September/October 2015

Carol E. Webb, PhD., is an associate professor of Educational Leadership at Western Illinois University. Prior to that, she was an assistant superintendent for the Bettendorf (Iowa) Community Schools for eight years and spent 20 years in the Davenport Public Schools.

English Language Learners ( ELLs), also referred to as students with Limited English Proficiency (LEP), comprise 9.5 percent of the total student enrollment in Illinois and are listed as a subgroup under No Child Left Behind. These students are considered an at-risk group, which Illinois Standard Achievement Test results confirmed. From 2010 to 2014, LEP students in grades 4-8 were 45 to 51 percent less proficient in reading than non-LEP students. The achievement gap in math for LEP students ranged from 29 to 38 percent lower than their non-LEP peers. The third-grade gap was less in both reading and math but still exceeded 20 percent. Every year, Illinois school districts face these achievement gaps, federal and state requirements for serving ELLs, small or large enrollments, a shortage of licensed teachers, and few fiscal resources to serve this at-risk population.

Illinois public schools serve slightly more than 200,000 English Language Learners and, like the rest of the United States, those numbers have remained fairly stable over the last five years. According to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition, the largest documented increase occurred from 1997-1998 to 2008-2009. During that time, the number of ELLs enrolled in U.S. public schools increased from 3.5 million to 5.3 million (51 percent). According to the Center for Public Education, immigration and changing fertility patterns may create another bubble of growth in the number of ELLs in the near future. Overall, English Language Learners made up about 9 percent of the public school enrollment in 2012-2013, according to the National Center for Education Statistics Condition of Education Report, 2015. Illinois ranks as one of the top 10 states in which persons age 5 and older speak a language other than English at home (22 percent). Researchers anticipate that most of the growth in student enrollments between now and 2020 will come from immigrant families, primarily Latino and Asian. In addition to being English Language Learners, 33 percent of all Illinois children from low-income families have foreign-born parents.

Illinois legislation requires districts to offer one of two programs for limited English proficient students. Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE) is required when 20 or more ELLs of the same language are enrolled in the same school or attendance center. This model provides instruction in both the home language and in English in all required subject areas. When there are fewer than 20 ELLs of the same language, districts may provide a Transitional Program of Instruction (TPI). In this model, students receive instruction in their home language for English language arts and for history of the U.S. and the student’s native homeland. Both programs provide instruction in English as a Second Language (ESL). Pro-rated funding is available to districts that provide TBE/TPI services at least five periods a week. However, research indicates that TBE/TPE program models are not closing the achievement gap for these students.

What has been found to be successful in closing the achievement gap for ELLs are two-way dual language programs, also known as dual language immersion programs. In two-way dual language programs, approximately equal numbers of native English speakers and non-native English speakers are assigned to the same classroom. All students are taught literacy and content in two languages, using the partner language for at least 50 percent of the instruction. This approach also enhances the achievement of the native English speakers in the class.

Results from the two-way dual language programs show non-native ELLs gain an average of 1.5 years per year of instruction, achieving equal academic status with their English language peers by eighth grade. In other words, the rate of learning accelerates for non-native English speakers. At the same time, a superior education is provided for native English speakers. In a 2003 study in Texas, native English speakers in a dual language program scored between the 63rd and 70th percentiles on the Stanford 9 reading test compared to the 50th percentile for native English speakers in a regular classroom. This is particularly notable as many of the schools in the study also served children from lower socioeconomic groups. An earlier study reported “dual language programs are the only programs that assist students to fully reach the 50th percentile in both their first and second languages in all subjects and to maintain that level or higher through the end of schooling.”

In addition to academic achievement, research shows students in two-way dual language programs reap the benefits of bilingualism, biliteracy, and cross-cultural awareness. Mixing native English speakers with ELLs keeps expectations at grade level and fosters the problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration components of the Common Core State Standards. Dual language learning, like Common Core, is language heavy. Children and teachers talk about math and about science now in two languages. Teachers serve more often as facilitators; a heavy emphasis is placed on small-group discussions rather than lectures. Teachers listen to children speaking in small groups, and when they ask questions, students have to be able to respond, or ask questions themselves, in the language of instruction. Engagement is very high.

Two-way dual language programs typically begin in Pre-K or kindergarten. This early exposure to a second language benefits both native English speakers and non-native English speakers. It generally takes one to three years to acquire basic conversational language or Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS, also known as Social/Playground Language); however, ELLs cannot wait to master conversational language before learning academics. Acquiring Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP or Academic/School Language) can take five to seven years, if conditions are ideal, or eight to ten years on average. Dual language programs outperform other models on this language acquisition process as BICS and CALP are taught and practiced simultaneously.

A number of studies tout the benefits of a dual language model. A primary benefit is that ELLs are not segregated from their peers; they receive the same academic core as required by law. Another study shows elevated student outcomes, effectively closing the achievement gap (not just making progress), and positive cross-cultural attitudes. Increased involvement by Latino parents is another benefit, and higher rates of high school graduation and graduates with strong skills are also reported in research.

In 2011, there were more than 144 non-English native languages represented in Illinois, although 81 percent of the ELLs spoke Spanish. According to the 2013 Illinois Advisory Council on Bilingual Education report, the top 10 languages consistently found in the state besides Spanish are Polish, Arabic, Urdu (spoken in Pakistan and Afghanistan), Pilipino or Tagalog (spoken in the Pacific Islands), Korean, Gujarati (spoken in India), Cantonese (Chinese), Vietnamese, and Russian. Programming for ELLs is needed in 90 of the 103 Illinois counties, and 304 educational entities in Illinois receive state bilingual funds.

The majority of English Language Learners are served in kindergarten through grade three (55.6 percent) followed by 17.9 percent in grades four through six. Less than 10 percent are found at the preschool, middle school, and high school levels. However, there has been a push by districts to identify Pre-K children, so the percentage of students at that level is likely to increase in the coming years, according to the same Illinois Advisory Council report. The largest increase is in the number of Pre-K ELLs, which is primarily due to districts’ perseverance in identifying preschoolers who are not native English speakers.

The Common Core State Standards specifically address preparing globally competent citizens. Dual language programs prepare students not only for global competence but also for the diversity that is becoming America. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2050, the Hispanic population will double its representation to 30 percent of the nation’s population; the Asian population will also double to almost 8 percent; the black population will remain unchanged at about 13 percent; while the non-Hispanic white population will decline from almost 65 percent to 46 percent representation. Cultural proficiency and bilingualism will better prepare all children for these shifting demographics. Although Illinois’ general population is over 50 percent white, the public school population became minority-majority in 2014 (see chart).

Dual language immersion models vary in design and implementation, but there are similarities that are important to note. First, There are some 90/10 models in which the native language is used for 90 percent of the day, particularly when starting out in kindergarten. As the students move to the next grade level, the percentage decreases by ten percent in the partner language and increases by ten percent in the native language until the 50/50 level is reached, usually by fourth grade. Some programs remain 90/10 and some use an 80/20 model. According to the Dual Language Directory of Illinois, 17 districts have implemented dual language programs. Of those 17 districts, two use a 90/10 model; nine use an 80/20 model; one has a progressive model moving from 90/10 to 50/50 over time; and five have a 50/50 model. All of the programs are Spanish and English with the exception of one — Schaumburg Elementary School District 54 — which offers Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese.

Schools have served immigrant children who spoke other languages since the early 1900s. Federal legislation was not passed until 1968, though, when the Bilingual Education Act was included as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. At that time and for many years following, these children with limited or no English were expected to learn and only use English, leaving their native language behind. This is a major problem for the U.S. in a global community. Second language instruction begins between the ages of 5 and 10, is mandatory, and is tested like other core subject areas in the vast majority of developed countries. Yet foreign language education in the U.S. is on the decline, particularly at the primary level when foreign languages are best learned. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan refers to this as “our foreign language deficit.” reports that “over half of the world’s seven billion people speak more than one language (bilingual/trilingual/polyglot) and around 25 percent of the world’s countries have two or more official languages.”

In response to local population trends, community response and “the foreign language deficit,” a new dual language program will be launched in the Moline-Coal Valley School District 40 this fall for kindergarten and first-grade students at Lincoln-Irving Elementary School. The dual language immersion program in English and Spanish follows a two-year pilot study of bilingual classrooms in which students in dual language outperformed students in traditional ESL programs. According to Stephanee Jordan, the ESL director for Moline-Coal Valley, “participation in the new program is voluntary, but the response has been very positive from parents. The three sections at Lincoln-Irving are at capacity. Children who enter the program in kindergarten will be eligible to participate in bilingual classrooms through the fifth grade, as another grade is slated to begin each succeeding year.”

Not only is a dual language immersion program the best educational model for children, it is also cost effective for districts in which a large population of bilingual children reside. According to Jordan, “Hiring licensed bilingual teachers not only provides a research-proven program, it is actually less expensive than hiring enough personnel to serve large enrollments in the traditional model.”

Parents and teachers alike have seen the benefits of a bilingual program as children learn to read, write, and speak in two languages. Observing these children in the classroom as they move from one subject area to another and from one language to another is both amazing and enjoyable. It’s also a little intimidating for those of us who took language in high school and can barely remember how to say hello. One of the enhancements being considered is offering Spanish classes for non-Spanish speaking parents.

Another advantage reported by the principal, Sharon Lansky, is that it celebrates the diversity in Moline, where 39 languages are spoken. It’s not always just about the language, although this program will certainly prepare its students for the global marketplace. It’s about respecting diverse cultures. Dual language is one way to demonstrate respect for the diversity within a district while enhancing children’s academic education and enriching their social and cultural development. 


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