Schools struggle with English language learners

About 12 percent of the students in Philadelphia public schools is learning English, but the district is struggling to find a clear vision on how best to educate them, the Notebook reports.


Bilingual students in Washington DC, 2012 (US Dept of Agriculture / Flickr CC)

That English language learners perform best when teachers are required to have state certification as a teacher of ELLs has been documented. Just over 20 states, however, explicitly require ELL teachers to have specialist certification, which typically comes in one of the following forms:

  • ESL (English as a second language)
  • Bilingual
  • Teaching English to speakers of other languages (ESOL)
  • Structured English immersion

Then, about five states require ELL specialist certification in state education department guidelines but not as part of any official policy, and another 14 states refer to ELL specialist certification in state policy but leave it unclear as to whether such certification is required.

A survey of ELL teachers in California, where the ELL population approaches the one-fourth mark, identified a very specific set of skills for working effectively with ELL students. Effective teachers were able to communicate with students and engage their families, the survey concluded. The most effective teachers were also those that were knowledgeable in the usage of both languages, including forms and mechanics, and were ready to teach these to students.

Teachers who were the best in California also expressed feelings of efficacy when it came to teaching ELL students. That confidence rubbed off on their students.

Pennsylvania doesn’t require certification as a specialist to be an ELL teacher, according to the Education Commission of the States, but it’s one of the few states that requires it in state education department guidelines. And if a specific ELL certification isn’t required, that means specific teacher training in the above skills may not be available or accessible to the teachers who have to work with Philadelphia’s ELL students.

“There’s an absence of statewide direction, guidance, and technical assistance,” the Notebook quoted Maura McInerney of the Education Law Center, which monitors the district on its ELL policy and services, as saying. “Other states have more robust laws, guidance on what are best practices for refugee students, how to concentrate on older learners who come here as teenagers and need significant ESOL instruction. We bypass that.”

A few other problems come up in Philadelphia, the Notebook says. For one thing, ELL students and their families speak about 100 languages. Sure, 52 percent of them list Spanish as their native tongue and 6 percent speak each of Mandarin and Arabic natively, but 14 languages have an appreciable representation among students in Philadelphia and 82 other languages make up the difference.

Second, although schools count students—and allocate resources—in October, ELL students arrive and depart at random times throughout the year. This is especially true for students who are refugees or immigrants from other countries. Schools then have to scramble if a student who belongs to a particular language group arrives after the counting and after resources for students who speak that language have been allocated elsewhere.

Refugees have arrived in Philadelphia from countries like Syria, Sudan, Burma, and El Salvador. The schools were flooded two years ago when the Central American refugee crisis was in the news, but the random arrival of immigrants and refugees continues to this day.

Maryland law is unclear on this issue, as the state offers a specific ELL certification for teachers but doesn’t make clear whether it’s required. Under federal law, though, teachers who are working with ELL students “must be able to speak, read, and write both languages, should have received adequate instruction in bilingual education methods, and should be fully qualified to teach their subject.” How the term “adequate” is defined is where the fuzziness comes in.

As for Illinois, the law specifically requires bilingual education teachers and those who work in English as a Second Language programs to hold the respective license endorsements.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.