Jeff MacSwan Co-Authors NAS Report on Educating English Learners
COLLEGE PARK, MD (April, 2017) – A recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report provided an overview of research on bilingualism and effective approaches to teaching second language learners. Jeff MacSwan, a professor in the University of Maryland College of Education, served as a co-author on the report, which was developed by a NAS Committee focused on fostering school success for English Learners.
“In general, English Learners struggle in school,” Dr. MacSwan said. “Schools are tasked by federal law with helping students learn English while keeping them on-track with their peers academically. There’s a need for clarity and understanding of how to best achieve that goal and this report brought together experts to provide consensus on these research issues.”
English Learners (ELs) make up more than nine percent of student enrollment in grades K-12 in the U.S. In addition to a language barrier at school, many students with limited English proficiency also face added difficulties, including poverty, families with low levels of education, and attending schools with a lack of resources. Yet, students with proficiency in English and a second language may reap cognitive, social, and emotional developmental benefits.
The NAS report, Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures, focused on Dual Language Learners (DLLs) and English Learners. DLLs are children age birth to 5 who are learning two languages at once – their home language and English – and are not in the K-12 system. ELs are youth in the pre-K-12 educational system who are learning English as a second language.
The NAS report findings included:
- Children have the capacity to learn two languages as easily as one.
- From birth to age 5, systematic exposure to English and ongoing support for the primary language is critical to becoming academically proficient in English. Teachers can learn strategies to support students’ use of English and the primary language even if they are not familiar with the primary language of the student.
- Support for ELs’ home language both at home and at school help students achieve in school.
- Giving children access to their home language in school is broadly beneficial to learning outcomes. Access to home language at school includes using students’ language in teaching and learning activities, like math and social studies, which allows them to keep up academically while they are learning English. Schools may facilitate this use of home language through paraprofessionals, volunteers or other means.
- Giving children support for their home language at home includes activities such as parents and children reading and speaking in the home language, rather than using English to communicate.
- Other guidelines for educating ELs, which vary depending on grade level, include the development of academic language in particular content areas and provision of peer-assisted learning opportunities.
The NAS report outlines ten recommendations for government agencies that would help support academic success for children and youth learning English. These recommendations range from tasking agencies with using evidence-based strategies to teach DLLs and ELs to implementing social marketing campaigns to raise awareness of the ability to learn more than one language in early childhood.
Dr. MacSwan, who was one of 17 members of the NAS committee that prepared the report, is a faculty member in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership. His research focuses on bilingualism, language minority education, and English Learners.