Promising policies in advancing language proficiency among newcomer students

Most newcomer students enter school with very low or beginning English language proficiency (ELP), but their language skills can develop rapidly under the right conditions, according to the first in a new series of briefs by Policy Analysis for California Education.

While California does not have a consistent definition for a newcomer student, researchers have defined newcomers using the federal definition for immigrant students: K-12 students who were born outside the U.S. and who have been in U.S. schools for fewer than three full academic years.

A subgroup of students classified as English learners, newcomer students arrive with diverse languages, birth countries, generational statuses, sociocultural backgrounds, ethnic/racial identities, ages and more. For schools, this can present some hurdles.

For instance, examining data from two unnamed states found that while 80 percent of non-newcomer EL students speak Spanish as their primary language (aligned with the national average among EL-classified students), fewer than 50 percent of newcomers do. Instead, larger proportions of newcomer students speak languages including Arabic, Somali, Vietnamese, Chinese and Swahili. Additionally, considerably smaller proportions of newcomer EL students live in low-income households compared to non-newcomer EL students.

Newcomers’ initial ELP is, on average, lower than that of their non-newcomer EL peers, and many have histories of limited or interrupted formal schooling — often due to inaccessible education in students’ birth countries or lost schooling during the immigration process.

“The backgrounds and linguistic and academic skillsets of EL-classified students vary widely. This diversity has direct implications for policy and practice because students with different skills and needs likely benefit from differentiated supports, services, and instructional techniques,” researchers wrote. “Better understanding the needs and learning trajectories of this group of students is key to supporting individual students with educational services that meet their needs and engage their strengths.”

According to the brief, newcomer students show dramatically rapid growth, especially in their first two years in U.S. schools. On average, these children enter school with an English proficiency scale score of 282, and advance about 40 points their first full year, 23 points their second year and seven points their third.

However, language proficiency growth rates showed significant variation among students tied to factors including socioeconomic status, home language, refugee and unaccompanied minor status, and especially entry grade and disability status.

Despite these factors, schools play an important role in ELP growth, and teachers and administrators should focus on building upon students’ language skills to support their rapid growth, researchers concluded. Promising programs and services supporting robust linguistic development highlighted in the brief include:

  • Bilingual programs focused on maintaining and developing home language and English literacy
  • Instruction designed to provide students with meaningful and rigorous access to content-area curricula despite language barriers
  • Equitable course-placement policies at the middle and high school levels
  • Linguistically flexible learning environments that welcome translanguaging (utilizing more than one language)
  • Ample and meaningful academic peer interaction