News from the world of English Language Learning

News from the world of English Language Learning August 26, 2023

school bus,

In Illinois, and Chicago in particular, along with various other declared “sanctuary states,” there have a multitude of news reports about migrants crowding into shelters, migrant children overwhelming schools, and so on (though, of course, one presumes that in Texas the situation is far more chaotic as they have had to bear the brunt of the large growth in new arrivals).  And in that context came a report at WBEZ, the public radio station in Chicago, “Illinois immigrants need more language help to thrive and partake in civic life.”  The report headlined the worrisome statistic that 8% of the Illinois population speaks English “less than very well,” according to Census Bureau statistics.  In Chicago, the report says, 1/3 of individuals age 5 and older speak a language other than English at home (which is not the same as speaking English “less than very well” but one presumes that the figure for Chicago is nonetheless significantly higher than 8%) — but the “language help” the article describes in detail does not consist of English classes, but of ways in which community agencies and others accommodate non-English speakers by helping people get government services by communicating in their own language, and profiling advocacy groups’ call for more interpreters and more service providers with foreign language knowledge.

At the same time, I listened to a presentation at a recent board of education meeting describing the skyrocketing numbers of ELLs (English language learners) in the district, who, a mandated by state law, are taught in their native language rather than through immersion into English, with the goal to gradually transition to English, with the optimistic name of “Transitional Bilingual Education.”  But it turns out, the “transition” never actually happens.  The majority of the students entering the high school district with ELL status were born in the US.

In fact, the conventional wisdom about immigrant families, that first generation immigrants struggle with English, the second generation kids can understand their parents but prefer to speak English and ultimate become poor home-language speakers, and the third generation loses the home-country language entirely — that’s no longer true.

The most recent data on the subject that I was able to find is fairly old but nonetheless:

[T]he number of U.S. ELLs born in the United States has increased from approximately one third of the Limited Engish Proficient (LEP) population in 1991-1992 (Fleischman & Hopstock, 1993) to 64 percent of all LEPs in 2006 (Batalova, 2006). Today, more than 75% of elementary school ELLs were U.S.-born (Capps, Fix, Murray, Ost, Passel, & Herwantoro, 2005), compared with 41% in 1992 (Fleischman & Hopstock, 1993).

Further disaggregation of the data reveals an unanticipated pattern of generational language use: twenty seven percent of ELLs in secondary school are second generation, and twenty nine percent are third generation or beyond.2 Among elementary-level ELLs, fifty nine percent are second generation and eighteen percent are third generation or beyond (see Figure 1) (Capps et al., 2005).

29% of students in high school ELL education are third generation!   The particular report (again, it dates to 2007) cites housing segregation as part of the explanation, which doesn’t make much sense to me, since immigrant communities have always been segregated.  But the article does identify a stronger desire to maintain the home language, a belief that speaking Spanish (among, of course, immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries) would give their kids opportunities, and a desire to maintain a “Latino identity” as key factors, and it is, of course, easy to see those factors only increasing — plus, of course, the access to Spanish-language TV, and the access to Spanish-language media in general, with the magic of the internet, has surely expanded as well.

On top of this, in the state of Illinois in particular, in 2017, the state substantially tightened up its requirements for students to be deemed sufficiently proficient to leave bilingual classes.  Here’s the description of the new standard:

WIDA better aligned ACCESS 2.0 with the language demands necessary to meet college and career readiness standards. The alignment required WIDA to engage in standard setting. The results of the this work [sic] requires English learners (ELs) to demonstrate higher language abilities than they have in previous years.

Given the large number of students who emerge from high school without meeting the benchmarks for “college and career ready” based on the state’s own metric of proficiency, this is absurd, since it suggests that native English speakers who are poor students would fail this test!  And, in fact, the sample test questions for high school students strike me as being deliberately confusing, with students being required to interpret two data tables in ways that are likely to be challenging for struggling students.  I have been told that, in my local school district, this new benchmark was the difference between borderline kids moving out of bilingual education after, say, their first year of high school, and kids staying in bilingual education the entire time, and, honestly, I’d love to know how many native English speakers would also fail the test.  (And, yes, I am still not sure if this is the state implementation of a federal mandate or a state decision to implement a general requirement in a particularly strict way.)

And, yes, there are parents who want this for their kids, for whom maintaining the home language is important enough that full English proficiency is of secondary importance.  And there are kids who are happy to stay in bilingual classes because that’s where their friends are.  But it’s a substantial burden on the community, both in terms of cost of providing these classes and the future of the community, when that next generation which ought to have become fluent, isn’t.

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