Part 4: Language Learner Students |

Defining and Adapting to Changing Student Demographics

This blog is the fourth in a four-part series about the current demographics of students in postsecondary settings and how to address their specific needs with a multi-tiered system.

The reasons for pursuing a postsecondary degree are unique to each student, and the amalgam of experience, goals, and characteristics they possess influences their motivation for completing their degree. At the same time, postsecondary institutions have the power to cultivate student success through their academic and support services. Particular groups of students, such as nontraditional, students with disabilities, low-income, and language learner students, have specific needs both on and off their physical campus that require attention. Colleges and universities need to adjust to meet the changing needs of their student population. This four-part blog series explores the current demographics of each of these student groups and the ways in which postsecondary institutions can better ensure–rather than diminish–successful results for some of their most vulnerable students.

“Particular groups of students, such as nontraditional, students with disabilities, low-income, and language learner students, have specific needs both on and off their physical campus that require attention.”

A Growing Population

English Language Learners (ELLs), students who are learning English and need support to access academic content (Kanno & Cromley, 2013), made up almost 11% of the K-12 student population several years ago and grew 14% in the previous 13 years from 4.3 million students to 4.9 million (National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition). In some states, the percentage is higher: 21% of the K-12 population in California, almost 17% in Nevada, and almost 17% in Texas (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015). The most common primary language for ELL students is Spanish, though in some states, Chinese (both Cantonese and Mandarin), Arabic, and Vietnamese are also common (Migration Policy Institute). Additionally, 85% of Pre-K through 5th grade students and 62% of 6th through 12th grade students are U.S. citizens (Migration Policy Institute).

At the higher education level, the linguistic and previous educational experiences of students is even more diverse. ELL students in colleges and universities are most likely to be  international students, recent immigrants to the U.S., or Generation 1.5 students, students who attended American secondary schools but were born outside the United States (American Institutes for Research). International students who come to the U.S. usually do so to improve their English and earn an advanced degree. Recent immigrant students likely have a wide range of professional and educational experiences but must master English or meet American requirements before continuing in their field. Generation 1.5 attend for career and academic preparation but may still need support in postsecondary settings (American Institutes for Research). The ELL population is growing and has varied needs for success; therefore, school communities will need to grow and change as well to meet their needs. From my own personal experience, language barriers, especially in an academic setting, are challenging but also such a great opportunity to learn about individuals and their culture, connect students through ideas and perspectives different from their own, and be an effective guide for students who need additional support.

I have mentioned the importance of our language choices when designating subgroups of students (ironically, the term “subgroup” is also generating discussion about how to identify students with a more inclusive and less hierarchical term) during this blog series. The term “English Language Learner,” for many educators, seems to negate the student’s primary language and culture by implying that it doesn’t exist or that it isn’t important to the student’s academic career. I have heard “Dual Language Learner” (DLLs),  “English Learners” (ELs), and “Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CLD)” as potential alternative options. In the U.K. and Ireland, “English as a Second Language” has been replaced by “English for Speakers of Other Languages” (ESOL). Any term we designate should uplift students and be something they are proud to use to describe themselves, which means stakeholders, including students, parents, teachers, and school leaders, should have input for deciding the term that best fits this group of students. This may also mean that it varies by state or region, but I’d be curious to hear how ELL students would like to be referred and what the differing terminology connotes for them.

Issues of Access and Attainment

To support academic success among ELL students, school communities should focus on both access and attainment (Kanno & Cromley, 2013). ELL students make up a significant percentage of the K-12 population but are vastly underrepresented at the postsecondary level: nearly half do not continue on to a higher education institution within two years of their expected high school graduation and only 1 in 8 earn a Bachelor’s degree (Kanno & Cromley, 2013). Kanno and Cromley’s (2013) study analyzed NCES’s first set of longitudinal data, following the 10-year trajectory of students who were high school sophomores in 2002. They also found that the highest predictor of successful access and attainment to postsecondary education for ELL students was not English proficiency, as most of us would guess, but was actually academic capital: the courses, GPA, and preparation they receive in high school. Other forms of capital are important as well, including family capital (parental education level, education expectations, and family composition), financial capital, and cultural capital, but academic capital is crucial, especially in light of many ELL students being placed in language classes, barring them from college preparatory and/or prerequisite classes. At the postsecondary level, Kanno and Cromley (2013) found that the first-year was key for whether ELL students finished their degree–more specifically, finishing their full academic credits in the first year. Because ELL students are more likely to come from a lower socio-economic background (Education Week, 2009, cited in Kanno and Cromley, 2013), they may have additional work outside of school, may need to help care for their family, may have fewer opportunities to engage in collegiate activities, or have fewer college choices. Postsecondary institutions have many opportunities to engage and assist the ELL student population.

Supporting Postsecondary ELL Students

The American Institute for Research (AIR) has four recommendations for supporting ELL students: differentiate the needs for each of the ELL student groups (international, immigrant, Generation 1.5), differentiate learning so that it is relevant and meaningful, connect learners with highly qualified instructors, assess students in multiple ways and review outcomes (Serving English Language Learners in Higher Education). This type of academic support is necessary; in addition, postsecondary institutions can provide other types of non-academic support to help students. Many colleges and universities have developed partnerships with high schools to host information sessions, college fairs, and other ways to expose students to their college options, but hosting sessions for parents that focus on preparing and applying to college, such as meeting all the prerequisites in high school, how and when to apply, filing for financial aid, and applying for scholarships, could significantly boost students’ access. Many parents are invested and want to help but just don’t know how, so colleges and universities could really help fill in this gap.

Once students are on campus, colleges and universities could provide additional faculty who specialize in English language acquisition to be mentors or supplemental instructors and make sure they are available during off-hours by phone or virtual communication system (like Conexed!) to students who may have obligations outside of school. Schools could also ensure that they have social clubs geared toward ELL students as well as clear communication about academic clubs and resources, like the writing center, library, and tutoring hours. They may also benefit from knowing about resources like mental health support, the ombudsman, and the registrar. ELL students need to know where they can go for help and likely need more exposure than just that of a typical orientation day. Lastly, colleges and universities can provide opportunities for students to share their primary language, whether it’s through multilingual speaking events, expressing themselves through art and writing, food festivals, or classroom cultures that encourage discussion and group work. ELL students have diverse backgrounds in their experiences, language, and education but are still navigating American systems; we don’t want to miss out on their contributions to our school communities and societies simply because we didn’t recognize it.