I. Overview of the Issue
English language learners, or ELLs, face significant challenges to learning in American schools. They make up the fastest-growing population in our schools today (Luster, 2012) and The National Center for Education Statistics predicts that by 2030 the ELL population will make up 40% of all students in U.S. schools (Maarouf, 2019). Unfortunately, these students continue to fall behind white students in academic achievement, especially in math and reading (Luster, 2012). Between 2005 and 2011, the gap between ELLs’ and non-ELLs’ reading scores rose to thirty-one percent (Nilsson, et al., 2016), while gaps in math rose to twenty-one percent (Luster, 2012). What is the cause for these gaps? It is not necessarily that they cannot read or perform math in their native languages. Today, over five million students with Spanish-speaking backgrounds fall behind in academic achievement because they have not mastered the English language (Maarouf, 2019), the language they are being taught and tested in. If they do not become proficient in English by third grade, the chance they will do so remains low (Barber, et al., 2018). To close the achievement gap, we must find a way to prevent the language barrier and other obstacles from interfering with ELLs’ academic achievement.
II. Current Research
1. The Achievement Gap-Discipline Gap Connection
One of the more concerning correlations is the discipline-achievement gap between Hispanics and non-Hispanics, particularly males. According to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), Hispanic males made up fifteen percent of all students who were suspended from school, despite only accounting for thirteen percent of all enrolled students (Gopalan, 2019). The study by Gopalan determined that there is a slight positive correlation between achievement and discipline gaps, and schools with higher achievement gaps also have higher discipline gaps (Gopalan, 2019). While Gopalan and the OCR did not specifically note whether these students were ELLs, Hispanic students make up the largest percentage of ELL students (Nilsson, et al., 2016). When students have been suspended from school, they miss critical instruction time and cannot make up missed assignments, which is particularly difficult for ELL students. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, while ELL and non-ELL students suspension rates were similar in elementary school, ELL suspension rates were higher in middle and high school, with aggression and insubordination being the most common offenses for both groups. ELL students lost on average 3.5 days of instruction in middle school and 4.9 days at the high school level. ELL students who were suspended also scored lower in reading and math on standardized tests than students who had not been expelled (Burke, 2015).
For students in general, missed instruction was considered a discipline issue for teachers. In the Lumadi study on discipline, the top two issues parents surveyed said they discussed with teachers regarding discipline were tardies and excessive absences. Students’ academic performance suffers when they are not at school to learn the content (Lumadi, 2019). Teachers and parents can work together to limit the discipline gap by collaborating to ensure the best results for students. Teachers should prepare lessons that keep students engaged and help them maintain an orderly classroom environment to reduce discipline issues (Lumadi, 2019). They should communicate with parents frequently to ensure both the student and parent understand and are aware of any issues. When parents are involved in their child’s education, academic achievement improves (Lumadi, 2019), and student discipline issues can often be addressed without disciplinary consequences.
2. STEM v. STEAM v. STREAM
In 2009, the Race to the Top (RT3) initiative focused more funding and education on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education, or STEM, to increase student achievement and engagement (Handelsman & Smith, 2016). According to data from the PISA, gaps in science achievement begin to emerge in early elementary school. Students must be proficient in reading to conquer the text and vocabulary that accompanies science instruction, which is often a challenge for English language learners. According to one researcher, all students, but particularly low-socioeconomic and ELL students, increase their reading comprehension and writing skills when art education is integrated into STEM programs (Hughes, 2022) or STEAM. They indicate that STEAM programs can improve students’ inquiry and problem-solving skills, increase creative thinking, and help them see abstract concepts as more concrete. These skills are helpful, especially for science instruction, and have been shown to help lower the gap between ELL and non-ELL students (Hughes, 2022). Hughes’ study used pre-and post-tests to determine if STEAM approaches improved scores for ELL students. While the results were inconclusive, the overall scores did improve slightly. The author suggests that more research is needed to determine whether these supports are worthwhile (Hughes, 2022).
In the same vein as STEAM, researchers have proposed changing STEM programs to STREAM to incorporate reading and art education programs. Low scores in math and science for ELL students can be tied to a lack of proficiency in reading and comprehension in the English language. According to the author, students can build content area literacy in English by combining STEM teaching and reading comprehension with vocabulary-building activities (Maarouf, 2019). The author suggests that teachers should first determine students’ reading levels in their native language and English and their proficiency levels in STEM subjects before implementing reading and STEM instruction (Maarouf, 2019). Researchers then proposed several strategies to incorporate reading and improve academic language for ELL students to improve math and science achievement. One method is using sheltered instruction to teach content while incorporating English instruction. A similar method is Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction which focuses on science-based reading and graphic organizers to improve reading comprehension and academic language (Maarouf, 2019). The goal is to prevent English language proficiency from leading to poor academic performance in science and math.
3. Dual-Language Programs
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the achievement gap between ELLs and their peers was about thirty percent in 2009. They also reported low high school graduation rates and college attendance among ELLs (Trevino-Mendez, et al., 2017). Research indicates that dual-language programs can help ELLs achieve academic success when paired with English acquisition strategies (Cardoza & Brown, 2019). In Cardoza and Brown’s study, the treatment group of ELLs continued learning content in their native language, which they already understood, while gradually learning the English language and customs. In the comparison group, ELLs were taught content in English while learning the language. Results of the study found that students who received math instruction in a dual-language program scored significantly higher than those taught in English only (Cardoza & Brown, 2019).
A similar non-experimental study compared the reading and math scores of ELL students in grades 3-6 who were enrolled in bilingual programs compared to those enrolled in exit programs. Researchers found that the students enrolled in the dual/bilingual programs consistently performed better than those in exit programs in math and reading (Trevino-Mendez, et al., 2017). These studies suggest that students need to develop basic proficiency in English before they begin learning in English-only, so they do not fall behind in content.
4. Vocabulary Development Strategies
Research is clear that achievement gaps persist in vocabulary from pre-K to college for many of our ELL students. To help these students succeed, schools need to find strategies to develop vocabulary proficiency quickly and in the younger grades if possible (Gibson, 2016). Gibson’s study aimed to determine the most effective teaching strategies for English language development and retention and how to close the achievement gap between ELLs and non-ELLs (Gibson, 2016). Some of the best strategies for developing vocabulary and literacy skills in ELL students are cooperative reading, phonics, and writing practice. Using image-based supplements to correspond to these strategies, such as picture books, anchor charts, and word walls, was especially helpful. Using technology also brought about positive results at the beginning stages of English language instruction, as well as using cognates in their native language (Gibson, 2016). Using visuals and technology also addressed multiple learning styles and engagement. Vocabulary proficiency becomes the building block for reading comprehension, which is essential for English language proficiency.
5. Differentiation Strategies
With differentiated instruction, students have various options for how they learn the information, make sense of it, and show what they have learned (Beecher & Sweeny, 2008). As with all students, a one-size-fits-all approach to learning is not realistic or beneficial for ELL students. ELL students, for example, may not show mastery of a subject through written expression but could create a presentation or do an oral story. Beecher and Sweeny wanted to see how differentiation and enrichment would affect the achievement gap between Hispanic ELLs and white students. Their study was based on eight years of research, gathering data from test scores, meeting notes, strategic plan documentation, and other support documents at a particular elementary school (Beecher & Sweeny, 2008).
Before implementation, many of the students were bored and found it challenging to find relevancy in the learning. When students could make decisions about their learning and include topics of interest to them, they were more engaged in the learning process (Beecher & Sweeny, 2008). Their attitudes about school improved along with their scores on district and state tests. Between 1997 and 2004, students improved in all subject areas in all levels of proficiency on state assessments (Beecher & Sweeny, 2008). The achievement gap between white and Hispanic students decreased by five percent. The number of Hispanic students in the remedial category dropped from twenty-two to seven percent (Beecher & Sweeny, 2008). It is apparent that when students are engaged and have a choice in their learning, student achievement will improve.
6. Cooperative Learning Strategies
Cooperative learning has been shown to help students learn more, remember what they have learned longer, and help develop critical thinking skills (Teed, 2018). A study by Ghodbane & El Achachi used a pre-and post-test with an experiment and control group to determine the effects of mixed-ability cooperative learning on the achievement gap between low and high-performing students in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classrooms (Ghodbane & El Achachi, 2019). The achievement gap between high and low achievers in the experimental group fell by over three percent from the pre-and post-test, while there was no change in the control group. This indicates that cooperative learning strategies can contribute to ELL/EFL students’ achievement. Researchers suggest that these methods benefit ELL/EFL students because it creates a community of learning, assists with students’ self-esteem, allows them to practice social and language skills, and allows them to learn from other students (Ghodbane & El Achachi, 2019). It would be interesting to see how the achievement gap would be affected if this method was employed more frequently with the experimental group.
7. Teacher Collaboration
Teacher collaboration is an often lauded practice but one that is rarely put into practice. Research suggests that one way of closing the achievement gap is to create teacher collaboration communities where teachers work together for a common goal, sharing best practices, observing others, implementing new strategies, and taking on new roles in the classroom. Levine and Marcus studied two teams at two different schools for two years, relying on interviews and observations. They wanted to determine if teachers shared best practices, provided feedback, and if their discussions were likely to influence their classroom practices. The teachers they studied created houses or learning communities made up of underperforming students, focusing on ELLs. Each teacher served as an advisor to twenty students with whom they met weekly, monitored their progress, and acted as an academic and personal growth coach and a family liaison. Parental involvement improves achievement and lowers the dropout rate, regardless of students’ backgrounds. The teachers were given an extra planning period to collaborate daily regarding their practices and shared students (Levine & Marcus, 2007).
Results showed that while teachers were willing to share and implement new strategies, there were no records of teachers providing feedback on their peers’ instructional practices. Many teachers do not feel comfortable with this role, but the authors did suggest that school leaders could assist their teachers in this area. In order to implement teacher collaboration, schools need to provide teachers with the time and training needed to identify problem areas, develop collaboration teams and structures, and set goals (Levine & Marcus, 2007).
8. Best Practices From Successful Schools
Research has indicated that children who cannot read proficiently in English by the 3rd grade are four times as likely to not graduate on time and more likely to drop out before graduation. Seventy percent of dropouts report having difficulty reading. Third grade is a critical point in reading because children transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” (Garcia-Borrego, et al., 2020). ELL students continue to perform below grade level on high-stakes assessments at the end of third grade. Garcia-Borrego and colleagues interviewed several administrators in South Texas who had achieved success for ELLs in the academic areas. Based on these interviews, the four themes that were emerged as the key to this success were providing a quality curriculum with phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary; addressing instructional challenges or barriers; providing a variety of instructional strategies; and implementing progress monitoring followed by differentiated instruction (Garcia-Borrego, et al., 2020). Participants asserted that struggling students, such as ELLs, could master reading if given quality instruction, explicit vocabulary instruction, and ways to monitor growth. They also insisted that schools had to be intentional about teaching literacy as early as possible, even in Pre-K, so that students did not fall behind (Garcia-Borrego, et al., 2020).
III. Implications for Curriculum and Instruction
The common theme that emerged from researching the English language learner achievement gap was that vocabulary acquisition was critical, particularly in the earlier grade levels. Whether teachers are focusing on basic English or content area vocabulary, this is the knowledge students must build on for reading comprehension in the content areas. Teachers can facilitate vocabulary building by providing a variety of instructional strategies that include cooperative reading, word walls, picture books, anchor charts, and technology. By implementing vocabulary and reading strategies into STEM instruction, teachers can help ELL students improve in the areas of math and science. Other strategies that can lower the achievement gap for ELLs are implementing differentiation and enrichment activities, using more frequent cooperative learning, and using art programs to improve creative thinking and problem-solving skills. Teacher collaboration is also essential in providing students with the support they need to succeed and to determine best practices for student achievement.
The dual-language program shows promise in moving ELL students forward in content acquisition while they develop English language skills. It seems logical that students should not be tested on content in English if they are not proficient in English. If assessments are given to determine what students have learned, it seems as if these assessments are testing our ELL populations on their English language skills instead of their content knowledge. Another method that is probably more common is sheltered instruction, in which teachers focus on cooperative learning, reading and writing strategies, and differentiation to teach ELLs content-area skills and information while improving English language skills in a small classroom format with their peers (Luster, 2012). These are strategies that research has shown to be effective in improving student achievement and engagement. Whatever model schools use to support our English language learners, we must use a variety of strategies and supports to ensure that each student is successful.
IV. Reflection on My Personal Practice
I teach many ELL students in my U.S. history course and see how many struggle with learning both the content and English language. Last semester I had a sweet young lady who spoke very little English. Although she understood very little of the language and rarely asked for help, she worked extremely hard to succeed in the class. My co-teacher and I checked on her frequently and paired her with a Spanish-speaking peer to help her, but we were often at a loss for how to help her. Her success was largely based on her own persistence and hard work instead of my teaching strategies, I fear. After researching best practices and the reasons behind the ELL achievement gap, I feel better prepared to help my ELL students, particularly those who have very little English proficiency. Providing my students with more opportunities for vocabulary building and reading comprehension, differentiation, and cooperative learning can help them succeed in my classroom and all subject areas. With the growing number of English language learners in our classrooms, we must make every effort to ensure that all of our students succeed in all areas of learning because that is why we are teachers.
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