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As the number of English language learners in the United States continues to rise, it is vital that teachers and schools become better equipped to implement effective and equitable systems to improve the lives and academic outcomes of these students.

These students account for 10 percent of our nation’s public-school enrollment. That number is projected to rise to 25 percent by 2025, and to 40 percent in the following decade. They face myriad obstacles in learning English and excelling academically. On average, it takes four to seven years for these learners to acquire “academic English.” Statistics show they are the lowest academically performing group of students in K-12 schools and are four times more likely than native English speakers to drop out of high school.

As Director of English for Speakers of Other Languages for the largest school district in Arkansas, the Little Rock School District, I have seen the number of English language learners (ELLs) in our area increase each year. Currently, 13 percent of our 25,000 K-12 students fall into this group, with 42 different languages spoken and used by students and families. As you can imagine, this creates a bit of a challenge not only in the classroom, but also when it comes to communicating with parents.

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One of the ways we have accomplished this in our own school district is through technology — not just providing tablets, laptops and connectivity, but also sharing best practices with our educators on how to incorporate technology effectively into our K-12 curriculum. We have also taken steps to bring digital programs into our classrooms that will help engage these learners and allow educators to have more one-on-one time with each child. One program we have found that really engages our ELLs with learning their new language is Rosetta Stone. At a recent conference hosted by Rosetta Stone, I presented on these strategies to other teachers in attendance in hopes of sharing how they are helping Little Rock teachers to better meet the needs of ELLs.

Today, less than one-third of teachers with English language learners in their classrooms have the requisite preparation to teach them effectively; only 20 states require all teachers to have training in working with this group.

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By providing our teachers the strategies to keep these learners from falling behind, they can identify the challenges that limit language proficiency and foster a welcoming environment for language development. But before instruction even begins, teachers should first learn key information about their students, including:

1. What language is spoken at home?

2. How much, if any, English do they know?

3. Have they had any previous English language instruction? If so, how much?

4. Do their parents/family speak English?

5. What are their parents’ educational levels?

6. At what age did the student arrive in the United States?

Next, establish a school environment that is comforting, non-intimidating and conducive to learning. This can be done in many ways, including through school tours, labeling frequently visited places, featuring cultural information in class instruction, providing resources for families and learning how to pronounce students’ names correctly.

Schools must also recognize that obstacles exist beyond the school setting, including family economic status (nationally, two-thirds of these learners come from low-income families), insecurity about immigrant status and high mobility rates due to economic conditions.

We have found that strong instructional support programs and personalized learning experiences are integral components to mitigating these learning barriers. Equitable access to these services further ensures language and academic achievement.

“It is my hope that we as a nation will reprioritize the growing body of students struggling to achieve academic progress because of mounting barriers to language acquisition.”

Ultimately, these strategies are magnified when schools take advantage of technology resources, like Little Rock did with Rosetta Stone, to accelerate language learning for students and empower teachers to further individualize instruction. ELLs can greatly benefit from tools that allow them to practice and receive feedback on their performance, such as voice recognition, to promote listening and speaking skills. Teachers benefit as well!

Our students love the personalized lessons and one-on-one voice practice they get through the online learning program, and I am able to practice one-on-one with them as well to help assess progress.

Informed instruction in only half the challenge. I recommend looking for programs that also have a robust reporting suite that can provide individualized reports on each student so educators can see the progress being made. Equally important is developing content and language standards for students at every level.

Teachers should regularly monitor students’ language development with weekly assessments and observation checklists, intervening when necessary. To assist in our monitoring, we recently started using the ELPA 21 Screener, an English language proficiency assessment that measures the speaking, listening, reading, writing and comprehension skills of K-12 students. Our instructors use comprehensive data to target instruction and meet each student’s needs to speed progress toward language proficiency. This makes our assessments that much more complete.

It is my hope that we as a nation will reprioritize the growing body of students struggling to achieve academic progress because of mounting barriers to language acquisition. We are taking the first steps here in Little Rock, and the results thus far have been encouraging. It’s up to us as educators to carry this torch and help all students reach their potential and succeed in their academic careers and beyond.

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

Karen Henery, Ed.D., is the director of ESOL/Multilingual Services in Arkansas’ Little Rock School District.

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