English Language Learning: Best Practices for Children of Immigrant Families

Today the Washington Post highlighted the benefits of bilingualism for children. For parents, it is better to speak to young children in a native tongue than in a recently acquired language. Researchers who spoke at the Education Research Section’s practitioners’ conference, “Enhancing Practice for English Language Learners,” which presented findings from the Future of Children’s Immigrant Children volume, agreed.

As summarized in Melanie Wright’s coverage of the event, in addition to noting that English literacy needs to be taught early and taught well, researchers recommended that schools also show respect for a child’s native language and culture. One way to do this is by supporting the use of the native language at home. McGill University Professor Fred Genesee explained that this is not only important for socio-emotional development, but it is also important for enhancing second language acquisition. In fact, Genesee suggested that English language learners are actually able to learn English more quickly if they are literate in their native tongue. Instead of trying to get parents with limited English skills to speak English at home – which may hurt family communication – he recommended supporting their use of the native language in ways that push their children toward literacy. Multilingualism is a valuable asset that should be preserved and developed.

Second, the timing and quality of English language education was a non-controversial but oft-repeated theme. Princeton Professor Marta Tienda stressed the need for early English mastery in the opening talk, and RAND economist Lynn Karoly described linguistic and socioeconomic disadvantages that immigrant children face when they enter school. Both noted that intervention in the early years is both critical and achievable, as 78 percent of current English language learners are born in the United States. University of Texas Professor Rob Crosnoe stressed that the return on investment of teaching younger children is much higher, as building language skills becomes more difficult and costly with age and is less likely to result in fluency. While the need for quality education seems intuitive, speakers noted that many current approaches to teach English language learners miss the mark by assuming children “soak up language like a sponge.” This, Genesee declared, is a myth.

Third, speakers addressing professional development issues advocated making language learning a school goal rather than the purview of just English language learning teachers. To aid students, schools should integrate language education into their lessons, ensuring that students have the vocabulary and language skills needed for their content areas. Incorporating language themes into other school settings reinforces the lessons from English instruction. A key way to do this, according to Jennifer Himmel from the Center of Applied Linguistics, is to have teachers in “content areas” such as math and science set language goals for their students, something that can benefit the literacy development of native English speakers as well as those learning the language. Along with these recommendations, speakers also suggested ways to offer support and resources to the teaching community that can help them achieve these aims, from professional development to increasing collaboration between teachers and their administrations. Another component of fostering unity in a multilingual setting is reaching out to parents who may not speak English.

Finally, presenters addressed assessment issues. Professor Sandra Barrueco of the Catholic University of America stressed the importance of using multilingual measures that have been properly validated. She identified some frequent errors in the field (such as conducting one’s own translation or selecting other language measures out of convenience, familiarity, or because they appear adequate in English) and explained how these potentially lead to negative consequences, including misdiagnosis, program defunding, or inappropriate policy decisions. She and other speakers also discussed assessment issues in the classroom and broader school contexts.

This outreach event followed the release of the Future of Children’s latest volume, Immigrant Children, and was co-sponsored by the Future of Children and the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

For more information about the conference as well as power point slides and videos, please visit http://www.futureofchildren.org/futureofchildren/events/enhancing-practice-with-e/index.xml.

2 thoughts on “English Language Learning: Best Practices for Children of Immigrant Families

  1. Kristen B.

    It is proper for kids to learn English language if they plan to live for U.S. permanently. But it seems advantage if the kids would be able to understand the language of their parents so that they could have an edge when they will start working which requires bilingual or multi-lingual workers.

    Onkyo TX-NR808

  2. Amit

    Being bilingual is a definite advantage in todays world. However, most immigrants do realize that English is the langua franca of todays world be it business or entertainment.

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