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Students who are learning English often face extreme barriers to getting an education in the United States.

From kindergarten through 12th grade, they’re entitled by law to the resources it takes to get them the same education as their English-proficient peers, but what they receive varies drastically depending on where they live. As a result, about 67 percent of English Learners earn a high school diploma, compared to about 84 percent of the general population.

For those who make it out of high school, the path to college — and what happens to them there— is largely uncharted and unregulated. In the worst cases, without support and guidance in navigating the system, English Learners end up wasting time and financial aid eligibility taking remedial classes, when they could succeed in mainstream classes with language support.

“I always thought that there has to be a more dignified way of learning English, or learning another language, than being told that you’re just not good enough.”

Yasuko Kanno, associate professor of language education, Boston University

“Students go from being visible and marginalized to sort of being invisible,” said Shawna Shapiro, an associate professor of writing and linguistics at Middlebury College and the author of a New America report highlighting best practices for helping English Learners transition to college. “Both of those are a problem.”

To successfully make the transition from high school to college, English Learners and their families often need extra support. Shapiro’s recommendations fall into three categories: integrate English Learners into classes with students who are not English Learners; resist separating them from English-proficient students or tracking them into certain career paths; and collect more robust data on these students. Many of the strategies need to begin in K-12, because if students can’t be successful there, they’re unlikely to succeed in college.

Related: Six questions teachers must ask to help English language learners succeed

Shapiro and other linguistic experts agree that in order to improve the situation for English Learners — about 10 percent of K-12 students in America — the narrative among educators about what it means to be an English Learner has to change.

“If you’re in college and no one recognizes that you’re multilingual and not only do you need certain types of support, but you have something to offer to diversity and global citizenship in higher education, that’s also a missed opportunity,” Shapiro said. “Instead of ‘fixing’ them as the problem, preparing them and equipping them to solve the problem.”

Changing the narrative

Yasuko Kanno, an associate professor of language education at Boston University, has a personal stake in the education and investment in English Learners — she was one.

After growing up in Tokyo, Kanno attended an international boarding school in the United Kingdom, where the strategy for English Learners was “sink or swim,” she said. 

“The only way to be recognized was to learn English, and your first languages and cultures just didn’t matter at all. I survived that, I guess, I swam,” Kanno said. “I always thought that there has to be a more dignified way of learning English, or learning another language, than being told that you’re just not good enough. Or that you’re not intelligent enough if you don’t speak English.”

Though the services for English Learners have generally improved since Kanno was in school, she worries that attitudes haven’t changed enough. She still occasionally hears from students whose experiences are all too similar to hers — about 30 years later. 

Though English Learners graduate from high school at lower rates, Shapiro said the problem is not that they are learning English, it’s that the education system views their lack of English as a deficit, rather than considering what they have to offer, including their first language, their culture and their academic abilities.

Integrated classrooms

Students who are learning English should, as much as possible, be integrated into classrooms with students who are English-proficient, Shapiro said. But this often doesn’t happen. High school students who are learning English are funneled into special sections of courses like history or math with other English learners, classes that have the same credit and description as the mainstream class, but not the same academic rigor. This means their GPAs or test scores don’t always accurately reflect their readiness for college.

Student preparedness for college also depends on how long they have been classified as English Learners. A long-term study of English Learners in Texas found that students who tested out of English language instruction in three years or less performed better on state standardized testing and students who remained in English language instruction classes for five or more years “lagged behind significantly in every grade.”

Resist siloing and tracking

Extra English language classes alone may not help students become college ready, Shapiro said. As with other students, their learning is affected by their life outside of school. Family situations or financial stressors, physical or mental health challenges and other factors contribute.

To address all the factors in a student’s life, Shapiro said schools need to be communicating with the families of English Learners early, instead of only testing the student for English proficiency.

School administrators and teachers need to meet with families and get a more holistic understanding of the student, including their strengths, goals, expectations for education, challenges and fears, she said.

Related: Immigrants learned English in half the time when they were held back in third grade 

These conversations can also serve to educate the student’s family on how the U.S. education system works. Families benefit if they understand all the options for their students, from career education to workforce training programs to college, and how to pay for them. 

This, Shapiro said, could help push back against tracking students into certain career fields or pathways just because they are English Learners. “We’d want to see proportional representation of English Learners in all of those programs, not just in a certain subset of programs,” she said.

Once Spanish-speaking English Learners get to college, administrators sometimes think they just need to translate their website and fliers into Spanish in order to engage them and make information accessible to their families, said Deborah Santiago, CEO of Excelencia in Education.  But the families may have little experience with the American education system and may not understand the information, regardless of language.

Instead, she suggested colleges hire community liaisons to find out where the families of English Learners go for resources in the community and meet them there with information they need.

Collect better data

Right now, Shapiro said, colleges have few incentives to collect robust data on English Learners. Instead, these students are typically accounted for based on other identities they hold, like being a student of color, an international student, or a first-generation college student. 

In order to better serve English Learners, Shapiro said, educators and policymakers need to better understand their needs and how to meet them, as well as what they want out of their education. 

This story about English Learners in college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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  1. I read with interest the article, “English learners in college: From marginalized to invisible” by Maria Sanchez and was once again dismayed to see the definition of English language learners as those who have passed through secondary education in an English-language-dominant locale and entered college. This narrow definition omits completely the vast numbers of adult language learners who have never gone through secondary school in the receiving country but who are nonetheless entering college. In California, where I teach, fully 70% of the English language learners in college immigrated as adults. The data is entirely focused on the trajectory from high school to college because the identification of these students is facilitated by school records while the identification of adult matriculants is far more complicated. There is an assumption that adults go to adult school and somehow magically get jobs and become just like native-speaking adults; this is not the case. Many attempt college and university to either supplement or transform the education they arrived with. The omission of adult learners as fellow English language learners in college renders them even more invisible than the author suggests. Please expand your definition of English language learners and acknowledge the legions of adults who are entering college and are also greatly in need of language support and services. If we study adult language learners, we may find that their needs differ greatly from younger students.

  2. I enjoyed this article and was able to glean a small bit of information that I have been researching related to adult English language learners. I completely agree with Leigh Anne Shaw in that we need to recognize that adults immigrate to the United States and bring with them rich histories and educational backgrounds. There is little to no data (that I have been able to find) on best practices in academic advising, especially at the two-year college level. Many adults turn to community colleges for English language learning and take advantage of resources such as high school equivalency, TOEFL preparation, entry into academic courses, programs, certifications, etc. In my role as coordinator of an English language learning program at a community college, I collaborate with the advising team to properly identify, assess, and place prospective students. I would love to find more data and information related to best practices in academic advising as it relates to adults and their varied experiences with English language acquisition, aspiring and completed degree attainment, and best practices for retainment and completion. Thank you!

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