[lg policy] Illinois offers lessons in teaching English as a second language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jun 1 14:56:56 UTC 2012

Illinois offers lessons in teaching English as a second language

By Maggie Severns, Published: May 31

Maggie Severns is a policy analyst for the New America Foundation’s
Early Education Initiative and the author of “Starting Early With
English Language Learners: First Lessons From Illinois.”

The news that minority babies make up a majority of all births in the
United States should be a wake-up call. This shift to a
majority-minority population has been taking place for years, while
the way minorities are educated in our public schools has stayed the
same. It’s time to think about next-generation America — a young,
unprecedentedly diverse group with different needs, and strengths,
from generations past.

Immigrant youths and the children of immigrants are one of the
lowest-performing groups in U.S. public schools. But they will account
for virtually all growth in the workforce over the next 40 years, the
Brookings Institution has estimated, based on census data. In
California, the state with the country’s largest Hispanic population,
more than half of all 3- and 4-year-old children are immigrants or the
offspring of immigrants. Data from the Public Policy Institute of
California show that 20 percent of these children live in households
where they hear little to no English.

Linguistic diversity can be a gift. But absent an effective strategy
for exposing immigrant children to English and building their literacy
skills, these kids are at risk of falling behind.

So, where to start? Some lessons are emerging from Illinois, where
state leaders have decided to focus on the needs of English-language
learners at a young age. This strategy is in touch with the state’s
demographics: An estimated 21 percent of Illinois residents speak a
language other than English at home. As in other states, the
achievement gap between English-language learners and their peers
looms large: 67 percent of English-language learners in Illinois
graduated from high school on time last year, compared with a state
average of 84 percent. This gap is apparent by the fourth grade, at
which only 7 percent of English-language learners in Illinois are
reading on grade level, compared with 33 percent of their peers.

To reverse these trends, the state has folded its pre-K programs into
public school services for English-language learners, which has led to
new efforts to train teachers who work with children as young as 3.
Training teachers who give immigrant children their first systematic
exposure to English sounds like common sense — but in almost every
state, there is no such push.

Consider Cristina Gomez, a teacher and administrator at a preschool
for low-income children in Chicago. About half of all students at Erie
House speak no English when they arrive; an additional 20 percent are
just beginning to learn. This school, with its high ceilings and
spacious, toy-block-filled rooms, doesn’t at first look like an
incubator for the country’s next generation — yet that is exactly what
it is.

Last year, Gomez began taking night courses to earn credentials to
teach English as a second language — credentials that Illinois will
require, starting in 2014, of all pre-K teachers who instruct groups
of English-language learners. “Before, I felt like I was kind of in
survival mode,” Gomez told me, “just trying to get them through.”

Gomez has a master’s degree in early childhood education but says the
night classes will improve her ability to teach children who speak a
language other than English at home. “It’s not just a challenge for
monolingual teachers but for bilingual teachers,” Gomez said. “Just
because you speak the language of a child doesn’t mean you know the
strategies or best practices for teaching English-language learners.”

Not all is perfect in Illinois. Although the state has turned
attention to training pre-K teachers, it has cut funding for bilingual
programs in two of the past three budget cycles. School districts
reportedly have trouble meeting state requirements, and educators,
too, worry that their schools will have difficulty recruiting enough
trained teachers.

Yet the state’s proactive stance has the potential to make a
meaningful difference for thousands of students. Given how
policymakers across the country have come to recognize the benefits of
early childhood education — 39 states have state-funded pre-K programs
— as well as the tremendous cognitive growth that children experience
in their youngest years, it’s surprising that so few states have tried
to improve their chronically underperforming programs for
English-language learners by targeting students during the years they
learn to read and write.

It won’t be long before the minority-majority babies born in the past
year will enter the public school system — regardless of whether we as
a nation have come to terms with our changing demographics. Elected
officials need to recognize the significance of the majority-minority
shift and prepare schools and teachers accordingly


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