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Starting Early With English Language Learners: Paper Examines Illinois's New Approach

Published:  April 11, 2012
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English Language Learners are a large and growing population in America’s public school system, but schools often fall short in preparing these students for success in college and the workforce. For a while now, we've had our eyes on one state, Illinois, that has tried to reverse that trend by starting services for young English Language Learners before they arrive in kindergarten.

Illinois is in the process of expanding its services for English Language Learners into state-funded pre-K, so that students begin receiving ELL support when they first arrive in school, whether that is at age 3, 4, or 5.  Our new policy paper, Starting Early with English Language Learners: First Lessons From Illinois, takes a deep look at how Illinois came to see a need for new policies for its burgeoning population of English Language Learners, and why focusing on its youngest English Language Learners was the state’s next step.

As in most states, achievement gaps in Illinois’s schools are large, with only five percent of English Language Learners reading on grade level in fourth grade compared to 33 percent of all fourth graders in the state. To build important language skills early on and reduce remediation in the later grades, Illinois changed state law to include state-funded pre-K children in public school efforts to help English Language Learners.

That change has led to a series of new regulations for teacher preparation and classroom instruction that are reverberating throughout the state’s pre-K system. Mant pre-K providers, for example, now need to hire teachers with bilingual or English as a Second Language (ESL) credentials to instruct English Language Learners—but since pre-K teacher never needed these credentials before, there are very few of them around. Teacher training programs, too, are adjusting their curricula to include coursework for teaching young English Language Learners.

The work in Illinois—and across the country—is far from finished, however. “Stakeholders throughout the state stress the challenges of implementing a cohesive, high-quality system for English Language Learners and they encourage a focus on improvements,” the report says. The report recommends that the state and policymakers around the country:

  • ensure that pre-K providers and schools receive financial support from the state and their local districts for resources they spend on English Language Learners, and that there is an adequate bilingual education budget to cover all eligible children
  • track outcomes for ELL students over time and reserve funding for evaluative studies to determine where investment is most (and least) effective
  • continue to align the ELL experience in pre-K, kindergarten and the early grades and enable shared professional development opportunities in ELL instruction for teachers and school leaders across the PreK-3rd grade span

A PDF of the report is available here.

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