Over five million students in American public schools are English language learners (ELL), students who are studying to become fluent English speakers. While Spanish is by far the most commonly spoken language by K-12 students with limited English proficiency, other common languages include Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic, and Hmong. In total, over 400 different languages are spoken by ELLs in public schools across the United States.  

The inclusion of ELLs into classrooms has transformed the education landscape for native and non-native English speakers alike. How to best accommodate the needs and diverse backgrounds of ELLs has been a challenge for the public education system for decades—and a growing challenge as the number of ELLs continues to rise. Let’s look at the impact immigration has had on bilingual/English as a second language (ESL) education and see how educators are learning to provide a more inclusive classroom environment for students of all backgrounds.  

Enveloped by English 

How does language affect immigrants? More often than not, America’s English-only mentality has had an adverse effect on immigrants. Within the past century alone, states repressed the use of foreign languages by passing laws requiring English-only instruction in public schools. In the early-to-mid 20th century, immigrants, especially Mexican children, were often segregated until they were taught English and “Americanized.” The level of education they received was subpar, and few immigrants went on to high school as a result. Due to the Naturalization Act of 1906, immigrants didn’t even have a chance of becoming United States citizens unless they learned English.  

During the civil rights era of the 1960s, people began to accept that being ashamed of one’s own native language and culture is counterproductive to learning. Congress finally took note of the struggles facing immigrants and the advantages of bilingual education, passing the Bilingual Education Act in 1968 and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA) in 1974. The EEOA, in particular, requires school districts to take appropriate action “to overcome language barriers that impede [ELL] students from participating equally in state and district educational programs.” What’s considered “appropriate action” remains a hotly debated topic to this day.  

Throughout American history, foreign languages have largely been seen as nothing more than a problem for schools to solve. Hence, the goal of bilingual education has been to teach English rather than encourage biliteracy. This prevailing sentiment was the driving force behind the “English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act,” which passed in 2001. Replacing the Bilingual Education Act, this new legislation instead gave priority to English-only instruction.  

Over 31 states have passed laws naming English the official language, with several states approving ballot measures to replace bilingual education with English-only education. Even now, our education system struggles with how to best help immigrants assimilate into American life while respecting their native culture and language. Teachers are often at the heart of this debate, helping students learn a new language while they themselves navigate a divisive, shifting educational landscape.  

The Changing Profile of ELLs  

Immigrants have had an incredible impact on bilingual education. However, immigrants are no longer the driving force behind changes to prominent bilingual education programs: their children are. As reported by the Pew Research Center, 72% of public school students between the ages of 5 and 17 who report speaking English “less than very well” are American citizens. Moreover, a number of foreign-born students are born abroad to American parents and naturalized citizens. Less than a quarter of ELLs between the ages of 5 are 17 are noncitizens, and that percentage is even lower for older public school students.   

Dual Language Classrooms 

The inclusion of ELLs into classrooms has a measurable impact on education, especially in dual language classrooms. These classrooms offer a bilingual experience in which all students—native English speakers and ELLs alike—are taught in English and a target language, usually Spanish. The goal is to help all students achieve biliteracy. In an article published by NPR, researchers looked at eight million student records and observed that dual language students had higher test scores, higher parent involvement, better attendance, and fewer behavioral problems when compared to students in English-only classrooms or in one-way immersion. 

In inclusive classrooms, ELLs can build upon the language skills they already possess without abandoning their native language or feeling excluded. Dual language classrooms can help ELLs feel more accepted and allow non-English-speaking parents to participate more in their child’s education. “Maintaining a student’s native language is vital to their self-esteem, family heritage, and identity,” says See Pha Vang, a teacher with Minnesota’s Saint Paul Public Schools Office of Teaching and Learning. “German, French, Spanish … all native languages are critical to who we are as individuals.” 

The advantages of bilingual education apply to native English speakers as well. Not only do native English speakers enjoy the same benefits as their English-learning peers in dual language classrooms, but they can also become more comfortable around people whose race, culture, and native language are different from their own. When the unique needs of ELLs are considered and provided for, all students benefit.  

ESL Classrooms  

This isn’t to say that ESL classrooms that provide English-only instruction are inherently bad. Far from it. The majority of bilingual education programs in the U.S. fall under this category and are able to serve any non-English speaking student. Both ESL and dual language education can help students learn English. Student success will depend on not only the type of program but also the teacher leading it, which is why the ongoing teacher shortage is so problematic.  

Bilingual and ESL Teachers Are Needed  

From sparking educational reform to enriching the lives of native English speakers, immigrants have had a profound impact on education. The public education system has struggled to address this impact and is now grappling with a shortage of bilingual teachers. As asylum seekers flee from Central America, demand for dual language education is growing, and with bilingual teachers retiring en masse, there simply aren’t enough qualified teachers to lead bilingual education programs effectively.  

At The University of Texas Permian Basin, we offer an online Master of Arts in Bilingual/ESL Education program for teachers and administrators interested in educating immigrants and other ELLs. Whether English is your only language or you speak a foreign language fluently, you can make a much-needed difference in the lives of these students. Online courses like Cultural Diversity in Education and the Social Sciences can empower you with the knowledge and skills needed to foster inclusive classrooms where differences are celebrated and embraced. Apply to our online MA in bilingual/ESL education program and teach the next generation of ELLs.