Early Language Lessons To Close the New Achievement Gap

Ann Fisher
Throughout U.S. education, shifting demographics are increasing pressure on English language resources. A 2008 plan set out in Chicago (pictured here), and across the state of Illinois, has worked aggressively to address these new challenges.

In Brief

In recent years, a boom in immigration and high birth rates among the foreign-born population have led to significant growth in the number of children in the United States who speak a language other than English at home. Immigrant youth, defined as children who are either foreign-born or have at least one foreign-born parent, now make up an estimated 25 percent of the population under 18, a higher proportion than at any other time during the last 75 years. This case study looks at how one state, Illinois, decided to improve its language services for English language learners by building a system that begins when children enter prekindergarten.

Key Concepts

  • Immigrant youth now make up an estimated 25 percent of the population under 18 in the United States. The immigrant population in Illinois, like in many states, has both grown in recent decades and has spread to suburban and rural areas where many schools aren’t accustomed to serving students who are not proficient in English.

  • In 2008 a bill in Illinois amended the school code to include prekindergarten (or pre-K) children in the definition of “children of limited English-speaking ability,” a relatively small regulatory change that is having a big impact on pre-K and the early education workforce.

  • The change, the state hopes, will create more continuity between preschool and the early grades of school, when students develop crucial language skills, and will also reduce remediation for students in later grades by building important language skills early on.

  • School systems around the world face many of the same challenges: an increasing number of immigrant students with an increasing number of language backgrounds, scarce resources, and few best practices to draw from. Illinois offers a model to consider this issue.


In recent years, a boom in immigration and high birth rates among the foreign-born population has led to significant growth in the number of children in the United States who speak a language other than English at home. Immigrant youth, defined as children who are either foreign-born or have at least one foreign-born parent, now make up an estimated 25 percent of the population under 18, a higher proportion than at any other time during the last 75 years. (Many English language learners are U.S.-born children with one or more immigrant parent. An estimated 84 percent of children ages 0–18 with one or more immigrant parent living in the United States in 2009 were born in the United States and are therefore legal citizens.)1

This demographic change presents a challenge to the public school system, where English proficiency is central to a student’s success. This is not only an issue in the United States. Schools worldwide face many of the same challenges as Illinois: an increasing number of immigrant students with an increasing number of language backgrounds, scarce resources, and few best practices on how to structure a curriculum that can improve education for students who do not speak the language spoken in the school system.

The vast majority of immigrant students in the United States are legal citizens,1 yet, as a nation, we have yet to determine how to adapt to our changing student body. Evidence suggests students who are enrolled in English language learner programs for long periods of time risk not learning other subjects at grade level.2-4 By fourth grade, the achievement gap between English language learners (ELLs) and their peers is larger than the gap between students on free and reduced-price lunch (a common indicator of poverty) and their peers.5,6

Illinois’ story is similar to those of many other states. The immigrant population in Illinois has grown in recent decades, and has spread to suburban and rural areas where many schools aren’t yet accustomed to serving a sizeable number of students who are not proficient in English.7 Between 2000 and 2010, the foreign-born population in Illinois increased by over 200,000 people.8,9 Only 5 percent of ELL fourth graders in the state can read at grade level, according to the most recent Nation’s Report Card, compared to 33 percent of their peers.5 The gap is also apparent in math, where only 12 percent of ELL students in Illinois score at grade level in fourth grade, compared to 38 percent of their peers.6

Is it best to immerse children in their new language, or teach them in the language they speak at home instead? Should schools spend money to hire many bilingual teachers, or is it sometimes smarter to have a few bilingual teachers circulating through many classrooms? Many of the same questions are being asked in every corner of the globe. Illinois offers a valuable model.


Many modern-day state education policies for English language learners date back to legislation passed by the federal government during the late 1960s. Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act (Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) in 1968 and provided competitive grants to states to help support students with limited English proficiency.10

The law didn’t express a preference for bilingual education over other forms of ESL instruction (such as English-only immersion programs), but later legislation and court decisions related to the act would do so. When Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2002 (also known as No Child Left Behind), it gave states more flexibility in deciding what sort of programs to adopt.11 For example, one state may create a program, or encourage school districts to create a program, that immerses students in English-only instruction. Another state may develop a program that teaches them some of their home language in addition to English. Yet another state may create a program that pulls students out of the classroom for small-group tutoring or a program that has full-day ELL programs in classrooms that are separate from mainstream students. (In education policy, bilingual usually denotes a program that supports the language a child speaks at home in addition to English, not necessarily a program that aims for fluency in both languages.)

In K-12 education, many states began bilingual programs during the 1960s and ‘70s.12 Chicago Public Schools began its first handful of bilingual programs in the 1969–1970 school year, and expanded these programs during the 1970s. Though K-12 bilingual programs have been in place for years, bilingual education accounts for a very small portion of the state’s general funds for education—less than 1 percent in 2012—and districts are not always in compliance.

In 2007 a variety of early education stakeholders as well as the State Board of Education began to think about how to adapt the state’s approach to K-12 bilingual education to include preschoolers. Illinois’ Preschool for All program was serving over 85,000 three- and four-year-olds in 78 percent of Illinois school districts.13 (As of 2010, Preschool for All had centers in all Illinois school districts and served 87,580 three- and four-year-olds. Preschool for All funds providers directly through a Request for Proposal process, not through school districts.)14


Devin Hunter
A celebration of Ecuador Day in Albany Park neighborhood, Chicago. Between 2000 and 2010, the foreign-born population in Illinois increased by over 200,000 people.

To many educators working with pre-K programs at the time, the need for a more structured approach to bilingual pre-K education was evident. K-12-oriented organizations such as the Illinois Resource Center, a state-funded organization that works with schools to meet the needs of their diverse populations, felt that the K-12 approach to bilingual education was both inefficient and insufficient in an age when many children were receiving one or two years of education prior to entering kindergarten.

“We would frequently go out to schools and ask about their programs for English language learners, and, as in the bulk of the country, the ELLs would be clustered in kindergarten, first grade, second grade,” said Josie Yanguas, director of the Illinois Resource Center. Yanguas was referring to a common phenomenon where children enter school in kindergarten and are flagged as English language learners, then, in later years, test out of the ELL programs, concentrating the need for elementary ELL services in those early grades.

To bridge this disconnect, the state has folded its pre-K programs into public school services for English-language learners, which has led to new efforts to train teachers who work with children as young as three. Training teachers who give immigrant children their first systematic exposure to English sounds like common sense—but in almost every state, there is no such push. Illinois’ model for pre-K ELL education, which this article will discuss, is far more comprehensive than any existing state regulations.

Illinois’ changes to pre-K ELL education will affect a sizeable portion of children in the state-funded Preschool for All program: recent data shows that 34.2 percent of Preschool for All graduates in Chicago and 13.1 percent of Preschool for All graduates outside Chicago receive bilingual services when they moved on to kindergarten.15 The change will, the state hopes, create more continuity between preschool and the early grades of school when students are developing crucial language skills. It should also reduce remediation for students in later grades by building important language skills early on.

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 implemented a plan this comprehensive for educating young English language learners.

Changes to the Illinois School Code to Better Serve Young English Language Learners

The changes to Illinois’ bilingual education policies relating to pre-K started with a bill passed in 2008 that amended the school code to include pre-K children in the definition of “children of limited English-speaking ability.” Previously, the definition only included students in kindergarten through 12th grade.16

This relatively small regulatory change is having a big impact on pre-K providers and students throughout the state. Effective January 1, 2009, all state laws governing the public education of English language learners must also apply to pre-K programs that are partially or wholly funded through Illinois school districts. (This includes all pre-K programs that use state funding, but not programs that use only federal or private funding, including many Head Start programs.) These changes are seen as a big step forward by their supporters, but critics point out that they may be too demanding for many pre-K providers, particularly during tight fiscal years.17-19

Pre-K providers will have to make changes in three main areas in order to comply with the regulations: First, the state is mandating screening for English proficiency for young English language learners. Second, pre-K providers are working to create developmentally appropriate bilingual services for young ELLs. Third, the state is requiring credentials for teachers that instruct programs for young English language learners—a change that, above others, could have a big impact on the quality of education that ELLs in Illinois receive during their early years in school.

Screening. Under the new regulations, pre-K children in the Illinois public school system must be evaluated in order to determine how well they speak English. There are two stages in the screening process: First, a home language survey (HLS) is sent to parents to determine which children have a non-English language background. Then, those children are screened for English proficiency. The test measures children’s social and academic language skills, and rates children on a scale of English proficiency that can be used to separate children into different levels of special instruction.20

Instruction. There are many ways to structure an instruction program for English language learners. The model a school chooses depends on a variety of factors, such as whether the ELL students will be mostly kept in a classroom with native English speakers and sometimes pulled out for special instruction, or whether they will have a separate (or mostly separate) classroom. The model may also depend on whether the program is intended to give the ELL students proficiency in both English and their home language(s), partial knowledge of their home language and proficiency in English, or strictly English instruction.


Tom Woodward
Only 5 percent of fourth grade English language learners in Illinois can read at grade level. One of the central efforts in Illinois’ new policy is increasing this percentage through prekindergarten intervention.

The models used in Illinois fall somewhere in the middle, and depend on the number of children at a school who speak a common home language. Pre-K providers with 20 or more ELLs with the same language background must provide a program that builds proficiency in English through instruction in both English and the child’s home language. Educators then transfer the child into a regular classroom once he or she is proficient in English. In these programs, instruction for core subjects and language arts must be offered in the child’s home language, along with additional specialized instruction in the history and culture of the native area where the child or his or her parents are from.

Pre-K providers with 19 or fewer ELLs that share a common home language have more flexibility in structuring their instructional programs. Though the state still requires some instruction in a child’s home language by a certified teacher as part of these programs, they mandate less instruction in that language, presumably so that schools with few ELL students don’t have to hire as many ESL- or bilingual-credentialed teachers.

Currently some districts in Illinois are moving toward models that support bilingualism and bi-literacy in English and another target language (most often Spanish.) Unified District 46 is one such district: it has started two-way immersion classes that teach fluency in both languages in the early grades, and plans to build them up into later grades in the coming years.21

The Rationale Behind Teaching Children in Their Native Languages First

Many of Illinois’ bilingual policies draw on a theoretical framework for bilingualism in young children articulated by Ontario Institute for Studies in Education professor Jim Cummins in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Cummins’ work makes a key distinction between interpersonal communication (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills, or BICS), which children use in and out of school, and the academic language (Cognitive/Academic Language Proficiency, or CALP) that a student requires in order to succeed in the classroom.22

Academic language proficiency includes both the language a child needs in order to speak and understand the things happening in a classroom, and the content knowledge that a child needs in order to understand the subjects being taught. For children in kindergarten and first grade, this might mean knowing the parts of a book—the cover, chapters, and pages—as well as the words in the book that that child might not have heard in English growing up—house, neighborhood, stoplight. In pre-K, academic language proficiency may involve knowing what the colors are in English (for example, red, pink, and white) and being able to understand questions in English (“What color are those flowers?” or “Can you count how many there are?”)

Cummins’ framework helps to explain a phenomenon where students test out of special English instruction too early and then struggle in mainstream classrooms and have to be returned to special classrooms. These students have developed social language in both their native and second languages and may appear to be proficient, but have yet to develop underlying academic proficiency in the second language (and, sometimes, the first). So, without special assistance, they have difficulty learning in the second language, English.23

Cummins has argued that underlying proficiency in a child’s native language helps the child develop proficiency in a second language. Known as the linguistic interdependence hypothesis, Cummins’ theory posits that knowing a word in a first language helps facilitate learning and remembering that word in a second language, thereby speeding up the time it takes to become proficient in the second language.

For a child from a Spanish-speaking home who is entering pre-K, the theory predicts that building pre-literacy and other skills in Spanish will, in the long run, better equip that child than if he or she learns only in English.

Teacher Preparation

Training and hiring enough teachers with bilingual or ESL credentials is the biggest challenge currently facing Illinois in implementing its new strategy for ELL instruction. Either a bilingual or ESL credential, which teachers add to their regular teaching credentials by taking extra courses, is now required of pre-K teachers if they are responsible for teaching classes that are part of a program for English language learners.

Teachers who instruct children in their native languages must have a bilingual credential, which requires the teacher to be proficient in the language of instruction. Teachers who provide instruction in English-as-a-second-language classrooms must have an ESL credential, which does not require proficiency in a second language.

Recruiting teachers who have bilingual or ESL credentials or are willing to get them is difficult. Furthermore, teacher preparation programs will have to reevaluate their early childhood and their K-12-focused bilingual/ESL course curricula to include bilingual/ESL strategies for children in their earliest years of language development.

Only about a third of approved four-year, teacher-preparation programs in Illinois currently offer bilingual/ESL credentials, and a vast majority of those programs are not specifically designed for pre-K teachers. (The credential is offered as a part of 26 of 72 teaching programs statewide).24


Photo by Jonathan Lurie (C) 2012. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the photographer.
DePaul University, along with National Louis University and some campuses of the University of Illinois, is designing a distinct ESL curriculum for pre-K classes.

Prospective bilingual/ESL teachers can apply for scholarships through a state-sponsored professional development fund called Gateways to Opportunity. The Illinois State Board of Education has earmarked money for bilingual/ESL early childhood teacher-training in previous years and would like to continue supporting potential bilingual/ESL pre-K teacher-training in the coming years.25

Since the regulations were conceived, advocates have been aware that support from teacher-preparation programs would be essential. Illinois has prior experience with boosting professional qualifications for pre-K teachers: since the late 1980s, the state has required that teachers in the state’s Preschool for All program have bachelor’s degrees as well as teaching certificates. Like the new requirement for bilingual/ESL credentials, requiring a BA for all pre-K teachers was a big change that took years for many pre-K programs to adopt.

“Change is always difficult,” said Gayle Mindes, an early childhood professor at DePaul University, of both the new professional development standards and previous pushes for more professional development for preschool teachers. “We’ve known that it’s very important to develop linguistic competency in both languages, so it’s important to do and it’s important that teachers have the tools to do this.”

Prior to the regulations, very few pre-K teachers had formal bilingual/ESL credentials. Now, pre-K providers with English language learners must either find new pre-K teachers with the credentials or encourage their existing staff to get the required certifications.

Because the state is requiring the same bilingual/ESL training for pre-K teachers as it has for K-12 teachers, no new bilingual or ESL training programs are required to be developed for pre-K teachers. The drawback of this policy is that the bilingual/ESL training programs may not be tailored to the needs of pre-K teachers. Some institutions, however, are opting to create curricula with classes focusing on bilingual/ESL instruction for young children, including National Louis University, some campuses of the University of Illinois, and DePaul University.19

The Illinois State Board of Education is also playing an active role in encouraging institutions of higher education to adapt their teacher preparation programs so there are more programs offering coursework in bilingual/ESL early childhood education. The state is currently sponsoring ongoing higher education faculty forums to encourage programs to build their capacities for training bilingual/ESL early childhood teachers and to encourage networking among staff from different colleges and universities.25


The steps that Illinois took in expanding its bilingual program to pre-K and in writing the corresponding regulations could become a model for other states or a cautionary tale. As the first state to target statewide policies toward pre-K English language learners, the state took a step that was informed by current research and by smaller-scale models within the state and elsewhere.26

Critics of the regulations, both in schools and in the policy sector, worry that the regulations set unreasonable standards for pre-K providers that already face an uphill battle in finding qualified teachers, and money to pay them. It is likely that, if pre-K providers are not ready to meet the 2014 deadline for compliance, the state will choose to extend that deadline until more programs are able to comply.

Barbara Bowman, former chief early childhood education officer for Chicago Public Schools and a professor at the Erikson Institute, said that many Latino pre-K teachers in the Chicago area will have problems passing a bilingual fluency test. “They’re verbal, but they’re not literate,” Bowman said. “We have teachers who won’t even take the exam.”


Ian Freimuth
Critics of Illinois’ policy worry that efforts to address English language learners in pre-K will steepen the uphill battle of finding qualified teachers amid budget constraints. Pictured here is Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, home to much of the city’s Mexican American population.

The other side of this debate contends that there is never an easy time to push forward with demanding regulations for pre-K, and that the push is necessary in order for the state to make progress. If providing bilingual instruction for young children is the appropriate thing to do to ensure that they get an equitable start in school, then these regulations should have been in place a long time ago, advocates say.

There are some broad lessons from Illinois’ approach to improving ELL instruction that warrant attention from other states as they turn their attention to low achievement among English language learners. In both Illinois and in other states, policy makers should keep these strategies in mind going forward:

  • Make an adequate investment. Appropriating adequate funding, particularly for districts and providers to put teachers through extra training for the bilingual/ESL credentials and to pay teachers who have received them and may expect higher salaries, will no doubt be a challenge in Illinois. As mentioned above, unless the state allots more money to bilingual programs overall, districts will be forced to stretch their existing pools of bilingual funds to serve both K-12 and pre-K ELLs.
  • Use research and data. Research on the outcomes of different ESL programs will be crucial in the coming years as ELL populations continue to grow and diversify in Illinois and elsewhere. Currently, there are no state funds set aside for researching and evaluating the effects of the new regulations. Illinois could benefit greatly from monitoring its new policies closely and determining which parts of them boost student achievement. Research now focuses mostly on the method of ESL instruction, such as student achievement in a bilingual versus an English-only classroom. Research on many other important factors—such as what professional background makes a good bilingual/ESL teacher or whether a pre-K-to-third-grade approach boosts ELL student achievement as it does for non-ELL students—is scarce.
  • Seek opportunities for further alignment across the pre-K-to-third-grade spectrum. As is the case with many parts of the education system, there is tension in Illinois between what is and what could be. Though the measures the state has taken may help improve education for young English language learners, it is worth considering the potential investments that the state has yet to make. For example, a comprehensive program of professional development on ELL issues for teachers and leaders in pre-K and the early elementary grades could improve communication between teachers in all of these grades. It could also lead elementary school principals and preschool center directors to start to share ideas about instructional strategies and coordinate data collection efforts to track the progress of children, both ELL and non-ELL, moving through their schools.


Illinois may be making a shrewd investment by focusing on ELLs during their early years, gaining savings from students spending fewer years in bilingual/ESL programs, needing less remediation in the later grades, and achieving long-term gains from increased graduation rates in high school and a better-educated workforce. But a successful ELL education program is challenging to implement on a system-wide scale and does not happen without coordinated, intentional work.

The number of English language learners in the United States is large, and it is growing. Demographic shifts should be a wake-up call to states and districts, which will be on the frontlines of educating an increasingly diverse and multicultural student population. Whoever can begin bridging the ELL achievement gap and get ELL students on track with their peers will be solving an important piece of the puzzle for twenty-first-century education and workforce development.


English language learner (ELL). A student who primarily speaks a language other than English and is in the process of learning English.

dual language learner (DLL). A student who is learning English while also developing proficiency in another language. A term that is often used for young children who may be still learning their native languages at the same time they are being exposed to and learning English.

English as a second language (ESL). Instruction aimed at students who primarily speak a language other than English and are learning English. Also used to describe English language learner students, as in, “I have four ESL students in my class.”

immigrant children. Children who are foreign-born or have at least one foreign-born parent. (Most often, these children are not living in the United States illegally—a vast majority of children with one or more immigrant parents are birthright citizens.)

limited English proficiency (LEP). Official, federal term for English language learner.

Common Program Models for English Language Learners

bilingual program. Programs that support the child’s home language in addition to teaching English. The ratio of home language to English instruction differs by program, as does the length of time students spend in the program.

structured English immersion program. Students are taught intensive English language arts by a teacher with ESL training. Time spent in mainstream classrooms or learning other academic content is usually limited in these programs.

pull-out program. A program where students spend part of the school day in a mainstream classroom, and part of the day receiving ESL instruction. The ESL instruction could include a child’s home language, or not.

two-way bilingual or developmental bilingual programs. Students from both a minority- and majority-language background (for example, Spanish and English) learn both languages. Two-way bilingual or developmental bilingual programs aim for all students to become proficient in two languages.