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Many English learners still struggle with the language, study shows

Nearly 60% of English-language learners in California’s high schools have failed to become proficient in English despite more than six years of a U.S. education, according to a study released Thursday.

In a survey of 40 school districts, the study found that the majority of long-term English-language learners are U.S. natives who prefer English and are orally bilingual. But they develop major deficits in reading and writing, fail to achieve the academic English needed for educational success and disproportionately drop out of high school, according to the study by Californians Together, a coalition of 22 parent, professional and civil rights organizations.

The flaws in California’s English-language programs have placed hundreds of thousands of children in academic jeopardy, dashing their dreams for college and imperiling the state’s economic future, the study found. The offspring of immigrants make up 55% of Los Angeles County’s child population.

“The situation is alarming and urgent,” said Laurie Olsen, the study’s author. “These kids are a large part of our future. But if we don’t have programs that powerfully bring them into English, we’re going to end up increasingly with a state of kids who are undereducated.”

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More than 200 educators convened Thursday in Alhambra to discuss the report, which was funded by the California Community Foundation. California schools educate 1.6 million English learners, a quarter of all students; they make up the largest concentration of English learners in the nation.

But most schools are failing to adequately monitor their progress, train teachers or develop appropriate curriculum, the report said. Many students are not given any special language services, as required by law, and are forced to “sink or swim” in mainstream classes, which widespread research has found produce the worst outcomes, Olsen said.

In addition, the state’s English learners — 85% of whom speak Spanish — are often raised in linguistically isolated communities and many suffer from educational interruptions as their families move between countries.

At El Monte High School, 81% of 658 English learners are still not proficient in the language despite at least six years of U.S. education. Among them, 89% are Spanish speakers and three-quarters are U.S.-born.

School officials say that students’ personal situations heavily influence their progress in English, in addition to the quality of teachers, programs and other systemic issues the report cites.

Licha Gonzales, a counselor and herself a former English learner from Mexico, said other factors seem to be a student’s individual motivation and whether he or she was literate in another language before starting kindergarten. Students who could not read or write in their home language before starting U.S. schools seem to struggle more, Gonzales said.

The difference among students is evident in Ana Ieng’s English-language development class at El Monte. In this particular class, the cheerful and energetic Ieng, a native of Macao, teaches 30 students from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, China, Vietnam.

Rosa Briseno, 16, came to Los Angeles from Mexico as an infant and has attended U.S. schools her entire life. She says she speaks English with her sister and mother, a seamstress, and Spanish with her father, a construction worker. She seems to have no trouble with spoken English.

Her English-language development test scores placed her at intermediate levels for speaking and writing but beginning levels for reading.

She says the English class is easy but the biggest reason she can’t pass her tests is because she never bothers with homework. Her lack of interest in academics is reflected in a low grade-point average, but Rosa says she is determined to buckle down and test out of the English-development class.

“I want to learn new stuff,” she said.

In contrast, Nathanael Cueva, 16, was born in Los Angeles, moved to Mexico at age 2 and returned to L.A. nine months ago. His father, a poultry salesman, sent him to English classes twice a week in Mexico to develop his language skills.

Nathanael will transition out of the English-development class next year and has already passed his high school exit exams.

The bright, articulate student is earning straight A’s at El Monte — and transcripts show he was also a straight-A student in Mexico. He is full of dreams for himself — to travel the world, to become an engineer, to study German or Italian next.

“I want to speak a lot of languages, because the more you speak, the more opportunities you have for traveling and careers,” Nathanael said.

In recent years, El Monte has intensified its efforts to aid students, particularly English learners, with double periods for reading, English and math labs and extended tutoring hours. To spur student motivation, the school also began offering incentives this year — pizza parties and raffle tickets for iPods, gift cards and other prizes — for perfect attendance during state testing.

To help all of California’s English learners achieve their dreams, Olsen said, intensified efforts are needed statewide. Among other things, the report calls for a standard state definition of long-term English learners, new data collection systems to monitor them, better teacher training and curriculum, along with closer communication with parents.

Without such actions, she said, the state will fail the children critical to its future prosperity.

“One of the heartbreaks is that most kids say they want to go to college and have high dreams for themselves,” Olsen said. “They and their parents don’t realize they’re really in academic jeopardy.”

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com


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