Helping English Language Learners Meet their Full Potential

By Students at the Center Hub Team
August 21, 2017

The United States has always been, and continues to be, a nation of immigrants. These immigrants are not only raising our youth, but in many cases they are our youth. And they bring important skills with them.

But when it comes to educating students for whom English is not primarily spoken at home (English Language Learners, or “ELLs”), we miss key opportunities to build on their skills. Instead, educators often focus on the ways in which they are “deficient,” or lacking in English fluency. Many schools even neglect to properly assess ELLs in order to see what they are truly capable of. These students have strengths such as advanced academic preparation in their first language, unusual drive and motivation, a sophisticated understanding of cultural differences and fluency in another language.

Nearly five million students across the US, comprising almost 10 percent of the total school-age population, were designated as English Language Learners.
Source: Zong & Batalova 2015; if one considers all students who come from homes where English is not the primary language spoken, the figure doubles to more than 20 percent; Ryan, 2013


We published a report with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation that takes a deeper look into the strengths young immigrants and ELLs bring, what it means for the classroom, and recommendations to help students reach their full potential. It’s called The Implications of Deeper Learning for Adolescent Immigrants and English Language Learners.

This research outlines key insights about ELLs and the impact of misperceptions:

Statistics associated with ELLs’ low-scoring performance on standardized tests are misleading.

As soon as ELL students begin to perform well, they lose the “ELL” label – skewing the data.

Stress and trauma of migration can take a psychological toll on ELLs.

Gang activity, deep poverty, natural disasters and other crises threaten ELLs’ academic progress.

Despite the challenges, ELLs and immigrants are driven to succeed.

Students often arrive in the U.S. full of hope, ready to learn and well-suited for engaged, critical and challenging school experiences.

All of this data can mean different things, depending on the educator’s goals.

If an educator’s goal is for a student to learn English quickly, then an English-only instructional program may be what is needed. If the goal is for them to achieve at high levels and become reclassified as English proficient, then bilingual and dual language instruction show the strongest outcomes.

District and state policies often reinforce deficit-based views in education.

The report provides recommendations for federal and state policymakers that could help educate ELLs to their full potential.

By using deeper learning techniques, young immigrants and ELL students can do things like master high-level academic content and skills, learn to work collaboratively, think critically and communicate well. By doing better by these students, we enrich the classroom for all learners. Check out the report to learn more.

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