English learners at university: from marginalized to invisible
Students learning English often face extreme obstacles in obtaining an education in the United States.
From kindergarten to grade 12, they are entitled to the resources needed to get the same education as their English-speaking peers, but what they receive varies greatly depending on where they live. As a result, about 67% of English learners graduate from high school, compared to about 84% of the general population.
For those who make it out of high school, the path to college — and what happens to them there — is largely uncharted and unregulated. In the worst-case scenario, without support and guidance to navigate the system, English learners end up wasting time and losing their eligibility for financial aid by taking remedial classes, when they could be succeeding in classes ordinary with language support.
“I’ve always thought there must be a more dignified way to learn English, or learn another language, than being told you’re just not good enough.”
Yasuko Kanno, Associate Professor of Language Education, Boston University
“Students go from being visible and marginalized to being a kind of invisible being,” said Shawna Shapiro, associate professor of writing and linguistics at Middlebury College and author of a New America Report Highlights Best Practices to Help English Learners Make the Transition to College. “Both are a problem.”
To successfully transition from high school to college, English learners and their families often need extra support. Shapiro’s recommendations fall into three categories: integrating English learners into classes with students who are not English learners; resist separating them from students proficient in English or following them in certain career paths; and collect more robust data on these students. Many strategies need to start in K-12 because if students don’t succeed there, they’re unlikely to succeed in college.
Related: Six Questions Teachers Should Ask to Help English Learners Succeed
Shapiro and other language experts agree that to improve the situation for English learners – about 10% of K-12 students in America – educators’ narrative of what it means to be an English learner must change. .
“If you’re in college and no one recognizes that you’re multilingual and not only do you need certain types of support, but you have something to offer diversity and global citizenship in education higher, it’s also a missed opportunity,” Shapiro mentioned. “Instead of ‘fixing’ them as the problem, prepare them and equip them to solve the problem.”
Change the story
Yasuko Kanno, an associate professor of language education at Boston University, has a personal interest in education and investing in English learners — she was one.
After growing up in Tokyo, Kanno attended an international boarding school in the UK, where the strategy for English learners was “sink or swim”, she said.
“The only way to be recognized was to learn English, and your first languages and cultures didn’t matter. I survived that, I guess, I swam,” Kanno said. “I’ve always thought there had to be a more dignified way to learn English, or learn another language, than being told you just aren’t good enough. Or that you’re not smart enough if you don’t speak English.
Although services for English learners have generally improved since Kanno was at school, she worries that attitudes have not changed enough. She still occasionally hears from students whose experiences are too similar to hers – some 30 years later.
Corn English learners graduate from high school at lower ratesShapiro said the problem isn’t that they’re learning English, it’s that the education system sees their lack of English as a deficit, rather than considering what they have to offer, including their mother tongue, their culture and their academic abilities.
Students learning English should, as much as possible, be integrated into classrooms with students who are proficient in English, Shapiro said. But that often doesn’t happen. Secondary students learning English are directed to special sections of lessons like history or math with other English learners, classes that have the same credit and description as the regular class, but not the same academic rigor. This means that their GPAs or test scores don’t always accurately reflect their college readiness.
The readiness of students for college also depends on how long they have been classified as English learners. A long-term study of English learners in Texas found that students who have been tested outside of English language teaching in three years or less performed better on state-standardized tests, and students who remained in English-teaching classes for five years or more were “falling significantly behind each year”.
Resist siloing and tracking
Extra English lessons alone may not help students prepare for college, Shapiro said. As with other students, their learning is influenced by their life outside of school. Family situations or financial stressors, physical or mental health issues, and other factors contribute.
To address all factors in a student’s life, Shapiro said schools need to communicate with families of English learners early, instead of just testing the student’s English proficiency.
School administrators and teachers need to meet with families and get a more holistic understanding of the student, including their strengths, goals, educational expectations, challenges and fears, she said.
Related: Immigrants learned English in half the time they did in third grade
These conversations can also be used to educate the student’s family about how the American education system works. Families benefit if they understand all of the options available to their students, from career education to workforce training programs to college education, and how to pay for them.
This, Shapiro said, could help prevent students from being tracked in certain fields or career paths simply because they are English learners. “We would like to see a proportional representation of English learners in all of these programs, not just in a certain subset of programs,” she said.
Once Spanish-speaking English learners arrive at college, administrators sometimes think they just need to translate their website and flyers into Spanish in order to engage them and make information accessible to their families, a said Deborah Santiago, CEO of Excelencia in Education. But families may have little experience with the US education system and not understand information in any language.
Instead, she suggested that colleges hire community liaison officers to find out where families of English learners go to find resources in the community and meet them there with the information they need.
Collect better data
Right now, Shapiro said, colleges have little incentive to collect solid data on English learners. Instead, these students are usually counted based on other identities they hold, such as being a student of color, an international student, or a first-generation student.
To better serve English learners, Shapiro said, educators and policymakers need to better understand their needs and how to meet them, as well as what they expect from their education.
This story about middle school English learners was produced by The Hechinger Reportan independent, non-profit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Subscribe to our higher education newsletter.