3 Ways Non-English Speaking Students in America Learn English

Thanks to the Lau v. Nichols case in 1974, the U.S. Office of Civil Rights created a series of guidelines for schools to follow with respect to linguistic diversity. The “Lau Remedies,” as they were called, required that all ELL students should be taught core academic subjects in their home language until their proficiency in English allowed them to fully benefit from instruction in English. So ELL students had to learn both their core subjects and English.

There are many program types that help non-English speakers learn both English and their required academic subject matter. Here are three major ones:

  1. The immersion model allows ELL students to learn all core subjects in English, although teachers deliver lessons using simpler language than they use with English-speaking students. English as a second language (ESL) uses a modified form of immersion, offset by pullout classes. In ESL, students attend regular classes for the majority of the day and then are pulled out for additional specialized instruction. Students receive special instruction and support in English reading and writing, to assimilate them into the English-only classroom as quickly as possible.
  2. The transitional model divides ELL students’ instructional time between rigorous training in the English language and instruction in at least some of their core academic subjects in their home language. In this way, students learn English so they can transition into English-only classes, and at the same time receive instruction that prevents them from falling behind academically.
  3. Developmental (or maintenance) bilingual education is given to students who have the basics of the English language but need to continue to improve their English language skills. This model carries through education in both languages and cultures throughout their education. Some schools take this a step further, with dual-language programs that are designed to ensure that both the ELL and English-speaking students become bilingual. In these programs, the students are combined in one class and receive instruction in both languages.

There is also the dual-language method, which is a form of the developmental method.  It has been tested with great success but has not been commonly implemented, for a variety of reasons. This method has been used at the elementary level but has not been practiced in the secondary setting. Researchers have tested this method in Maine with French and in California and Houston, Texas, with Spanish. Under this model, ELL students begin language classes at the earliest stages of elementary school, in an integrated classroom among their native-language peers.

After 4 years of the dual-language program, former English learners who were achieving at the 31st percentile before the program started had reached the 72nd percentile in English reading on the Terra Nova, well above grade level. The findings demonstrate that the two-way language model is extremely effective in closing the gap for achieving a second language. Native English speakers learned Spanish as ELL students learned English, with equal instructional time for both languages.

The study also showed that ELL students need 6 to 8 years to reach grade level in the second language, and so they are tested on grade level in their first language in most curriculum areas. Although these students are still closing the language gap, testing in English does not reflect their actual levels of achievement.

The dual-language model has many opponents, including parents of these students. These parents advocate English-only classes, hoping for a fast-track approach. Although English-only classes may help with spoken fluency, it has not been proven effective for learning the written aspects of the language.

Another approach to teaching ELL students involves specially designed academic instruction in English, also known as “sheltered English” classes. These classes present grade-level curriculum material using simplified English and modified curriculum concepts.

I hope this brief guide to bilingual education programs has helped you understand what we have to offer our non-native English speaking children in this country. Which program type, if any, do you think works best for a student’s English fluency and academic performance? Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts.


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