English Language Learners and the Achievement Gap
Students who are not proficient in English are at a distinct disadvantage in not only learning required material, but in demonstrating that knowledge. Identifying these students and tailoring learning to each student’s specific needs is a must. . On this page you will find an ever-growing archive of articles, tools, and resources focused on effectively teaching these students.

sparty-02  It's so easy to say that schools need to forge stronger ties with their students' parents. However, the reality of doing that can certainly be a challenge, particularly when working with the parents of English language learners (ELLs). Often, the parents of ELL students face similar, if not more pronounced, challenges communicating in English as the students themselves. These significant language barriers can certainly make connecting with parents difficult. Often, addressing parents' language needs becomes a primary target for schools in order to increase parents' access to the school. Translating materials and providing interpreters at parent/teacher conferences are indeed helpful and provide parents with an important entry point to participating in their child's education, but bridging the language gap is really just the first step to connecting with these parents.

The more complex and challenging hurdles schools encounter when trying to strengthen ties with the parents of ELLs are often tied to crossing cultural barriers. Schools are often confronted with deeply held beliefs by parents about many of the following:

sparty-02  Educators know that students learn content and skills at very different rates. Most likely, you’ve seen some students excel, grasping new concepts very quickly, while other students need more time or any number of other pedagogical supports to aid their learning. In previous articles, we talked about Krashen and Terrell’s (1983) five major second language acquisition stages and strategies that teachers can use to work with students in the different stages. Much like learning other skills, English language learners (ELLs) flow through these stages of second language acquisition at very different rates. Let’s look at an example of one ELL student.

sparty-02  The first day of school is always an adventure. Adrenaline runs high as parents encourage their children to work hard and be on their best behavior, students exude nervous energy as they timidly walk into their classrooms for the first time and teachers anxiously welcome their new learners. I remember my first “first day” of school vividly, as do my students. I had spent hours preparing my classroom, making it a warm and welcoming environment. I diligently constructed a classroom library that included a rug and pillows so that students would have a comfortable place to read. I enthusiastically set up centers around the classroom to facilitate student-centered small-group learning activities. I carefully labeled students’ desks and cubbies to ensure they felt they were part of a classroom community as soon as they walked in.

sparty-02  In recent issues, we have discussed why and how schools identify their ELL students.  In this article, we want to provide you with some perspectives on ELL identification from practitioners in Michigan school districts.  

Most teachers have heard the old adage that knowing your students will help create a positive relationship and improve students’ learning in the classroom. This is particularly important for ELLs since these students have such varying needs in terms of language and academic support. In this short video, Sergio Keck, Director of Instructional Support Programs for the Lansing Public School District, describes the importance of identifying your ELLs and knowing who they are. It’s not just about compliance, but it is about truly ensuring that your ELL students have an opportunity to learn.

In the last issue, we introduced Michigan’s ELL identification process, which is the first step in providing language minority students with the instructional and linguistic supports necessary to access meaningful opportunities to learn. In this issue, we will take a close look at some of the policies and research that guide the identification and classification process of ELLs. 

The Civil Rights act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based “on the ground of race, color, religion or national origin” in any program that is receiving assistance from the federal government. This legislation has been applied time and time again to promote equality of educational opportunity in our nation’s public schools. For example, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 served as the basis for the decision in the 1974 Supreme Court decision in Lau v. Nichols (414 U.S. No. 72-6520), which found that schools must provide language minority students with the necessary services so that they have “a meaningful opportunity to participate in the public educational program.” This court case is the basis for federal guidelines that require states to identify and serve ELL students. We identify ELL students to ensure that they are afforded a meaningful opportunity to access and learn academic content.

What does it mean to be identified as an ELL?

We would like to take a closer look at some of the policies that guide the identification of ELLs. We will start by examining an excerpt of the federal definition of an ELL from Title IX of No Child Left Behind. An ELL is a student who:   

  1. Faces difficulties in speaking, reading, writing or understanding the English language may be sufficient to deny the individual

       i. The ability to meet the State’s proficient level of achievement on State assessments described in section

          1111(b)(3) of ESEA

      ii. The ability to successfully achieve in classrooms where the language of instruction is English

     iii. The opportunity to participate fully in American society

While there is much interest in the federal definition of an ELL, we would like to comment on two things specifically. First, federal legislation actually uses the term “Limited English Proficient” (LEP) as opposed to “English language learner” (ELL). ELL is thought to be a more positive term than LEP, which many regard as having a negative connotation (see August & Hakuta, 1997). Critics of the term LEP often argue that the fact that this term starts with the word “limited” immediately conveys a deficit orientation, whereas ELL emphasizes growth and progress. “LEP” is often the terminology used in federal and state legislation, such as NCLB, but ELL is increasingly common in research and practice (Abedi, 2004).

Second, it is worth taking a careful look at the last bullet of the federal definition. Many people are unaware that NCLB actually includes this statement that ELLs are students who may be denied “the opportunity to participate fully in American society”. On the one hand, this seems like a particularly strong and even offensive statement to make. Many people who face challenges communicating in English are active contributors to American society. On the other hand, I think about the opportunities in the United States that are available to those who are not proficient in English as compared to the opportunities presented to those who possess a high level of English proficiency.

It is our responsibility as educators to ensure that our ELL students have an opportunity to learn. The concept of Opportunity to Learn (OTL) is one useful framework educators can use to help ELLs access and participate in schooling. OTL means:

“[Providing] students with the teachers, materials, facilities, and instructional experiences that will enable them to achieve high standards. Opportunity to learn (OTL) is what takes place in classrooms that enables students to acquire the knowledge and skills that are expected. OTL can include what is taught, how it is taught, by whom, and with what resources,” (http://www.cse.ucla.edu/products/glossary.php).

Properly identifying ELL students is the first step to ensuring that they have OTL.

What does the research tell us about identifying ELLs?

ELLs are one of the fastest growing student demographic groups in U.S. public schools (Payan & Nettles, 2008). Between 2002 and 2008, the ELL population grew by 18%, to 4.4 million students (Boyle, et al., 2010). The National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition & Language Instruction Educational Programs (NCELA) projected the ELL enrollment in U.S. schools will reach 10 million by 2015. Between 1997-2007, Michigan saw a 103% increase in its ELL population, serving more than 70,000 students during the 2007-2008 school year (NCELA, 2010). With such large increases in very short periods of time, many schools and districts lack the capacity and expertise to properly identify ELL students.

In Michigan, the Entrance protocol that guides the ELL identification process is largely based on two sources of information: 1) students’ language background, and 2) students’ level of English proficiency as measured by an assessment (Abedi, 2008). For this reason, both of these aspects of identification of ELLs are critical.

Home Language Survey

All states recommend, and most require, the use of a home language survey to initially generate a pool of students who may be ELLs (Bailey & Kelly, 2010; Kindler, 2002). The purpose of this survey is to determine which students are language minorities, or students who come from homes where a language other than English is used in the home. Generally, a home language survey contains between two and six questions that gather information to create a language profile for each student (Bailey & Kelly, 2010). Examples of home language survey questions include: Which language did your child learn when he/she first began to talk? (California), What language is spoken in your home most of the time (Texas), What is the native language of each parent/guardian? (Vermont) (Bailey & Kelly, 2010), and Is the primary language used in your child’s home or environment a language other than English? (Michigan).

Between July 2009 and March 2011, the state of Arizona shortened their mandatory home language survey from three questions to one question, “What is the primary language of the student?” The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice challenged the implementation of Arizona’s one-question home language survey, because of a sudden and precipitous decline of the number of students identified as ELLs. During the 2009-10 school year, the state of Arizona reported that their ELL population was nearly 100,000 students, approximately 33,000 fewer students than the previous academic year. This raised concerns that the revised and abbreviated survey failed to identify all of the ELL students who needed to receive services in order to overcome the language barriers and have access to equal educational opportunities. In March 2011, the Department of Justice reached a settlement agreement with the Arizona Department of Education, which reinstated Arizona’s previous three-question survey.

Assessing English Language Proficiency

Upon flagging potential ELLs through a home language survey, NCLB requires that states determine students’ English proficiency level using an assessment of English language proficiency, which gauges students’ English proficiency in four domains: listening, speaking, reading and writing. (NCLB, 2002) These assessments systematically identify and classify students as ELLs based on their English proficiency level, as they classify students who score below a certain level as ELLs. In addition, these assessments determine the level of ELL services and accommodations a student is likely to require. For example, an ELL who is just beginning to learn English will likely require much different services than an ELL who arrives at school with an intermediate level of English proficiency.

Beginning with the 2013-14 school year, districts within Michigan must use the WIDA ACCESS Placement Test (W-APT) to aid in determining if the student should be enrolled in English language development services. MDE's Entrance and Exit Protocol identifies a variety of other assessments such as the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) and the LAS Links for 6th – 12th graders. These additional diagnostics can be used to aid in valid decision-making when it comes to properly identifying ELL students.

Identification Challenges

Efforts to better identify students are certainly a priority for many schools due to the ever-increasing numbers of language minority families. In a report published by the Intercultural Development Research Association, (IDRA, 2009) investigators analyzed repercussions of this rapid growth in ELL student populations for schools. The authors of the report concluded that many states and school districts are underprepared to deal with the many complex issues ELL students face linguistically and culturally as they enter U.S. schools. Additionally, educators often have limited experience screening students for appropriate ELL services. This inexperience can lead to large numbers of ELL students not being identified and unable to receive the instructional supports necessary to succeed. Because of these trends, the authors recommended increasing the number of states involved in setting standard criteria within a state for entering and exiting students from ELL services. During the 2012/2013 school year, Michigan implemented an Entrance and Exit Protocol to help districts identify and reclassify their ELL students. The protocol document provides districts with a great amount of flexibility in determining what tools to use, in addition to the identified state required assessment (historically ELPA Initial Screening tool).

In our last issue we provided an ELL Identification Improvement Checklist tool that school districts can utilize to help improve their ELL identification processes. We encourage you to explore that tool if you have not done so already.

In our next webzine issue, Jennifer Paul and I will be examining the language acquisition process for ELLs and talking with former ELL students about their experience learning English. Please feel free to contact us if you have questions or comments on this article or any of the resources we have provided.

Until the next issue,

Madeline Mavrogordato & Jennifer Paul


Click for References


Abedi, J. (2004). The No Child Left Behind Act and English language learners: Assessment and
accountability issues. Educational Researcher, 33(1), 4.

Abedi, J. (2008). Classification system for English language learners: Issues and
recommendations. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 27(3), 17–31.

Au, K. H. (1993). Literacy instruction in multicultural settings. Orlando, FL: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

August, D., & Hakuta, K. (1997). Improving schooling for language-minority children: A
research agenda. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

Bailey, A. L., & Kelly, K. R. (2010). The Use and Validity of Home Language Surveys in State
English Language Proficiency Assessment Systems: A Review and Issues Perspective. Los
Angeles, CA: UCLA.

Boyle, A., J. Taylor, S. Hurlburt, and K. Soga. 2010. Title III accountability: Behind the numbers. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service.

Calderon, M. (2007). Teaching reading to English language learners, grades 6-12: A framework for improving achievement in the content areas. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

DeCapua, A., & Marshall, H.W. (2011). Breaking new ground: Teaching students with limited or interrupted formal education in U.S. secondary schools. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Freeman, Y.S., & Freeman, D.E. (2002). Closing the achievement gap: How to reach limited-formal-schooling and long-term English learners. Portsmouth, NH: Heinneman.

Garcia Bedolla, L. & Rodriguez, R. (2011). Classifying California’s English Learners: Is the CELDT too Blunt an Instrument? Berkeley, CA: Center for Latino Policy Research.

Kindler, A. L. (2002). Survey of the states’ limited English proficient students and available
educational programs and services: 2000–2001 summary report. Washington, D.C.:
National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction
Educational Programs.

National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition & Language Instruction Educational Programs (NCELA). The Growing Numbers of English Learner Students. Retrieved from http://www.ncela.gwu.edu/files/uploads/9/growingLEP_0708.pdf.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-110, § 115 (2002).

Payan, R., & Nettles, M. (2008) Current state of English-language learners in the U.S. K-12 student population. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Spaulding, S., Carolino, B., & Amen, K. (2004). Immigrant students and secondary school reform: Compendium of best practices. Washington, D.C.: Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

Zacarian, D. & Haynes, J. (2012). The essential guide for educating beginning English learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

http://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/pg107.html (U.S. DOE, Title IX General Provision 9101 (25))

(25) LIMITED ENGLISH PROFICIENT- The term limited English proficient', when used with respect to an individual, means an individual —
(A) who is aged 3 through 21;
(B) who is enrolled or preparing to enroll in an elementary school or secondary school;
(C)(i) who was not born in the United States or whose native language is a language other than English;
(ii)(I) who is a Native American or Alaska Native, or a native resident of the outlying areas; and
(II) who comes from an environment where a language other than English has had a significant impact on the individual's level of English language proficiency; or
(iii) who is migratory, whose native language is a language other than English, and who comes from an environment where a language other than English is dominant; and
(D) whose difficulties in speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language may be sufficient to deny the individual —
(i) the ability to meet the State's proficient level of achievement on State assessments described in section 1111(b)(3);
(ii) the ability to successfully achieve in classrooms where the language of instruction is English; or
(iii) the opportunity to participate fully in society.

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