Bright ideas for tech-savvy educators, right to your inbox

Today's American Classroom and the Rise of the English Language Learners

Thursday, April 9, 2015 -- Rochelle Baltzer

Did you know that more than 460 languages are represented in U.S. classrooms? America has always taken pride in its ability to thrive as a diverse nation with a tradition of welcoming people of all backgrounds and ethnicities. As U.S. demographics have changed throughout history, educational needs have shifted, and schools have adapted to accommodate those needs.

A Turning Point for U.S. Schools

In fall 2014, U.S. public schools were on the verge of experiencing a remarkable change in demographics. For the first time in our nation’s history, the overall number of Latino, African American, and Asian students in K–12 classrooms is expected to be higher than the number of non-Hispanic white students. (Government enrollment data will not be available for a few years, so this information is based on projections.) If you’re looking for more details on the shifts in school demographics, check out these articles from Education Week and Pew Research Center.

Though this shift is not sudden, it marks a turning point—and it signifies the importance of solid education for English language learners (ELLs). By 2020, it is estimated that one in four U.S. students will be an immigrant or an ELL. Rewind back to 1990, and that ratio was one in ten. The impact of this shift is not the same from state to state. Nevada, California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas have the highest density of ELLs, and the Los Angeles Unified School District has the largest number of ELL students.

Background on English Language Learners

Some ELLs have little formal education, while others are ahead of their peers in certain subjects but don’t speak English. In either case, the lack of English skills makes it extremely challenging to pass the standardized tests required to graduate from high school. In the U.S., Spanish is the most widely spoken language at home for ELLs, at 73.1 percent. A testament to the diversity of the nation as a whole, the breakdown varies throughout the states. In Maine, the top language spoken in the homes of ELLs is Somali, while in North Dakota, it is Ojibwa. Learn more from this fact sheet published by the Migration Policy Institute.

U.S. schools are obligated to meet the needs of all students and offer each student a fair opportunity to free, accessible education. From dual-language programs to increasing diversity among school staff members to building community support and partnerships, U.S. schools are actively making efforts to support the needs of ELLs so that they may build a strong educational foundation. Parent education, after-school programs, and targeted training for teachers are other methods to strengthen the ELL educational experience.

What Makes Educational Materials Successful for ELLs?

The impact of diversity in the classroom extends to educational materials. To engage students, these materials must present scenarios that reflect students’ own experiences, including those related to culture and ethnicity. The need for educational products that celebrate diversity is increasingly apparent, and educational publishers have responded—including focusing on hiring diverse authors and illustrators to developing books showcasing diversity. Check out We Need Diverse Books™ to learn about campaigning efforts. Building on this point, how have educational materials changed to reflect the increasing number of ELLs?

Effective ELL programs have specific qualities, such as formative assessment, multiple learning opportunities, and audio and visual support. Edmentum’s solutions for ELL students, including ESL ReadingSmart, offer assessments throughout lessons, providing comprehension checks along the way. Students can express their understanding of concepts in more than one way—including drag-and-drop matching and cloze activities. Features such as read-aloud text and videos offer an enriching experience. Edmentum’s solutions are age appropriate, regardless of ELLs’ proficiency levels, so learners don’t feel like they’re doing lessons meant for younger students.

Want to learn more about how Edmentum can help support your ELL students? Check out this resource on our English Language Development Solutions.