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Language Minority Students

Impact On Education

In 2000, the number of school-age persons (five to seventeen years of age) who spoke a language other than English in the United States was 9,769,120, or about one out of every five students (the national enrollment of public school students in 2000 was 46,857,321). This assumes, for the sake of argument, that all of these school-age language minority children and youths were in the public schools. About 8 percent (3.7 million students) of the national public-school enrollment in 1999–2000 consisted of language minority students who were not able to use English well enough to participate effectively in an English-only classroom. The proportion of the total enrollment varies by state: In California, 25 percent of the public-school enrollment in 1999–2000 was limited English proficient (LEP), while the proportion was 24 percent in New Mexico, 15 percent in Alaska and Arizona, 14 percent in Texas, and 12 percent in Nevada. LEP students represent nearly 100 percent of the total public-school enrollment in the outlying areas of the United States (Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, and Puerto Rico).

The diversity of students with limited ability in English is great. Some of these students are foreign-born immigrants to the United States–some with and some without prior schooling. Some of them are literate in their native language. They came to the United States at different ages and for different reasons–some to escape civil war or strife and political persecutions, while some were attracted to the opportunities in the United States, and still others drawn by its various programs of refuge and asylum. Most LEP students, however, are born in the United States to immigrant parents, and they start school with a native language other than English and with varying degrees of speaking ability in English (and so are increasingly referred to as English language learners, or ELLs).

The responses of the public schools to this language diversity vary, but they are generally neither comprehensive nor adequate. There are many reasons this is the case, not the least of which is the mismatch between the needs of the students and the resources and expectations of the school systems. A second reason is the ideologically based resistance to meeting language minority student needs promoted by the ethnocentric English-only movement and pro-assimilation groups throughout the country. These groups influence public and educational policy, curriculum and instruction, and school reform. The issues facing language minority students in the public schools are thus varied. Those faced by students with limited proficiency in English are particularly salient–involving the acquisition and development of English, access to the core curriculum, and high-stakes assessments.

Learning English

Many surveys of immigrants to the United States have concluded that learning English is one of three priorities they have immediately after arriving in the country–along with gaining employment and finding a place to live. Parents of native-born language minority students also respond that they see learning English as a high priority for their children, even while they desire their children to keep their heritage languages. Unfortunately, despite the increasing numbers and proportions of language minority LEP students, most schools are neither prepared nor equipped to meet the needs of these students in teaching them English, or in providing them access to the core curriculum in other subject areas. Often the schools will sacrifice access to the core curriculum in favor of first teaching English to these students.

Students who speak a language other than English will often learn to speak and understand English before learning to read and write it, in and out of school. Much of this English-language acquisition and development depends on the age of their arrival in U.S. schools. The earlier they arrive, the more they are exposed to English–and the earlier and more easily they acquire a native-like pronunciation of the language. However, the older they are in age when they arrive, the more easily they are able to develop vocabulary in English (and the more likely they are to acquire English pronunciation with an accent). How much prior schooling students have received in their country of origin is also a factor affecting English-language acquisition. The more schooling they have had before they enter U.S. schools, the quicker they are able to adjust and excel. The more literate they are in their native language, the easier it is to learn to read and write English and succeed in U.S. schools. In addition, the kind of program students receive when they enter U.S. public schools can affect the learning of English.

Language minority students will often learn a conversational form of English before they learn an academic form of the language. It may take a relatively short time (one to three years) to gain fluency in conversational English, but it will take longer (five to seven years) to be proficient in academic English, assuming adequate instruction.

The acquisition and development of English reading and writing for language minority students who are limited in their English proficiency depends as well on whether the students have already learned to read and write in their non-English language. If these students have learned to read in their native language first (mother-tongue, or native-language, literacy), then much of the general knowledge about reading (e.g., one can make sense of print) can be transferred to learning English reading and writing (second-language literacy). If a student's native language uses a phonemic or alphabetic system of writing, then additional knowledge about the writing system can also be transferred to second-language literacy in English.

It is a more difficult task for a language minority student who is not proficient in English to learn how to read and write initially in English. These students must develop their oral English-language abilities and learn how to read and write English. The older the student, the more frequently this is required by the schools to be done simultaneously rather than sequentially (oral language development before literacy). This is more difficult for these language minority students than for native English speakers because it is being done in a more compressed time period and includes learning more language skills at one time than what is required of native English speakers (who bring to elementary school a fully-developed ability in English).

Language of Instruction

Most language minority students with limited English abilities receive their instruction entirely through English. While there is not much good data on the services that LEP students receive in the schools, some generalizations can be made based on several national surveys. In 1993, less than 50 percent of elementary school students limited in their English proficiency received at least a quarter of their instruction in their native language. In middle schools, the percentage was 28 percent, and in high schools, 25 percent. This study also indicated that LEP students of Spanish-language background were more apt to receive this instruction in their heritage language than LEP students of other language backgrounds. In 1998, twenty-six states (which included about 40 percent of the national LEP student enrollment for that year), provided information to the federal government on the language of instruction used to teach these students. They reported that almost 26 percent of all LEP students received some of their instruction in the non-English language through bilingual education (academic instruction through English and a non-English language); while 14 percent received all of their instruction in English only–through various forms of English-as-a-second-language programs. About 12 percent of these students received no special instructional services at all. The language of instruction was not reported for the other 48 percent of LEP students.

The size of the language minority LEP enrollment with a common language background seems to be a good predictor of the use of a non-English language for instruction. In a 1998 survey of big city school districts, the use of a non-English language (along with English) as the language of instruction was found to be more frequent for the largest language group of students of the district (usually Spanish, except for two school districts in Minnesota, which reported Hmong language LEP students as their largest group), and usually in the elementary grades. Otherwise, the preferred language of instruction was exclusively English through some form of an English-as-second-language program.

California enrolls about 40 percent of all of the LEP students in the country. The language of instruction for the great majority of these students has been exclusively English since the adoption of an initiative in 1998 that mandated the language of instruction for the state to be English and the default program for LEP students to be structured English immersion (a form of English-as-second-language instruction in which English is used exclusively or predominantly for instruction). In the spring of 2001, California school districts reported that 46.6 percent of the 1,511,299 LEP students in the state were receiving all of their instruction in English; another 26.6 percent were receiving almost all of their instruction in English, but with a small amount of the non-English language used for communication support; and 5.4 percent were receiving no special instructional services at all. Only 11.1 percent of California's LEP students were receiving bilingual education–academic instruction in both languages–as compared to 30 percent prior to the adoption of the 1998 initiative.

While most language minority students with limited English abilities are receiving some special instructional services, it is clear that almost all of these services use English as the medium of instruction. The most successful model of bilingual instruction–two-way bilingual immersion–was used in only 260 programs in twenty-three states in 2001. In addition, only half of the those enrolled in these programs were LEP students–hardly a major impact on the instructional services received by this population.

Access to the Core Curriculum

The single most difficult aspect of the schooling of language minority LEP students is providing them adequate access to the core curriculum. Most school districts have opted to enforce a policy of learning English first–before these students can be taught other subject matter. This puts language minority LEP students in a precarious academic situation. Many schools are beginning to require special preparation, professional development, and even licensing for their teachers to instruct these students in English. Many language minority students who enter the schools early in their life can sometimes catch up academically with native English speakers when they work harder than these peers. However, the concentrations of language minority students are in high-minority, high-poverty schools, which are often under-resourced and struggle with hiring a fully credentialed and qualified teaching workforce. Receipt of adequate instruction is the exception, not the rule, for language minority students.

School–Home Communication

The absence of teachers and other school staff who can communicate with parents of language minority students is also a problem in informing parents about the academic performance of their children, about the activities of the schools, or even about the expectations of the teachers. As language minority students, especially children, acquire some English, they often abandon the use of their heritage language. This creates another communication difficulty between children and parents in these homes that strains the quality of family interactions.

High-Stakes Testing

During the 1990s the amount and frequency of high-stakes, standardized testing of students increased dramatically. Much of this testing was used as an accountability measure to identify unsuccessful schools and to measure progress towards educational standards set by the states and the federal government. These tests were given exclusively in English to all students. Language minority students with limited English abilities were often excused from this testing in the early 1990s, but increasingly were included throughout the decade and into the first decade of the new millennium. This practice increased despite the fact that LEP students could not understand the language of the tests (which made the results invalid), despite the ethical concerns about such high-stakes testing, and despite the apparent violation of the Office for Civil Rights regulations on language minority testing. In contrast, local school districts tend to use a variety of tests for identification, classification, and reclassification of LEP students, and a set of multiple criteria for these administrative decisions.


AUGUST, DIANE, and HAKUTA, KENJI, eds. 1998. Educating Language-Minority Children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

COUNCIL OF THE GREAT CITY SCHOOLS. 2001. Educating English Language Learners in the Nation's Urban Schools. Washington, DC: Council of the Great City Schools.

FLEISCHMAN, HOWARD, and HOPSTOCK, PAUL. 1993. Descriptive Study of Services to Limited English Proficient Students, Vol. 1: Summary of Findings and Conclusions. Arlington, VA: Development Associates.

NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS. 2001. Statistics in Brief: Public School Student, Staff, and Graduate Counts by State, School Year 1999–2000. (NCES-2001-326r). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

NATIONAL CLEARINGHOUSE FOR BILINGUAL EDUCATION (NCBE). 1998. Summary Report of the Survey of the States' Limited English Proficient Students and Available Educational Programs and Services, 1996–97. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

OFFICE FOR CIVIL RIGHTS. 1970. Identification of Discrimination and Denial of Services on the Basis of National Origin. Washington, DC: Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.


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