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how we can actually achieve educational equity for English learners

What is the role, if any, of an ELL student’s home language in the classroom?

That was the question posed by Education Week’s Larry Ferlazzo to educational leaders Rosa Isiah, Tan Huynh, Karen Nemeth and Sarah Thomas, and there’s much to gain from their thoughtful responses.

Multilingualism: asset or obstacle?

Rosa Isiah is right on in observing:

“The linguistic and cultural diversity offered by our English learners has not been valued as an asset or a resource by many in the educational communities.”

When we step back and consider our increasingly multilingual nation, and the
interconnectedness of our global economy, it should be of great concern to parents, educators, and policy makers that our default educational approach works against the development of  bilingualism and biliteracy in children whose home language isn’t English.

Dr. Isiah continues:

“Linguistically diverse students often have no choice but to adapt to an English-only culture and assimilate to the dominant language, English, as quickly as possible. In the process of attempting to immerse our students, educators create a subtractive schooling experience for students where their culture and language is seen as a challenge to overcome. This type of experience hurts the overall confidence and academic success of English learners, students who are trying to accommodate their ideas, feelings, and position in school. In life.”

Far too often, the result of our race to help English learners acquire grade-level English the-home-language-of-our
proficiency means treating their home language as an obstacle. (See the heartbreaking story of
Jocelyn Moran for example.) As Dr. Isiah points out above (emphasis ours), we do this to the detriment of the student, and the results are disastrous. ELL students have the lowest graduation rates of all at-risk student groups.

When we consider that it’s only in school that knowing two languages is a “problem” and not an advantage, it becomes obvious that we simply must do better on behalf of our English learner students.

terms-such-as-limiteddddAs each of the four responses Larry Ferlazzo received make clear, this begins with adopting an additive, rather than a subtractive, approach to the home language of multilingual students. The authors provide several positive ways to honor the home language and culture of English learners that move beyond what Tan Huynh calls the “sporadic cultural celebrations.” To be sure, for the general education teacher, these are all important considerations and worthy of adoption.

Equity for English learners: the 800lb gorilla in the room

The article does leave unaddressed the major question of how to actually achieve educational equity for English learners. As Lilah Ambrosi and Ken Williams wrote in Getting Smart:

“The growing population of ELL students represents a systemic challenge: How will we provide effective programming for nascent bilinguals which does not strip them of this advantage, but builds upon it?”

The answer to that question means taking a hard look at our existing English monolingual pipeline, and reimagining how we go about helping students acquire multiple languages. Ambrosi and Williams continue:Screen Shot 2017-02-17 at 12.27.17 PM.png

“Ensuring equity for our nation’s nascent bilinguals means adopting an additive approach to language acquisition. Research shows that the most effective way to help nascent bilinguals develop their language proficiency in English is by first strengthening literacy in their home language. This additive approach typifies quality language immersion programs. However, not all immersion models are created equally…

“The 90-10 two-way immersion model has been proven to be the most effective method for developing literacy in two languages for both native Spanish and native English students.”

The simple fact is that most English learners are going to be educated in English only classrooms for the foreseeable future. We fully believe that teachers (and specialists) are going to do their very best for these students within the existing system, and we applaud their efforts.

But the near term realities of our existing system(s) shouldn’t distract us from the long term goal of working toward equitable educational offerings for every student. Contrast Jocelyn Moran’s story linked above with that of the Alvarado-Ibarra family at our partner school, Holland Language Academy. We want and need more of these kinds of transformational stories.

We’ll let Ambrosi and Williams wrap this with a mic drop:

“Equity in action for our nation’s ELL students means ensuring they reach the same bar expected of all students. By making multilingualism our aim and taking the necessary steps to bring programs into alignment with research on language acquisition, we can provide students and families with the equitable education they deserve.”


If you’d like to learn more about how add.a.lingua helps build and support equitable dual language immersion programs around the nation–get in touch using the form below. And feel free to leave a note in the comment section. We’d love to hear from you!

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