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Here’s How Limited English Proficiency Can Mask Other Learning Challenges

Michael Nutter

July 11, 2018

Effective LEP education involves not only English language instruction, but also a concerted effort to identify and address other issues that impact language learners’ academic success.

Roughly one out of every ten students attending American public schools was learning to speak English as a second language as of the 2016-2017 academic year. Spurred by a jump of more than 50% in the 1990s, the number of public school students with limited English proficiency (LEP) surpassed 25 million in 2013, forcing many educators to reconsider the way we approach our work.

The Equal Educational Opportunities Act clearly dictates that school districts “must act to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by [LEP] students.” What the Department of Education’s guidelines are less clear on, however, is exactly how this should be done. The guidelines stipulate only that “the adopted strategy works, or promises to work, on the basis of past practice or in the judgment of experts in the field.”

But even as researchers and education policy wonks continue to develop a deeper understanding of the unique challenges LEP students face, many districts are struggling to foster success among their non-native English speaking populations. Part of this difficulty stems from the fact that effective LEP education involves not only extensive English language instruction, but also a concerted effort to identify and address other important issues that impact how well students are able to learn.

Misdiagnosing Learning-Impairing Conditions

Foremost among these issues is the inherent complexity of diagnosing LEP students with conditions like dyslexia or autism spectrum disorder, conditions that have a profound effect on a child’s learning experiences. As a participant in one study points out, “It often takes six months before you really know whether [a problem] is just a language issue or whether it’s actually a learning issue.”

This lack of clarity can be exacerbated by insufficient parent-teacher communication. Discussions about an LEP student’s potential learning-impairing condition can be complicated by sociocultural differences, especially if the student’s family comes from a culture in which cognitive impairments are viewed differently than in the US.

There is therefore incredible value in conducting diagnostic assessments in an LEP student’s/family’s first language, as doing so ensures that insufficient English language skills are not mistaken for a learning impairment — or vice versa.

The Importance of Relationships

Language barriers also tend to prevent LEP students from developing meaningful relationships with their teachers and peers, creating a sense of personal isolation that impedes these students’ learning.

The aforementioned study found that LEP students’ satisfaction with school dropped significantly “due to concerns over English language competency and difficulty forming friendships.”

“This cohort of students experiences…challenges above and beyond those experienced by other students,” write the study’s authors.

Strong classroom relationships are not only beneficial for LEP students’ personal wellbeing, but are also critical drivers of these students’ motivation to succeed academically and overall engagement with coursework.

Keeping LEP Students Engaged

To that point, students with limited English language skills are more likely to “check out” if they aren’t actively engaged by educators. LEP students are often hesitant to participate in open discussions and other forms of collaborative learning on account of their unfamiliarity with the language, and it’s important for teachers to find ways to mitigate these anxieties.

Creating a learning environment in which different ideas, cultural perspectives, and languages are valued equally is the most straightforward way for a teacher to tackle this challenge. For instance, in the Westminster School District in Orange County, California, many students are placed in one of two dual-language programs — English/Vietnamese or English/Spanish. Students receive instruction in subjects like math in both program languages, giving LEP participants the chance to build confidence by helping their native English speaking peers navigate instruction in their own primary language.

The First Step Toward Success

At the end of the day, even in districts with a keen awareness of the challenges outlined above, the effectiveness of LEP education programs depends on how well-resourced they are. That’s where a tool like Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS platform comes into play. CheckPoint’s LEP Module helps districts track key metrics like LEP student test scores, the duration of students’ participation and progress in various LEP programs, and building-by-building LEP student enrollment.

Fulfilling the considerable promise of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act isn’t always easy, but with Vinson, educators can rest easy knowing that they’re doing everything they can to give LEP students the specialized support they need and deserve.

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