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December 1, 2019
Vol. 61
No. 12

Holding High, Not Hurried, Expectations for ELLs

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Mastering academic English takes time. The right kind of outlook can contribute to English language learners' success, especially when teachers focus on progress over the long term.

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EquityInstructional Strategies
Today, it seems kindergarten is the new 1st grade, high school students can graduate with enough college credits to qualify as college sophomores, and teachers often teach with an eye on next year's grade-level standards. This hurrying can be harmful to all students, but for English Language Learners (ELLs), it's especially damaging.
The right kind of teacher expectations can contribute to ELLs' success, and that depends on looking at their progress in the long term. It's a marathon, not a sprint! Are you aligning your expectations to your students' developmental needs as well as to the curriculum? In other words, are your expectations high—or just hurried?

Language Takes Time

Mastering academic English takes time. All ELLs will improve as they get older, with progress being faster at younger ages and lower proficiency levels. The key point is whether ELLs improve enough to catch up to their grade-level peers.
Research I've done at my own school confirms this happens, given time. A group of 16 ELLs who started kindergarten and remained at my school through 5th grade scored at either an advanced or a proficient level by the end of 5th grade, even though more than half of them had scored at the low intermediate or basic level as they left kindergarten. As my long-term local research showed, achieving proficiency took time and appropriate supports along the way.
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The author assessing a student's English language proficiency in kindergarten (top photo) and working with the same student, now English proficient, four years later (bottom photo).

Hidden Progress

National research illustrates this, too. Using 12 years of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, researchers Kieffer and Thompson showed that multilingual students have been making more progress than previously thought, in contrast to the relatively flat scores for all students nationally. Their study (published in 2018) concluded that simply comparing ELLs' performance relative to that of non-ELLs doesn't give us a complete picture of the "hidden progress" of multilingual students, defined as students who reported "people in their home talk to each other in a language other than English … most or all of the time."
Over a 12-year period, the scores of these multilingual students in grades 4 and 8 on the NAEP reading and math assessments improved two to three times more than those of monolingual students. This is a more accurate portrayal of progress than simply looking at the performance of ELLs.
ELL status is not static. As ELLs reach proficiency and leave the ELL ranks, new ELLs replace them. The assessment performance gap between groups of ELLs and non-ELLs is, in effect, the "gap that can't go away," write researchers Saunders and Marcelletti in their 2013 article of the same name. Expecting it to narrow significantly is a good example of a hurried, unrealistic expectation. Better ways to gauge progress are to (1) include former ELLs with ELLs when assessing growth, (2) compare the performance of former ELLs with students who were never designated ELL but speak more than English in the home, or (3) follow cohort groups of ELLs, the way I did at my school. All of these require tracking students' long-term progress. This is difficult but necessary if you want to form high, not hurried, expectations for your ELLs.

Revelation and Recalibration

A good place to start is with your students' scores on your state's annual English language proficiency test. These assessments come with descriptors telling you what ELLs at each proficiency level in each grade are able to do in each domain—listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
A 2nd grade teacher, for example, may expect ELLs to produce grade-level argument writing by "comparing and contrasting important points and details presented in two texts on the same topic," a WIDA "Can Do" writing descriptor for students at full proficiency level. What this teacher's ELLs can do independently based on their English proficiency, however, may be "indicating preferences through labeled pictures" if they're at a basic proficiency level or "describing pros and cons related to social issues or familiar topics" if they're at an intermediate level. It doesn't mean the teacher can't have students "compare and contrast important points and details presented in two texts on the same topic" (the more difficult "Can Do" descriptor), but it does mean the teacher will need to provide more support for ELLs at lower proficiency levels.

Rigor Without the Rush

Often ELLs will have strengths and weaknesses depending on the domain. For example, one year nearly all the ELLs at my school scored lower in speaking compared to other domains. This was powerful evidence to recommend more speaking activities in general education classrooms. Knowing the descriptors for your ELLs' proficiency levels at each domain will help you understand how much support your ELLs will need to complete assignments.
Consider some of the scenarios in the table and whether you relate more to the hurried or high expectations. What shifts can you or your school make to strike the balance between patience and rigor?

Examples of Hurried vs. High Expectations for ELLs

Hurried Expectations

High Expectations

1. Why doesn't this student entering kindergarten know her letters and sounds?1. Is this student comfortable and happy coming to school?
2. Why aren't all of my kindergarten students reading at the end of the year?2. Why aren't all of my developmentally ready students reading by the end of kindergarten?
3. Rafi didn't make as much progress this year as last year.3. Rafi didn't make as much progress this year as he did last year, but students rarely progress on an even upward trend.
4. Let's start the high school day early so that students have time for work or extracurricular activities after school.4. Let's make the start of the school day later for teenagers. Research says they perform better with later high school start times (Owens, 2014).
5. We're doing to get students ready for middle school/high school/college.5. The best way to help students get ready for next year is to help them reach this year's age-appropriate, grade-level standards.
6. Feedback to a parent: "He's not reading at grade level."6. Feedback to a parent: "He's not reading at grade level, but he came to the United States just two years ago. He's been making steady progress since then and is on track to catch up completely in a few more years."
7. High school ELLs with limited or interrupted formal schooling should graduate in four years with their cohorts.7. Four years isn't enough. High school ELLs with limited or interrupted formal schooling should have the time and supports they need to graduate. High schools shouldn't be penalized for giving them the time to do so.
8. ELLs should be reading at grade level by 3rd grade.8. ELLs in 3rd grade have had just four years of ELL instruction, still not long enough, since it takes five to seven years, on average, to reach proficiency. 3rd grade reading laws should allow retention exemptions for all ELLs.

Barbara Gottschalk, as a full-time, in-the-trenches educator, taught English language learners from first graders to graduate students in five states in three very different parts of the United States. After teaching English in Japan early in her career, she earned an M.A. in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) as well as an MBA.

She was an invited speaker on ELL issues for the 30th Annual High Schools That Work Development Conference and has presented numerous times at the International TESOL conference and at conferences for state affiliates MITESOL, Ohio TESOL, and Kansas TESOL. A two-year stint representing English language learner interests as one of 160 fellows in America Achieves, a national educator organization, elevated her voice further. Gottschalk wrote and implemented many successful grants for her school and has served as a grant reviewer for TESOL, her professional organization, as well as for the U.S. Department of Education's Office of English Language Acquisition. Her first book, Get Money for Your Classroom: Easy Grant Writing Ideas that Work, was published by Routledge in 2017.

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