Closing the Achievement Gap for Dual Language Learners
Why It Matters
In today’s competitive global economy, dual language learners enter our education system with an incredible intellectual, social, and personal asset that can improve our national economy and security: their home language.1 Dual language learners (DLLs) are children who are learning two or more languages at the same time, or who are learning a second language while continuing to develop their home language. In California, 57% of children birth through age 5 live in a household where English is not the primary language.2 Often referred to as English Language Learners when they enter the K-12 system, they have been the fastest growing child population for more than two decades, and that growth is expected to continue.3
California is home to the largest population of English Learners, with more than 1.4 million English learners enrolled in public schools. More than 70% of those students are in elementary schools.4
What the New Brain Research Says
In the past two decades, research has provided dramatic new insights into how young children acquire language, and how this affects their brain development. They have found that babies have an innate capacity to learn multiple languages from birth, and that this early exposure to two or more languages does not cause confusion, or delay development in either one.5
In fact, neuroscientists who studied images of the human brain have found that learning a second language actually increases brain density.6 Studies show that children and adults who speak a second language also have an advantage in their ability to think flexibly.7 This means that they possess the kinds of skills that are increasingly critical to 21st century college and career success—focusing attention when there is conflicting information, selecting relevant over irrelevant information, and switching strategies if a solution is not forthcoming.8
Improving Achievement by Supporting Home Language
Supporting children’s home language in the early years is critical to later achievement, and results in better outcomes than English-only approaches, multiple studies have found.9 This is because literacy and other skills and knowledge likely transfer from one language to another. This means that if a student learns, for example, the concept of phonological awareness—that words are made up of smaller sounds—in one language, they will already know it in another.
This may be why Spanish-speaking preschoolers’ reading and math scores were higher when they received more instruction in Spanish, especially when they attended high-quality programs, according to a multistate study.10 In the long term, programs that teach students in two languages have fewer high school dropouts, and those students outperform other English learners who are taught in English only settings.11 Researchers have also been intrigued to find that it is not just English learners who benefit from instruction in two languages – children from English-only homes enrolled in such programs had a distinct reading advantage over their peers in English-only programs.12
When teachers can support children’s culture and language in the classroom, students will be more successful whether the educational setting is English-only, dual immersion, or some other educational models. Family engagement, instructional support that reinforces children’s learning by drawing upon their own experiences and classroom environments that reflect their interests and promote oral language and conversation are all critical aspects of supporting dual language learners’ success. This requires thoughtful planning and preparation, but can result in better personal connections among students and teachers, and increase language learning opportunities for the entire classroom.
How We're Falling Short
The achievement gap for dual language learners does not happen overnight – it has very early roots. In California, dual language learner students are already behind their peers on measures of school readiness when they enter kindergarten as well as reading assessments at the end of kindergarten and 1st grade.13
Children who speak little or no English in their homes and attend preschool before they enter kindergarten significantly improve their early reading skills, compared to those who do not. Yet a third still are not in these programs.14
These achievement gaps are still evident in 3rd grade, when 79% of English learners are below proficient in English-Language Arts and 49% are below proficient in math on state standardized tests.15 Without a strong start in early learning to lay the foundation for future school success, students continue to struggle. By middle and high school, 59% of English learners are “long-term English learners,” those who have been in our schools for more than six years without becoming proficient in academic English. By the time they reach high school, almost 24% of English learners drop out, the highest rate of any group of students in California.16
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