December 15, 2014

Retention and ELLs

As the calendar year comes to an end, marking more or less the mid-point of the academic year in the US, teachers have had plenty of time to evaluate how their students are doing.  Teachers may start to think about the next school year and start to look more closely at which students are having the most difficulty.  Retention may be an idea that attaches itself to a few students.

In the past, it was common for educators to think that retaining English Language Learners would help them "catch up" to their native-English-speaking classmates.  Way back at the end of the 20th century, I had an ELL from Russia whose Grade 2 teacher wanted to retain her until, as the teacher put it, she had "mastered the second grade curriculum."  But this student had only come to the US at the start of 1st grade and, because she had been raised in an orphanage and in Russia children did not start school until they were seven years old, and because the child knew no English when she first arrived in the US, the child through no fault of her own was not at the same grade level as her classmates.  I researched the effects of retention on students and at the meeting with the principals and the teacher to decide what to do, I was able to convince them that holding this student back would be counter-productive.  It was also, as a matter of fact, against the law because students cannot be penalized for not knowing the English language.

Fortunately, things have changed.  A new report, Patterns and Trends in Grade Retention Rates in the United States, 1995-2010, explains that the overall rate of retention for American public school students has declined. And although students of color, of lower socio-economic background, and immigrant students or those whose parents are immigrants still tend to be retained at higher levels than other students, the report states that the rates of retention for those students have also declined in the past few years.

This is good news for ELLs!  As the population of public students for whom English is not their first language increases, it is incumbent upon teachers to analyze why a student is not making satisfactory progress and, if it is because of a language issue, then the teacher should consider getting ESL support for the student before considering retention as the solution.  Many times, when ESL services are provided, the student will make noticeable progress in comprehending the instructional material.  For a resource that can help teachers when they are considering retaining an ELL, please take a look at this product, A Guide for All Educators: Is it ESL or a SPED Issue? 
Retention, ELLs, and learning disabilities: Some thoughts
Click HERE for more info; source: The ESL Nexus
While the emphasis is more on determining whether an ELL has a learning disability or just needs ESL support, the questions posed are also relevant when an ELL is under consideration for retention.

This is not to say that ELLs under no circumstances should ever be retained, although, personally, I am against it in the vast majority of cases.  However, holding students back in order to give them more time to learn English or because they haven't "mastered the curriculum" are not valid reasons.  This new report seems to show that teachers in the past decade have come to recognize this fact and this realization can only benefit English Language Learners.