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Illinois Offers Lessons in Teaching English as a Second Language

June 1, 2012 |
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.
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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.