English language learners now comprise approximately 10% of the student population, and there are indications that this number could expand significantly in the decades to come, with some projections putting the number as high as 40% by 2030.
However, many of these students are never reclassified after being designated as ELLs during their K-12 schooling, according to Dr. Bernadette Musetti, an associate professor and Director of Liberal Studies at Loyola Marymount University and the author of a new white paper on how tech can be used to support ELL student success. She said that while there have been some gains to tout, the country is still struggling to adequately teach ELL students properly.
“Once they get designated as an English learner, they end up staying there for a really long time,” she said. “They don’t ever really acquire academic English, according to the school. About 60% at the secondary level have been English learners the majority of their schooling experience.”
Musetti asserts these students should also be introduced to academic content in English at the same time that they are working on language acquisition. Schools do not have the time for students to wait to acquire full proficiency in English to teach content, Musetti said, because by then they may be too old to attain all the knowledge they will require for a successful future.
According to Tanya Mas, the head of global marketing for Rosetta Stone, the focus on ensuring ELL students are reading and writing English on-level by the time they reach 3rd grade means publishers are paying less attention to other points in a student's educational career.
“Are they getting reinforcement in those skills?” Mas asked, saying that technology could continue to be used later in K-12 and into college for further support. “They may be versed in colloquial English, but they may not have that basis in academic English that can help them in higher ed or in their career.”
The report indicates that ELL students of varying ages and levels would benefit from approaches to tech tools that offer additional time and experience using English in a variety of manners; suggestions include tools that use “voice recognition to promote listening and speaking skills and modeled language use.” Musetti noted the tools could have the added benefit of introducing ELL students to more experience with computers and tech tools. Many ELL students suffer from a “digital divide,” with few opportunities outside of the classroom to become better acquainted. This can be particularly challenging during exam time, Musetti said.
“Now all the standardized testing is computer-based, and some of what they’re asked to can be pretty complicated. If you’re not very tech savvy and don’t have much familiarity with tech, you’re at a huge disadvantage from the test perspective,” she said. “What English learners need is more time and practice.”
Musetti said that part of the challenge for ELLs was that they need to make an incredible amount of gains to keep pace with native English speakers in terms of content instruction, and she advised that promoting learning development is one of the best ways in which school and district leaders could help educators. She also suggested that schools and teacher prep programs conduct more outreach to seek out bilingual educators.
“I think that they have to be advocates for English learners themselves, and understand what that takes,” she said. “It’s all about ongoing learning and really focusing on if I’m teaching the language and content in the best way so I could to accelerate the language and learning for the student.”