Betlach said...

"The underlying problem remains poor instruction being doled out to ELL children and that is what NCLB intends to fix."

Yes, but.

Yes, there is poor instruction, but every reputible study you can find says it takes 1-3 years of immersion to develop BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) and 5-7 years of immersion to develp CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency). Contrast this with the requirement that immigrants are tested within a year of arriving in the U.S. Not a year of schooling, but of arrival.

Then complicate it, because we know that skills and vocabulary are transferable from L1 to L2, and that the kids who represent the greatest tragedy are those kids who have a grasp of no language, not their primary one, and not English (about 40 of my 56 students fit this category). For these kids, we need to provide instruction in their L1 and educate to a point where they have some skills to transfer. How does this fit within this era of universal testing? Still test in the L2 and expect failure? Test in the L1 and anger hordes of right-wing, English-or-get-out Americans?

In terms of ELLs, these issues become a lot less either-or.

KDeRosa said...


I believe you are talking about older students, say kids in third grade and above. I'm excluding these kids due to all the reasons you're listing.

I'm talking about early elementray age students who are just beginning school. What Engelmann is saying is that it doesn't matter what language is L1, these kids can have such low language skills in l1 that it makes no sense to teach them in their native language, just teach them in English. His programs assume that the child may know almost no language. Everything gets taught that the student is expected to know, including all the language used in the course and necessary for instruction.

TurbineGuy said...


Not sure I agree with you either. It would depend on the content of the test.

Is it possible that their should be an alternative test for ESL students. One that was able to test them on knowledge (math) in their native language.

Kilian Betlach said...


Those tests exist, but they are used in a diagnostic sense, generally w/r/t special ed placement (i.e. is it the language barrier or the cognitive barrier that is impeding learning), but they are not used as assessment.


The approach advocated is in place and it's not working. Or rather, it seems to be working, kids seem to develop these skills, but when called upon to utilize basic communication, decoding, etc., skills in the service of more advanced learning -- that's that reading to learn vs. learning to read thing -- kids fall apart. We see huge numbers of ELLs fall away from grade level on 3-5 grade. We're talking drops from 90% proficient to 20%. It's systematic, which makes me feel a new approach is needed.

KDeRosa said...

TMAO, you're talking about a problem that is not unique to ELLs. The problem is common to many low performers that do not come from "language rich" home environments.

Engelmann has written this about the problem:

"Although these children were awesome, their performance
showed a critical difference between their potential and that of the at risk child. When these advantaged children came to the third and fourth levels of the reading program, where the material becomes entrenched in and decorated with sophisticated language, they did not slow down. The profile for the at-risk child is different. Performance slows considerably when they reach the vocabulary-rich transition. They have parallel problems with math when the word problems become more substantive than a few pared-down sentences that present necessary information in a "familiar" format."

One way to combat the problem is to provide the students with a good language program from the beginning and try to make-up for some of the lost time. The problem remains that teaching vocabulary and underlying concepts is not amenable to easy acceleration and low performers will continue to learn new words and concepts at a slower pace than their high performing peers. But with good instruction starting in K, or better yet Pre-K, the drop in performance in fifth grade should only be to the 70s not 20s.

Since you're mostly in the remediation business, you're seeing that youcan make up for lost time in teaching decoding skills, but it's far more difficult to make up for lost language skills time.

One more Engelmann quote:

"Comprehension is billed typically as reading comprehension, but it has very little to do with reading. Students don’t understand a host of concepts and relationships involving any academic pursuit. It’s not that they can’t extract them from what they read. They can’t extract them from what they hear.

Over the years, we extended the corrective reading programs so there are three levels of decoding programs, and three parallel levels of comprehension programs. The lowest level of the comprehension strand teaches skills and information taught in the second and third level of the language program that we use with children in grades 1 and 2.

An amazing phenomenon is that a lot of high school students who are considered pretty good students place in the highest level of the decoding sequence and the lowest level of the comprehension sequence."