Earlier today, the statewide coalition California Together released a study focusing on long term English learners—a concept that differs across states and districts, but generally refers to ELs who enter school as young children and fail to gain reclassification after a number of years. According to the study, this includes up to 59% of EL students in California.
Back in 2008, the California-based publication In the Starlight—regular contributors include names that may ring a bell like Diane August and Jim Cummins—released an issue on Adolescent ELLs that cited figures for long term English Learners as high as 80-91% (defined here as middle and high school students who were born in the US). Nationally, we know the majority of young people classified as English Learners in our K-12 schools are second or third generation citizens.
Anyone who has worked with non-native speakers of English—or has lived abroad for extended periods of time—can see why this is such a problem. When I taught a writing course for English learners, many of my Arabic students who had been in the country for 1-2 years engaged in fluent and animated conversation with English-speaking friends, but lacked the academic vocabulary and writing skills needed at college or in the workplace. Conversational English comes to most learners naturally after a period of time, but full mastery of academic language and literacy takes much longer.
Quality extended learning opportunities, such as summer and afterschool programs, can provide additional means for ELs to gain academic language proficiency, and should be included in the range of supports districts provide to students and their families.