"English language learners are the fastest-growing student population group in our schools. Providing them with high-quality services and programs is an important investment in America's future." " Dennis Van Roekel, President of the National Education Association

The number of English language learners (ELL) students has nearly doubled to 5 million over the past 15 years, according to the NAE.1 In fact, ELL enrollments in U.S. schools are expected to reach 10 million in 2015, and by 2025, about one in every four public school students will be an ELL.

NAE adds that two-thirds of ELL students come from a low-income background and three out of four ELLs speak Spanish. Most alarmingly, these students have a significantly lower academic performance than their peers in every measure of achievement, and they have a higher high school dropout rate. As a result, people are calling for public high schools to help close the achievement gap of ELL students.

The following four English as a Second Language (ESL) initiatives can help high school administrators improve educational outcomes for ELL learners, break language and culture barriers, reduce dropout rates and increase the number of students who enroll in (and graduate from) college.

Personalize to Meet Unique Student Needs

"The needs and circumstances of your individual students should drive your school's policies," states the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).2

Take the time to learn about your individual students by building trustworthy relationships. Find out what country the student is from, his or her level of literacy in the native language and the circumstances surrounding the move to the U.S. As you build relationships with ELL students, keep in mind these obstacles:

  • Students who left home to come to the United States may feel overwhelmed with anger, resentment and confusion. Help ELLs adjust to their new circumstances with patience, understanding and by setting attainable yet high expectations.
  • Talented students with strong educational backgrounds can still fail to progress in English development because they're afraid to take risks. Anxiety and fear of failure or embarrassment disrupt the learning process. Provide personalized one-on-one attention and mentorship to help students feel more comfortable and confident.
  • Academic needs vary widely from student to student. Create a tailored course of action for each ELL student that includes clear expectations, test-taking strategies, study tips, strategies for enhancing language acquisition (at school and at home) and academic goals. Take into account the student's background, personality, strengths and weaknesses.

Collaborate & Adapt as a Team

The collaborative efforts of educators and school leaders is required for the success of ELLs, from school culture and engagement to classroom curriculum and course offerings. All English-speaking school members need to be involved in the growth of the ELL student population. Improvement of educational outcomes of ELLs cannot be an isolated process. These tips can help build an effective collaborative environment:

  • Clearly define collaborative teaching relationships in advance.
  • Communicate openly and often to accommodate ELLs with tailored content planning, delivery and assessment free of disparities.
  • Establish clear expectations and a mutual agreement over shared responsibilities related to lesson preparation, materials, instruction and evaluation. The goal is to achieve the best possible outcome for each student; ESL teachers should be as intimately involved in the learning experience as content-area instructors and administrators.

Improve Quality of Assessment

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 strives for a quality public education for all. Schools are held accountable for student progress, including higher achievement for low-income and minority students and standardized testing.3 Yet, school policies and procedures on the assessment of English language proficiency levels of ELL students remain varied, according to NEA. Testing methods can be ineffective, unclear and inconsistent. Consequently, student measurements are unreliable and inaccurate. Measuring students with diverse needs and backgrounds using identical assessment mechanisms is a formula for failure.

Tests need to measure a single set of established ESL standards. The National Association of Secondary School Principals emphasizes modifications to standardized tests and instructional materials as essential to attaining a more valid and reasonable assessment for less experienced English learners. Testing accommodations, such as allowing the use of bilingual dictionaries or having test directions read aloud, must be consistent. The NEA believes that providing additional native language tests can improve the quality of these assessments as well.

Understand Key Issues of ELL students

To adapt and adjust to the ELL student community and improve educational outcomes of ELLs, schools should understand the following key points:

  • Identify ELL students who are illiterate in their native language. If a student is illiterate, the likelihood of progressing in English development is slim. ELL students require a strong foundation in their native language to have success learning English. The NASSP recommends offering one-on-one remedial literacy instruction in the student's native language.
  • Involve the family. If students don't practice English out of school as well, such as at home with family members, language development will be low or even regressive. Also, encourage students to use English outside of the classroom and when texting, emailing and using social media.
  • Provide opportunities for success. Students who accomplish a goal build confidence and are motivated to keep progressing. Recognize and reward students for their individual accomplishments. Group successes can be just as effective. Assign a project for a small group of students and designate a specific role for each student to take ownership of.4

Lastly, create a supportive learning environment for ELL students that encourages them to be lifelong learners, fosters a sense of belonging and promotes an appreciation for cultural diversity.

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Resources: Photo Credit. (1) An NEA policy brief: English Language Learners Face Unique Challenges (2) 10 Things Every School Leader Should Know About ESL (3) The New Rules: An overview of the testing and accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act (4) Success for ESL Students: 12 practical tips to help second-language learners