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What Is the Best Way to Teach English?


Children attending a summer school program in Cos Cob, Connecticut, last August. Educators are now discussing how to best teach English learners. (Chris Palermo/Hearst Connecticut Media via AP)

Children attending a summer school program in Cos Cob, Connecticut, last August. Educators are now discussing how to best teach English learners. (Chris Palermo/Hearst Connecticut Media via AP)

The U.S. government’s top education official wants schools to do a better job teaching students whose first language is not English.

U.S. Education Secretary John King said the issue is important. That is because one in every 10 U.S. students from grades Kindergarten to 12th grade are English learners.

Most English learners arrive from a country that speaks another language, or have parents from a non-English-speaking country.

There has been progress in recent years, King said. He noted Spanish-speaking students are graduating high school and attending college at higher rates than ever before.

“But in too many places across the country, English learners get less -- less access to quality teachers, less access to advanced coursework, less access to the resources they need to succeed,” King said.

Education Secretary John King

Education Secretary John King

King said a new federal law called the Every Student Succeeds Act can help. It allows school districts more ways to use federal money to improve programs for English learners. That includes better training for English language teachers.

Kelly Gonez is a policy adviser at the Department of Education.

She said research shows giving instruction in two languages, English and the student’s native language, is better for English learners.

Although it takes them a little longer to master English, they do better on tests that measure reading and math skills, Gonez said.

So do people who enter dual-language programs already proficient in English, Gonez said. To be proficient means able to read and speak a language.

Sarah Catherine Moore is director of online learning at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington D.C.

She said two recent studies found English learners do better if they attend classes that use both English and the student’s native language.

But Gonez said such programs are still not offered by a majority of schools teaching English learners.

One problem is finding enough qualified teachers. Gonez said some school districts are hiring teachers from Spain and China. They are trying to make up for a shortage of teachers in the United States who can offer instruction in two languages.

But such programs are not always easy to set up.

In New York City, for example, the city’s Department of Education says its students speak a total of 180 different languages.

About sixty percent are Spanish speakers, and another 14 percent are Chinese speakers.

It also has 6,546 students who speak Bengali, 6,501 who speak Arabic, and 3,591 who speak Haitian-Creole. Thousands more speak Russian or Punjabi.

Gonez said that it may be hard to find instructors who can speak all the different languages spoken by students. But she said schools can get educational material in many more languages that just Spanish and Chinese.

Terry Richards is in charge of federal programs for the state of Delaware. She welcomes the new federal education law. It will allow state and local education departments to make more decisions about how to teach English learners, she said.

Richards said the law permits local school districts to consider “local” needs in developing English education programs.

I’m Bruce Alpert.

Bruce Alpert reported this story for VOA Learning English. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Mario Ritter was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section and share your views on our Facebook Page. Tell us how you learned to speak another language!

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Words in this Story

allow -- v. to permit (something): to consider or treat (something) as acceptable​

access -- n. a way of being able to use or get something done

advanced coursework -- n. subjects that are more difficult than basic subjects

resources -- n. a supply of something (such as money) that someone has and can use when it is needed

dual language -- n. programs using two languages

hire -- n. to give work or a job to (someone) in exchange for wages or a salary​

qualified -- adj. having the necessary skill, experience, or knowledge to do a particular job or activity

instruction -- n. the action or process of teaching​

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