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A Statistical Look at English Proficiency in U.S. Schools

Teacher holding a book in classElaine Hirsch takes a look at the changing level of proficiency standards in the United States school system.

English proficiency has steadily improved among U.S. students over the last 30 years, thanks to a collective emphasis on language skills in American schools. As immigration numbers increase on an annual basis, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) faces new challenges to ensure America’s children are able to communicate effectively with their peers. Luckily many experts believe impressive annual growth indicates an optimistic outlook for American English-speaking students.

Significant improvement has been recorded among children who learn English as a second language (ESL), says the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), a branch of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). In 2010, IES reported that the number of school-age children (5 to 17 years old) who primarily spoke languages other than English in their homes rose from 4.7 million to 11.2 million between 1980 and 2009. As this number rose, so did the level of English proficiency among ESL students. IES reported that roughly 41 percent of these children struggled with English in 1980; by 2009, this figure had reduced to 24 percent.

Age has shown to be a critical factor when it comes to effectively learning English. Seven percent of 5- to 9-year-olds spoke a non-English language at home and struggled with English in school, compared to four percent of children between the ages of 10 and 17. This figure can be largely attributed to the increased amount of programs for English Language Learners (ELLs) in the nation’s schools. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) reported that ELLs attending grades 7-12 increased by more than 70 percent since 1992, and K-12 enrollments for ELLs rose by 5 percent since 1990. A resource for accredited online graduate courses explains that as the number of children and young adults enrolling in ESL classes continues to grow, so does the need for teachers. Thus it’s not a bad idea for students interested in education to consider taking classes, or enrolling, in ESL or English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs.

Race and ethnicity also play a statistical role in English proficiency. Sixteen percent of both Asian and Hispanic children who did not speak English at home ultimately struggle as ELLs, compared to six percent of Pacific Islanders, three percent of Native Americans and less than one percent among Caucasians and African-Americans. These figures are problematic, since Asians and Hispanics constitute the largest influx of legal U.S. immigrants.

Fortunately, according to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) statistics, the English proficiency of even struggling demographics improves as students get older. Roughly 25 to 45 percent of immigrated Asian and Hispanic children qualified as “limited English proficient (LEP).” Of these students, many lived in “isolated households,” or residences in which no one older than 14 speaks English very well. However, percentages of students in these two categories decreased between 6th and 12th grades, and by as much as 50 percent for children from countries like Vietnam, South Korea, Mexico, Dominican Republic and El Salvador. Furthermore, The New York Times reported in 2007 that 88 percent of second-generation members of Latino immigrant families were strong English speakers, compared to 23 percent of their first-generation relatives. This would indicate the children of immigrants are effectively learning to speak English by the time they reach adulthood.

According to NCES, American students overall improved English proficiency last year. In its 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), English reading scores among American 4th and 8th grade students increased among children of higher- and lower-income families. Additionally, nationwide schools are undergoing major changes that potentially impact ELLs in a very positive way. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration announced plans to dismantle NCLB and transfer the responsibility from federal to state level. This move will conceivably allow each state DOE to customize the curricula taught in its schools. ELLs and other students with special English language needs will play a major role in states with a large immigrant population, including California, Texas, New York and Florida—the four most populous states.

As annual U.S. immigration numbers continue to soar, numbers show more new citizens are learning English than ever before. Their children are grasping the new language early in their education, and are able to hone this skill as they reach adulthood. As our schools evolve to meet the needs of ELLs, experts believe these figures will only improve.

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How can I teach students who know more than me?

Sam McCarter is a teacher, consultant and freelance writer/editor with special interests in medical English communication skills, and IELTS. He is the author of Medicine 1 from the Oxford English for Careers series. This post, originally published in Dialogue Magazine, explores how teachers of English for Medicine can use role-play to enable learning in the classroom.

Teaching English for Medical Purposes (EMP) to a class of trained or student doctors can be a daunting prospect.

They have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the human body, whereas most of us who teach English for Medicine – probably don’t. And that gap between our knowledge and theirs can lead to a bit of self doubt as we prepare to step into the classroom.

In my experience, there are two things to remember in situations such as this. The first is to remember your role in the classroom. You aren’t supposed to be the expert in medicine – you’re the expert in teaching communication skills. Reminding yourself of this will help you to keep focused on what you’re doing and, just as importantly, it’ll help you to keep calm if you feel anxious or daunted.

Second, remember to use your students! It might seem strange to think of your students as a teaching resource, but it makes perfect sense. If you can turn their knowledge into your asset, lessons will become easier to teach and, hopefully, more rewarding for your students. Here’s how.

Teaching communication skills in EMP is essentially about facilitating learning so that your students can develop flexibility and confidence. If you can create realistic situations where your students actively use their medical knowledge, you will give them very real skills practice for their place of work. One way to achieve this is through role-play exercises.

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The fear of the native speaker

Jon Naunton is a freelance teacher and materials writer. He is co-author of Business Result, and Oil and Gas 2 in the Oxford English for Careers series. This post, originally published in Dialogue Magazine, explores why non-native speakers are often nervous about conversing with native speakers.

Two people looking nervous

Those of us who have taught foreign execs learn early on that they would far rather speak English with other non-native speakers than with an English person, or – heaven forbid – an American.

Executives with status and responsible positions in international companies often dread encounters with mother tongue speakers that leave them feeling confused, infantilized and at a disadvantage. These two stories may help to explain why.

I live near a small town in France that attracts its fair share of tourists. Over the summer I was in the newsagents when a man in a blazer and shorts approached the counter. ‘Have you got my copy of the Daily Mail?’ he barked. ‘You said you’d keep it to one side.’ The shopkeeper looked at him blankly. ‘My Daily Mail!’ the visitor continued in a slowly enunciated bellow. ‘Have – you – kept – it – back – for – me?’ When the shopkeeper shrugged helplessly, Daily Mail man turned around, muttering to himself, and left.

Recently at our local airport, blessed by Ryan Air, I met an English aeronautical engineer seconded to a British owned French subsidiary. In the four years that he had been there his wife had picked up quite a bit of French but I had to contain my surprise when I heard him order lunch. His French was, at best, basic. Linguistically speaking, his knuckles were scraping the ground. I was left wondering how he got by with his French colleagues.

Now, I know there is a danger in generalizing from the particular, but I won’t let it stop me. I would argue that Daily Mail man and airport man are fairly representative of how the English perform in other tongues. The use of English as a lingua franca has made us lazy, and Daily Mail man would have been raised in the conviction that it was his God-given right to be understood wherever he trod on foreign soil.

Yet in my opinion, their lack of ease in French goes deeper than either consideration, and has a lot to do with how foreign languages are taught in England. Part of the problem is to do with time – language lessons in England receive far fewer classroom hours than most other EU countries, and it is possible to drop a foreign language at the tender age of fourteen. It doesn’t matter whether it is a sport, a musical instrument or any other skill including languages – you have to put in the hours to achieve a decent level. Time and practice are crucial.

The next problem is to do with expectations. When my nephew started French at secondary school, his homework for week one was to learn numbers one to five. For week two it was six to ten. As part of an exciting school project the kids in his class were supposed to create a French market by drawing cards of fruit and vegetables. My nephew’s task was to draw a big pile of plums – prunes in French – which he duly did. I am certain that he will never forget the word for plum but I wonder if his time could have been – excuse the pun – more fruitfully employed. Nevertheless, on parents’ evening the class’s handiwork was displayed as a reminder of the school’s commitment to excellence in foreign languages.

The net result is that the average English person has such a poor grasp of what it is to tussle with a language that he cannot even begin to comprehend where the difficulty lies when he runs into communication problems. Even when English is used as a lingua franca the native speaker can get into trouble. He is less able to modify his language to accommodate the language level of the person he is trying to communicate with. Once he has received the signal that the other person speaks some English no further effort is made to modify or ‘grade’ his language. This behaviour, wrongly classified as arrogance, is due to benign indifference or being oblivious of any problem in the first place.

All this may go to show why most non-native speakers are happier communicating with English as their common language than having to cope with an unaccommodating monoglot who simply can’t recognize the problem. I sympathize with the reluctance of some EU members (notably France) of adopting English as the principal language of Brussels and Strasbourg, thereby reducing the annual billion Euro interpreting and translating bill. Were this to happen it might confirm the attitude of the English to learning other languages and make matters even worse.

What do you prefer – communicating in English with native or non-native speakers? Share your thoughts below.

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Towards incorporating learner autonomy in language classes for children

Annamaria Pinter is Associate Professor of ELT/ Applied Linguistics at the Centre for Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick, UK. Annamaria will be hosting a Global Webinar entitled ‘Towards incorporating learner autonomy in language classes for children’ on February 22nd and 24th. You can more information and register to attend here.

Autonomy is an undisputed educational goal for all. But does this apply to children as well? How can it be applied in language classrooms across different age groups? What can teachers do to help children become more autonomous learners? How does the teacher’s role change?

Why we can’t avoid autonomy:

Each year ever greater numbers of young children in various parts of the world start learning English, and by the time they become teenagers and/ or adults, the world around them will change beyond recognition, and they will need to adjust to new ways of learning. Training them to think for themselves is therefore an essential skill to teach today.

What benefits will this training come with?     

Autonomy goes hand in hand with motivation. If your learners are highly motivated, they will be learning English enthusiastically. Autonomy is also linked to making choices. When children make choices, they will invest more responsibility and effort into whatever they do.

This webinar will be devoted to ideas/ techniques and activities that can be adapted for any classroom. Teachers can incorporate as much or as little as they see appropriate into their practice, and these ideas will work in any classroom because there is also a strong link between developing learner autonomy and attention to individual needs and differences in different contexts.

Here is one idea:

  • Get the children to work in groups and take some photos ( for postcards)
  • Get each child to choose their favourite picture to write about (with a purpose, e.g. my favourite place to show a friend )
  • Get the children to compare their picture stories/cards within the group. Having seen/ read other cards, ask the children to add at least one more idea/ sentence/ to their original writing and/ or improve the writing in any other way.

Autonomous learners  – autonomous teachers?

If we expect children to become more autonomous, should we expect the same of ourselves?    What about ‘Teachers as learners’ and ‘teachers as role models’?              

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Happy Valentine’s Day! – Reading Text and Activities for Younger Learners

Heart-shaped box of chocolatesThe following text and activities are taken and adapted from Seasons and Celebrations, Stage 2 Factfiles from the Oxford Bookworms Library, suitable for younger learners.

Activities Before Reading

1. This text below is about St. Valentine’s Day. Which of these things do you think you are going to read about? Circle four words.

Love Money
Flowers Buildings
Horses Cards
Festivals Storms
Answers: Love, Flowers, Cards, Festivals

2. How much do you know about St. Valentine’s Day. Are these sentences true (T) or false (F)?

a) St. Valentine’s Day started in the nineteenth century.

b) On Valentine’s Day people send cards to the people they love.

c) St. Valentine’s Day is 15 February.

d) Chocolates are a kind of food.

e) People often go out to dinner in restaurants in the evening.

f) St. Valentine’s Day is named after a famous Roman emperor.

Answers: a) F, b) T, c) F, d) T, e) T, f) F

Activities While Reading

Read the text below. While reading, answer the following questions.

1. Match the beginnings and endings of the sentences

1. Valentine’s Day started more than…

2. Saint Valentine was a Christian who…

3. Valentine was sent to prison because…

4. When Valentine was in prison, he…

5. People started sending Valentine’s cards…

a) he helped a soldier to marry.

b) in the early nineteenth century.

c) two thousand years ago.

d) lived in Rome.

e) fell in love.

Answers: 1. c), 2. d), 3. a), 4. e), 5. b)

2. Choose the best question word for these questions, and then answer them.

What / When / Who / How / Why

1. _____ was Saint Valentine?

2. _____ is St. Valentine’s Day?

3. _____ do people send to the people they love?

4. _____ long have people celebrated Valentine’s Day?

5. _____ do people write ‘Be my Valentine’ at the end of the cards?

6. _____ was the Emperor of Rome when Valentine was alive?

Answers: 1. Who, 2. When, 3. What, 4. How, 5. Why, 6. Who

14 February is St. Valentine’s Day. This started more than two thousand years ago, as a winter festival, on 15 February. On that day, people asked their gods to give them good fruit and vegetables, and strong animals.

When the Christians came to Britain, they came with a story about a man called Saint Valentine. The story is that Valentine was a Christian who lived in Rome in the third century. The Roman Emperor at the time, Claudius the Second, was not a Christian. Claudius thought that married soldiers did not make good soldiers, so he told his soldiers that they must not marry.

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