New briefs detail best and worst practices in serving English learners and immigrant-origin students

Two recently updated briefs from Results for America and the Annenberg Institute at Brown University highlight proven practices local educational agencies can use to engage English learners and immigrant-origin students — a term that encompasses both the first- and second-generation youth — to help them succeed academically.

The briefs, released April 16, break down each issue separately and include research-based best practices as well as examples of things to avoid.

In each case, researchers noted that most English learners are not being taught through bilingual and dual language models, despite evidence that these programs are more effective than English-only instruction. Additionally, while English learners and immigrant-origin students often share overlapping experiences in public schools, each group also faces its own set of unique circumstances that require nuanced, tailored strategies to provide support.

Promoting School Success for Immigrant-Origin Students

Immigrant-origin children are one of the fastest-growing segments of the school-age population in the U.S., with about 25 percent of students having at least one foreign-born parent, compared to 19 percent in 2000. According to the brief, “Promoting School Success for Immigrant-Origin Students,” “differences in achievement between immigrant-origin and native-born students primarily result from variations in family and school resources, and this is compounded by issues like interrupted schooling and language barriers.” These students may also experience stressors related to immigration status and immigration enforcement threats to themselves or family members that can affect their academic performance and overall well-being.

To best support these students and their families, the brief includes a list of evidence-based practices that include:

  • Providing accessible communications in multiple languages and formats to bolster home-school connections and improve student engagement.
  • Implementing programs aimed at engaging immigrant-origin families that can foster collaboration, cultural understanding and educational success within the school community.
  • Embracing cultural diversity in schools to encourage increased engagement and promotes cross-cultural learning.
  • Developing formal programs and after-school supports which have been shown to improve academic performance for immigrant youth.
  • Offering information and support related to immigrants’ legal and educational rights at school sites to enhance immigrant-origin students’ engagement and success.

Practices to avoid include separating immigrant students from their non-immigrant peers in classes or schools, which can have adverse effects on all students, as well as denying access to rigorous coursework and diverse elective options, it can hinder academic progress and social integration.

Supports for Multilingual Students who are Classified as English Learners

Multilingual students classified as English learners (ML-ELs) also account for one of the fastest growing K-12 subgroups in the U.S., with 10 percent of public school students classified as ML-ELs, an increase from 7 percent in 2000. ML-ELs tend to score lower than their non-ML-EL peers on standardized tests, according to the brief, “Supports for Multilingual Students who are Classified as English Learners.” “However, interpreting this gap is complicated by the fact that these tests are typically administered in English, and high-scoring students who transition out of EL status are excluded,” research wrote.

Other challenges include persistent underfunding that hinders the ability of LEAs to provide necessary resources and support programs for ML-EL students; preparation programs inadequately training educators on effective pedagogy, program creation and resource allocation to meet the needs of ML-EL students; a lack of effective communication with ML-EL students’ families and more.

Among the evidence-based practices included in the brief:

  • Bilingual program models, particularly dual language approaches, show higher achievement for both ML-ELs and non-ELs compared to English-only programs.
  • Differentiated language development services are necessary to meet the needs of ML-ELs with varying language proficiency levels and educational backgrounds.
  • Programs that consistently engage parents in their native languages find positive effects on parent participation and student attendance.
  • Instructional resources and technology designed to integrate language development and grade-level content learning have demonstrated effectiveness in recent studies.
  • Emphasizing pedagogy that values students’ backgrounds and providing extended learning opportunities can positively influence ML-EL students’ engagement, achievement, and sense of belonging.

Practices to avoid include:

  • A one-size-fits-all approach to ML-EL education assumes that all EL students have the same educational needs, thereby limiting many students’ opportunities to engage with rigorous content and develop their language skills.
  • Separating ML-ELs from their content courses for targeted English language instruction hinders their academic progress and negatively impacts their self-perception by limiting their exposure to core academic content.
  • Communicating effectively with ML-EL students and their families involves more than translations; it requires contextual explanations about the U.S. school system and detailed demonstrations of classroom activities and academic terms.
  • Grade retention has been found to impede academic and language development for ML-EL students, rather than helping them catch up as intended.