Learning English & Honoring Hispanic Heritage


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In recognition of National Hispanic Heritage Month, this guest post comes from Eric Rodriguez, vice president of office of research, advocacy and legislation, at UnidosUS.

English language acquisition is essential to a child’s academic success in American public schools. There are currently 5 million English learners (ELs) in public schools across the United States; 80 percent are Spanish-speaking. Each of these students has a unique cultural background and situation, and a varying degree of English language acquisition. But all ELs desire to be welcomed into school communities the same as any other child.

ELs are not a uniform group. On a given day, a US public school may enroll an unaccompanied teenager from El Salvador with little formal schooling, a Puerto Rican child who speaks both Spanish and English at home, and/or a child of migrant workers from Mexico who has moved from school to school. There is inevitably a range of characteristics and learning needs of students classified as ELs.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act in 2015, calls on state education agencies to take these characteristics into account, and ensure all ELs are on track to learn English and succeed in school. ESSA put a spotlight on the importance of English language proficiency by making it part of Title I — and requiring statewide goals and metrics for student progress, standardized exit and entry criteria, and reporting on long-term progress.

Under ESSA, states are required to develop native language assessments to measure students’ content knowledge in their native language, while students are also learning to apply their English reading, writing and speaking skills to learning content. Current research points to the importance of children’s native or home language for both English language acquisition and school success; children do not benefit from minimizing or eliminating their home language. A 2016 analysis of 86 published studies examined relationships between two or more languages upon pre-K–12 school outcomes in children’s second language found that native language skills were positively associated with school achievement in the second language.

As states finalize and implement their ESSA plans, it will be critical to use data to implement and enhance research-based efforts to support ELs, including efforts that recognize and honor the intellectual and emotional process children face in balancing two or more languages and cultures. UnidosUS will continue to prioritize key principles to ensure English language acquisition and equity are integral to preparing students for college and careers, and request that all other stakeholders and communities also embrace these principles:

  • Prepare all children for success by holding them to rigorous academic standards.
  • Meaningfully include ELs in the accountability system.
  • Provide additional supports for ELs to attain English proficiency and succeed academically.
  • Engage families and teachers at each step of the decision-making process.
  • Prioritize methods and resources for closing achievement gaps.

The UnidosUS website features materials on research-based, culturally-competent policies to support equity for ELs. We also recommend research and materials on ELs and English language acquisition from the following organizations:

As our country’s resilient EL students grow up, they will continue to be a gift to both our country and to the world. They will strengthen and unite us by contributing their dual language skills and multifaced perspectives to our society.

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