A New Approach to English Language Learning

New Approach Needed for English Language Learners

Rethinking ELL language learning models in K-12 schools

May 13, 2014

In March, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan published an op-ed on the need to support “the estimated 4.6 million students learning English” in American schools. The piece, co-written with Libia S. Gil, the DOE’s assistant deputy secretary of English Language Acquisition, has an interesting take on the benefits of providing English language skills to this cohort, which they peg as “the fastest-growing student population in our schools.”

Duncan and Gil shifted the debate to say that by teaching English to native speakers of Spanish, Chinese, French, Arabic and other world languages, we would help address one of our key economic weaknesses: the lack of skilled bilingual speakers. Once these new Americans learn English, we will have millions of new bilingual residents to help us better compete in the global economy.

Of course there is also a huge rationale for new arrivals to this country to gain English skills. While there is no national language, the evidence is overwhelming that immigrants who learn English have many more educational and economic opportunities. And becoming bilingual helps students pursue a job in a growing list of careers that value second language proficiency.

But addressing the needs of English Language Learners (ELL) can be challenging, which is why states are looking at new models. In fact, some states are rethinking the approach to ELL because the results over the past several years haven’t been up to par.

In Massachusetts, the Legislature is looking to repeal a 12-year-old law that requires the state to teach ELL students only in English for a year before putting them in the classroom with other students, a practice known as Sheltered English Immersion (SEI). While we believe immersion is the best way to learn a language, the SEI structure has failed to provide resources, trained teachers or curriculum to help ELL students learn English effectively. As Massachusetts academics and ELL advocates noted recently in a Boston Globe op-ed the SEI structure has failed the state’s ELL students. New legislation would grant districts more flexibility to create programs separate from (or even connected to) the SEI structure in order to provide students and teachers with more classroom resources.

(As a background note, I was Governor of Massachusetts when the SEI structure became law. It did so through a ballot initiative—financed by wealthy, out-of-state English-only advocates—that was approved by Massachusetts voters. I publicly opposed the ballot question because it failed to provide districts with flexibility to address their own ELL needs. I proposed a compromise plan that did not become law.)

Middlebury Interactive Languages is pleased to be involved in two new models for delivering English learning. The first model is helping to address some of the systemic flaws in Massachusetts through summer language academies at three Massachusetts Gateway Cities (mid-sized cities with large immigrant populations). The program started last year through a pilot academy in Lynn, a working-class city north of Boston. 

The Lynn Summer English Language Academy was modeled after our highly effective world language academies (Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy) but was tailored to meet the needs of non-native English learners. The students were early language learners, with first language backgrounds in Arabic, Nepalese, Spanish and Portuguese, and less than three years of English in Lynn. The intensive four-week program also included significant teacher professional development and partnerships with local colleges to provide students with a perspective on higher education pathways.

While we felt confident the academy would be successful, we were overwhelmed with the response. In fact, an exit assessment survey showed that:

  • 65% of the students indicated the program provided experiences that were important to supporting them to explore career interests
  • 78% indicate the program was important to helping them be more motivated to succeed in school
  • 74% indicating the program was important for helping them be more motivated to attend college
  • 78% of the students indicated the program was important in helping them develop vocabulary
  • Overall, students demonstrated improving scores for all English Language Skill areas documented via teacher observations and assessment scores
  • 92% of the students reported on the end-of-program survey that the program was very important in helping them build their English language skills

The success in Lynn has convinced the Massachusetts Executive Office of Education to expand the program for this summer. In addition to renewing in Lynn, we will open new academies in Chelsea and Taunton.

The second new model will create a comprehensive blended-learning system in the Hartford, Connecticut school district. We are excited to share more details on that partnership here soon, but the program will start as a pilot and include components of digital courses, teacher professional development and summer language immersion academies.

Are you an ELL educator, teacher or student? We would love to hear about your experiences and take on the subject in our comments section.

Jane Swift
In addition to leading our company, Jane is the mother of three teenage girls, a Williams College lecturer and a perennial contender to win the company’s March Madness pool. Jane was MA’s first woman Governor and first one in the U.S. to give birth (to twins) while in office. Jane made education her priority during her decade-plus public service career and helped MA become the nation’s top education state.
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