Starting Early With English Language Learners

First Lessons from Illinois
Policy Paper
April 11, 2012

English Language Learners are a large and growing population in America’s public school system, but schools often fall short in preparing these students for success in college and the workforce. A new policy paper from the Early Education Initiative of the New America Foundation focuses on one state, Illinois, that is taking a different approach: building English Language Learner services that begin as early as pre-K to ensure that all students, regardless of their age, are supported in school.

Starting Early with English Language Learners: First Lessons From Illinois takes a deep look at how Illinois came to see a need for new policies for its burgeoning population of English Language Learners, and why focusing on its youngest English Language Learners was the state’s next step. As in most states, achievement gaps in Illinois’s schools are large, with only five percent of English Language Learners reading on grade level in fourth grade compared to 33 percent of all fourth graders in the state. To build important language skills early on and reduce remediation in the later grades, Illinois changed state law to include state-funded pre-K children in public school efforts to help English Language Learners. That change has led to a series of new regulations for teacher preparation and classroom instruction that are reverberating throughout the state’s pre-K system.

“Illinois’s strategy is on the cutting edge,” the report says. “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.”

As the paper shows, however, the work in Illinois—and across the country—is far from finished. “Stakeholders throughout the state stress the challenges of implementing a cohesive, high-quality system for English Language Learners and they encourage a focus on improvements,” the report says. The report recommends that the state and policymakers around the country:

  • 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 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 PreK-3rd grade span

This report was funded through grants from the Foundation for Child Development and the W. Clement and Jessie V. Stone Foundation.

View full paper here.