Illinois is one of the first states to address the needs of English language learners in pre-kindergarten. A 2008 law, to be implemented by 2014, requires the state-funded pre-k program to develop a workforce trained to teach young English language learners, accurately identify children who are not proficient in English, provide curricula for English language learners, and track their progress.
A recent report (“Starting Early with English Language Learners: First Lessons from Illinois”) from the Early Education Initiative of the New America Foundation finds promise in the Illinois model. (See also “Illinois offers lessons in teaching English as a second language,” Washington Post.)
“Illinois’s strategy is on the cutting edge,” the report states. “Despite the fact that leaders in many states believe that quality early education is a key factor in a child’s success later in school, no other state has gone this far in implementing a comprehensive plan for educating English language learners in state-funded pre-k. Furthermore, no other state has enacted laws or regulations that advance a PreK-12 approach by including pre-k in the public school systems’ strategy for educating ELL students.”
Illinois offers two types of instruction for pre-kindergarten. If 20 or more children in a school’s pre-kindergarten program speak a common language, the program must have transitional bilingual education that includes instruction in the child’s home language. If fewer than 20 children share a common home language, then the pre-kindergarten program must provide a transitional program of instruction, which requires less instruction in the home language.
“Two parts of Illinois’s approach… merit consideration by other states with large or growing ELL populations. First, by expanding into pre-k, the state has created opportunities to align ELL programs across the early school years, opening the possibility for districts to adopt a PreK-3rd approach,” the report states. “Second, Illinois’s teacher training requirements ensure that teachers charged with bilingual or ESL [English as a Second Language] classrooms have adequate training to do so.”
The report also makes three recommendations:
- Ensure that pre-k providers and schools receive financial support from the state and their local districts for resources they spend on English language learners, and that there is an adequate bilingual education budget to cover all eligible children.
- Track outcomes for ELL students over time and reserve funding for evaluative studies to determine where investment is the most (and least) effective.
- Continue to align the ELL experience in pre-k, kindergarten and the early grades and enable shared professional development opportunities in ELL instruction for teachers and school leaders across the Pre-K-3rd grade span.
“Illinois is stepping out in the lead with its plan for educating young English language learners. But the plan’s impact is yet to be seen. The regulations’ success may hinge on whether schools can train and/or recruit enough bilingual/ESL teachers for their programs and whether the state budget for bilingual education is ample enough to help pre-k providers offset their costs,” the report concludes.
“The number of English language learners in the United States is large, and it is growing. Demographic shifts should be a wake-up call to states and districts, which will be on the frontlines of educating an increasingly diverse and multicultural student population. Whoever can bridge the ELL achievement gap and put ELL students on track with their peers will be solving an important piece of the puzzle for 21st century education and workforce development.”