Contours of the Field: Dual Language Learners and Academic Language

Note: this is the third in a series of posts explaining the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s (NASEM) recent report on the education of dual language learners (DLLs) and English Learners (ELs), Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. To read New America’s initial coverage of the report’s publication, click here. This series is designed to serve as a companion document to the report. Each post will explore how one of the report’s key themes relates to DLLs/ELs’ success at school.

A note on terminology: the NASEM report covers the full range of students who speak a non-English language at home. It uses “dual language learners” (DLLs) to refer to students five years old or younger, as these students begin learning English before they have reached basic proficiency in their home languages. It uses “English learners” (ELs) to refer to English-learning students 5–21 years old. Finally, it uses “DLLs/ELs” to refer to language learning students from 0–21 years old. Our blog series follows this convention.

The United States’ diversity has long been one central to its national identity. The country’s culture, economy, society, politics, and cuisine have all been enriched by the contributions of immigrants from nearly every part of the world. On the one hand, then, as a multilingual, multicultural subgroup, DLLs/ELs are emblematic of American pluralism.

And yet, the United States’ linguistic profile has remained monolingual and English-dominant. As a result, American thinking on how these students’ linguistic development pathways has not always been clear. In general, educators, policymakers, and the broader public have wide-ranging, and frequently ill-founded views of how DLLs/ELs develop their emerging bilingualism and acquire English.

How long should it take these students to become proficient in English? How does this process intersect with DLLs/ELs’ academic development? Absent evidence, observers frequently set inappropriate or unfair expectations for DLLs/ELs. Some argue, for instance, that young DLLs are “sponges” who can rapidly pick up English skills. Others find it intuitive that English-only instructional models must work better for older ELs, since they involve surrounding these students with as much English as possible during the school day.

NASEM’s Promising Futures engages directly with these — and other — central questions related to DLLs/ELs’ linguistic development. Critically, the report emphasizes the “need to distinguish between language for social communication and language for academic purposes” (6-3).

This is central to many misunderstandings about what DLLs/ELs know and can do. These students often rapidly develop oral language abilities in English. As they begin to use English socially, educators and families can assume that they have already reached full proficiency. However, the NASEM report notes, research suggests that academic English language proficiency often takes much longer to develop. This higher linguistic threshold involves developing a larger English vocabulary, nuances of grammar and syntax, pronoun rules, and advanced verb tenses. (For more on links between how academic language demands intersect with ELs’ linguistic development, click here.) Estimates considered in the report suggest that it takes DLLs/ELs at least 5–7 years to reach academic English language proficiency.

However, that estimate is fraught with complications, particularly within a group of students as diverse as DLLs/ELs. English acquisition timelines can vary by family educational attainment, socioeconomic levels, native languages, student educational history, families’ immigration status, and much more.

For instance, student age and grade level appear to be important influences on the development of academic language proficiency. The NASEM report explains, “Attainment of [English] proficiency also appears to be easier for ELs who are younger at school entry relative to those who are older” (6-10). Perhaps this reflects how academic language demands escalate with each grade; high schoolers of all language backgrounds need to command much larger vocabularies in specific, nuanced ways than fourth graders or kindergartners. In other words, academic English language proficiency for older students is a higher hurdle than it is for younger students.

In addition, the distinction between social and academic language shows up as a critical challenge shaping the educational experiences of long-term ELs. According to the report’s authors, these students “often are proficient in everyday uses of oral English but have low levels of proficiency in academic language and literacy in both English and their L1” (6-15). Worryingly, the longer ELs are enrolled in U.S. schools, the more likely it is that they will lose their ability to use their native languages proficiently as well. This is particularly the case when they are enrolled in English-only instructional programs. The worst-case scenario, then, is when an EL develops weak academic English skills while simultaneously losing his her or her ability to use his or her native language at a proficient level.

The distance between social and academic English should be a central consideration for educators deciding how to support their DLLs/ELs’ linguistic and academic development. For instance, while it may be critical for DLLs/ELs in their first year of school in the United States to develop oral language proficiency abilities in English, teachers may need to incorporate more explicit instruction of academic vocabulary and linguistic concepts in future years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is evidence that later linguistic development depends on early oral language proficiency: in one study, DLL students who entered kindergarten with stronger English skills “had better overall achievement in math, science, and reading…through 8th grade” (5-7).

But while an intentional focus on developing DLLs/ELs’ oral language skills is an important foundation for later language development, that foundation is not a guarantee that students will develop the advanced language skills involved in academic English language proficiency. These skills — and connected knowledge — need to be consciously developed by DLLs/ELs’ schools as well.

Further Reading from New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group:

This post is part of the Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “DLL National Work Group Newsletter.”

Conor Williams

Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams