As educational opportunities in the United States attract the families of students from across the globe, the need for effective methods in educating English-language learners (ELLs) continues to increase.
The ELL population has more than doubled since 1990 and numbers more than 5 million students today. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that by 2025, there will be 18 million ELL students in the U.S. The most recent statistics available from the U.S. Census Bureau, from 2003, estimate the foreign-born population to make up 11.7 percent of the U.S. population.
Foreign-born and other non-English speaking students not only have to learn how to speak English, but also how to learn in English. And with about 80 percent of ELLs speaking Spanish as their first language, many education companies are creating products that feature both Spanish and English to help Spanish-speaking students feel more comfortable as they master a new language.
Several companies, including Pearson, Curriculum Advantage, American Education Corp., and Lexia Learning, offer either separate ELL products, or ELL components built into existing curriculum packages.
Lexia Learning’s Lexia Reading features instructional support in both Spanish and English.
The company aims to help students ages four and older acquire and improve essential reading skills, while supporting educators in monitoring and informing reading instruction in classrooms, schools, and district-wide. Lexia Reading includes an auto-placement tool, helping new students quickly begin using the software at their individually suited skill level.
The program is designed as a supplemental instructional tool for students in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade, as a tool for remediation for older students who are still struggling with reading, or for ELL students who enroll in U.S. schools above the elementary level.
Lyman Hall Elementary School, in Georgia’s Hall County Public School System, piloted Lexia Reading during the 2006-07 school year. The school is 98 percent English-language learners, and after the 18-month pilot, the results were so impressive—roughly a 43-percent gain in state test scores—that the program has expanded to all students in all 21 of the county’s elementary schools.
Aaron Turpin, executive director of information and technology with the Hall County Public School System, was Lyman Hall’s principal during the pilot.
Turpin said the school saw gains not only in English and language arts, but in math as well, because many of the standardized test questions include math word problems.
“One of those things that’s neat about Lexia is the instructional passages help the English-language learners build background knowledge,” Turpin said. “And of course that’s critical, especially when you come from areas of Central America with high poverty—these students don’t have the background knowledge required. So as a result of the reading skills [practice], they also acquire the background knowledge.”
Turpin said Lexia’s reporting tools help teachers pinpoint the exact areas where they should focus, as well as helping them monitor student progress and plan lessons.
“While all of the instruction is in English, the directions are in English and Spanish. The students can click on the little icon and can hear the directions in Spanish, so they’re actually getting the full instruction and they’re not being confused by not understanding what they’re supposed to be doing,” he added.
“Lexia’s design is expressly intended to give explicit, structured, and hierarchical skills acquisition. At the same time, it’s highly motivating and engaging, so students enjoy the time and the work they put into the program,” said Bob McCabe, chief education officer for Lexia.
Lexia recently completed a two-year study in Ennis, Texas, where ELL students using Lexia Reading showed significantly better skill acquisition than ELL students who did not use the program. The program has been expanded to all K-2 students in the district.
“We need a more intensive and structured environment to practice and acquire skills, because [ELL students are] trying to make a transition from understanding their own spoken language to understanding and reading English,” McCabe said.
Lexia Reading provides ongoing assessment of reading skills and progress, enabling educators to hone in on students’ needs and differentiate instruction: Teachers are quickly able to identify where students excel and where they need more help.
The program is web-based, providing on-demand access in homes, libraries, after-school programs, community centers, and summer schools. It also offers printable scripted lessons and practice sheets to help students further develop their reading skills. Students generally use Lexia Reading three to four times per week, for about 20 to 30 minutes per session.
MindPlay’s My Reading Coach, another program that can help ELL students learn, was developed to target students within the lowest 30 percent of reading ability.
“It was basically geared toward the lowest 30 percent in our school systems. These are the kids that generally can’t make it for any reason. It might be that they’re English-language learners, it might be that they have some kind of learning disability, it might be that they just missed the instruction or they weren’t ready when the instruction was happening,” said Judith Bliss, chief executive officer of MindPlay. “And it just so happens that a lot of ELL students are in that category.”
My Reading Coach provides each student with a virtual reading specialist in a one-to-one teacher-student environment. The program offers comprehensive, direct instruction and specific intervention that focuses on phonemic awareness, grammar, phonics, spelling, fluency, and reading comprehension.
The program consists of lessons that teach each student correct sound pronunciation and letter formation, rules, easy-to remember strategies, and how to spell English words by learning underlying patterns instead of memorization. It is targeted to anyone from second graders up to adults.
Math for ELL students
While many products focus on helping ELL students develop and strengthen their reading and speaking skills, a growing number of programs are focusing on ELL math skills as well.
Math Solutions has introduced “Supporting English Language Learners in Math Class: A Multimedia Professional Learning Resource,” which helps schools implement effective professional development and instructional practices for ELL students in math.
According to the October 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), fourth-grade math scores have stagnated, and racial gaps in test scores have remained without dramatic changes.
More than 10 percent of U.S. public school students are learning to speak English, and those language barriers prevent important math gains, according to 2007 data from the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition.
Teaching math to ELL students presents a bigger test, said Rusty Bresser. Bresser, who authored the Math Solutions resource, is supervisor of teacher education at the University of California San Diego.
“The challenge of teaching math to English-language learners lies not only in making math lessons comprehensible to students, but also ensuring that students have the language needed to understand instruction,” he said.
While math is about numbers, if students do not have the ability to understand a teacher’s instruction or ask a specific question, it hampers their mastery of the lesson. This presents a particular problem in a “building block” subject such as math, which builds upon previous lessons.
“It’s critical to provide instruction that includes both language and content objectives,” Bresser said.
Learning.com has developed an ELL-specific version of its Aha!Math supplemental K-5 math curriculum.
The web-based product helps bilingual educators use native-language content for younger students, and it lets ELL instructors provide English-language instruction with native-language support for grades three through five.
It also includes a bilingual math glossary and an ELL strategy guide. Teachers can use an online journal feature to create math and language literacy exercises for students to use in English, Spanish, or both.
The group Digital Directions International (DDI) hopes to address ELL math education with its HELP Math program.
HELP Math is designed for third through eighth-grade ELL students by offering more than 200 hours of math content and skills development with interwoven English-language support and acquisition. It’s also used by high schools for remediation, and it’s aligned with state standards through pre- and post-diagnostic placement assessments at each grade level.
HELP Math, which formally launched about a year ago, is being used in schools across the country, including James P. Sinnott Intermediate School (IS 218) in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“Originally, we looked to Help Math to improve results for our ELLs and bilingual students in math, who often displayed a lack of academic vocabulary and found math incomprehensible. We wanted to increase both their content-area proficiency and state test scores,” said Joseph Costa, principal of IS 218.
“The teachers found that [owing] to the comprehensiveness of the curriculum, its ability to provide differentiated instruction, and [its] engaging manner, it could benefit all their students. It’s now used by all student populations, including ELLs, special-needs [students], resource room/pull-out programs, and advanced students.”
Testing is a challenge
Testing remains an issue, and advocates of assessment reform say that high-stakes and benchmarking tests should be altered for students who are still trying to master the English language.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has urged the NAEP to alter the way it tests ELLs so that educators will get more accurate data to inform their instruction and close the achievement gap.
Christine Rowland, a New York City teacher who testified before the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) on behalf of the AFT in November, said assessment and accountability are key in making sure ELL students receive the right amount and kind of help in school.
The NAGB, which administers NAEP exams, has recommended creating a uniform set of rules to test ELL students.
Rowland said challenges such as inadequate instructional resources and high dropout rates must be addressed.
“Current testing practices that assess ELLs’ content knowledge in English are often not fair, valid, reliable, or appropriate,” Rowland said. “The call to encourage a uniform participation rate among ELLs is valuable [and] could well lead to more ELL-focused reforms around the country.”