Issue Brief No. 49 June 2011
Afterschool programs in which literacy is a component offer the potential to provide ELLs with much needed support, not just academically, but socially and culturally as well.1
English Language Learners (ELLs), a diverse group of individuals from across the world who are learning English for the first time, make up the fastest growing segment of the student population in United States public schools. Eighty-percent of the ELL population is Spanish-speaking, but they represent a diverse group of children with distinct needs. Most ELLs (65%) were born in the United States, but many have parents born outside of the U.S. with limited English skills.2 The large number of immigrants to the U.S. over the past decade and a half has lead to a surge in the number of ELL students in U.S. public schools with more than 1 in 10 public school students classified as an ELL in 2008.3 Between 1995 and 2005, nationwide enrollment of ELLs increased by 57 percent. This does not represent an even distribution throughout the U.S. though. Certain states experienced an especially large surge in their ELL population, and many schools are failing to adjust to the rapid population shifts and new needs of their heavily ELL student population.4 With schools lacking the funding and necessary staff to help this new crop of students, English Language Learners have lagged behind their English-speaking peers on standardized tests. These students could greatly benefit from additional time and support to learn both the English language and the academic content being taught in schools. With school days that are increasingly focused on stringent curriculums and testing, many ELL students have much to gain from the less formal enrichment available outside of the school day. Afterschool programs, with lower student-staff ratios, flexible schedules and informal environments, can better target individual needs and offer ELL students a chance to practice communicating in their new language.
The Challenge for English Language Learners and their Schools
ELL students are tasked with the two-fold challenge of learning a new language and simultaneously keeping up with academic content taught in a language they have not yet mastered. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that many ELLs come from economically disadvantaged circumstances and have parents who may not themselves have high school diplomas, both of which are independent risk factors for a lack of academic success.5 Furthermore, schools have struggled to support ELL students. In 2009, only 6 percent of ELL fourth graders tested as proficient in reading, compared to 36 percent of English-speaking fourth graders, and only 12 percent of ELL fourth graders tested as proficient in math as compared to 41 percent of English-speaking fourth graders.6
Adding to the challenges faced by the education system in helping the growing ELL population, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) holds schools accountable for achieving 100 percent grade-level proficiency among their ELL students in English language arts and Mathematics by 2014. The ELL population, though, is constantly changing to include new students who have not yet learned English and exclude students previously categorized as ELLs who, after successfully mastering English, are redesignated as English Proficient .7 While NCLB allows some flexibility for native language testing for reading proficiency in the first three years a student is enrolled in the public school system, multiple studies have shown that it often takes up to six or seven years to establish full academic fluency in a second language.8 The requirement of proficiency on standardized tests administered in English on a faster time scale than English tends to be learned puts pressure on ELLs and schools to accelerate English language acquisition as much as possible, yet time and other demands restrict school day educators in this pursuit.
Alternatively, afterschool programs allow for more flexibility and time, and therefore serve as a great platform for providing the extra enrichment and English language practice it will take to help students and schools achieve their goals. Because of the greater flexibility, afterschool programs are often better able to take advantage of the assets that ELL students bring to the table, such as their knowledge of other places, languages, customs and cultures. By supporting relationships and interactions among English language-speaking students and ELLs, all students – and even staff – benefit and are better prepared for increasingly diverse workplaces and communities.
What ELLs Need to Succeed
While more research is needed to establish definitive best practices for teaching ELLs, studies agree that a variety of teaching strategies should be used in conjunction with one another to support ELL language acquisition.9 Students benefit from:
Across the nation, schools offer different models for teaching ELL students and some focus more heavily on certain areas than others. The most successful models, however, are the ones that include a comprehensive student-centered curriculum that incorporates each feature. However, ELL students rarely have the speaking time during the school day to truly engage in all of these practices. In fact, during the school day, ELL students average less than 90 seconds per day in classroom talk time.15 This is where afterschool can step in and support the acquisition of expanded vocabulary through fun activities that utilize the English language and challenge ELLs to expand their literacy.
Afterschool Programs Offer Additional Supports to Help ELLs Thrive in the Classroom
Afterschool programs can complement the language instruction provided to ELL students during the regular school day by offering extra time for both direct language instruction and practicing oral language skills. Programs outside of the school day are also less restricted by curriculum and testing requirements than school-day classes, which means they have more flexibility to tailor programs to the language and learning needs of individual students. Afterschool programs can offer ELL students:
While ELL students often do not get much opportunity to practice using oral language during the school day, afterschool programs offer varied opportunities for children to talk with peers and adults, one-on-one and in groups, while engaging in a variety of low-pressure activities. As students develop relationships within the afterschool community, they are able to feel more comfortable trying out new language skills without fear of judgment. These oral language skills lay a foundation for literacy development and help support academic achievement.16 Opportunities to practice English language skills are particularly valuable to ELLs who speak a language other than English at home.
Events that engage families and communities and that offer children background cultural experience can help ELL students to connect with school and learning in a way that they may not normally if only presented with academics in a structured and pressured environment. For example, musical and dramatic performances give children a chance to showcase their developing talents in a supportive, family-friendly community environment.
Afterschool Programs are Already Helping ELLs to Succeed
Established afterschool programs are making impressive gains with their ELL student participants. Studies have shown that regular participation in afterschool programs correlates to higher rates of school attendance among ELLs as well as English-speaking students.17 Greater attendance means students have more opportunities to benefit from instruction and correlates to greater investment in school and education. Statistics also show higher rates of reclassification as English Proficient among ELL students who attend afterschool programs regularly.18 This result holds even when students attend afterschool programs that do not focus on language acquisition specifically,19 suggesting that even without direct language instruction after school, the opportunity to practice English language skills in a supportive environment can make a real difference for kids.
Afterschool programs that focus on the whole child, including their home life and social influences, can address needs that undergird their struggles with language and help them become better overall students and citizens.
Providing children with a comfortable environment with like-minded ELLs in similar circumstances can ease the process for many youth who feel alienated due to their lack of English proficiency during the regular school day, leading to academic gains and increased engagement in learning.
Many immigrants face a lack of steady work, leaving their children bouncing around from school to school. Afterschool programs can help build a stable learning environment for ELLs in these difficult situations.
Recognizing the assets that ELLS bring to the learning environment and providing them with ample opportunities to contribute, in a variety of formats, is key to the success of efforts to support language acquisition.
Federal Funding Streams Can Help Support Afterschool Programs Targeted at Supporting ELLs
The federal government understands the importance of supporting ELLs working to get on track toward academic success and has provided funding to afterschool programs to support that endeavor. There are a number of federal funding streams currently supporting ELLs through afterschool:
How Policy Can Promote Language Learning in Afterschool Programs
The following federal policy recommendations support the concept that participation by ELLs in the informal learning environments of afterschool, before school and summer learning programs increase students’ likelihood of success:
With the United States’ ever-growing immigrant population, English Language Learners will continue to make up a larger and larger portion of U.S. students. Schools have traditionally struggled to incorporate English language learning during the school day and often are unable to maximize the assets that ELLs bring to the classroom and offer the informal and flexible learning environment that ELLs need. However, quality afterschool programs, with less rigid structures, provide an environment where ELLs can hone their English speaking skills so that they can become English proficient and succeed in school. While some afterschool programs are offering these supports and seeing great results among their ELL populations, more programs with expertise in supporting ELLs are needed to keep up with the number of ELL students entering U.S. public schools. Aid from policy makers and increased funding from federal, state and local funding sources can help ELLs gain greater access to beneficial afterschool opportunities so that they can learn English as quickly as possible and join their peers on the pathway to more enriching learning experiences. With adequate supports and attention, today’s ELLs can become bilingual individuals who function well across languages and cultures and valued members of tomorrow's global economy.
1 McNeir, G. & Wambalaba, J. (2006). Literacy in Afterschool Programs: Focus on English Language Learners. Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory Literature Review. Retrieved from, http://www.sedl.org/afterschool/toolkits/literacy/pdf/AST_lit_literature_review_ell.pdf
2 Dolan, S. (2009). Missing Out: Latino Students in American Schools. National Council of La Raza.
3 Foundations for a Brighter Future. (2010). Leveraging Afterschool for English Learner Success: Report from a California Convening.
4 Maxwell, L.A. (2009). Shifting Landscape: Immigration Transforms Communities. Education Week. Vol. 28, No. 7.
5 Goldenberg, C. (2008). Teaching English Language Learners: What the Research Does and Does Not Say. American Educator.
6 National Center for Education Statistics. (2009). Retrieved from, http://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/blueprint/english-learners-diverse-learners.pdf
7 Abedi, J. & Dietel, R. (2004). Challenges in the No Child Left Behind Act for English Language Learners. Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 85.
8 Foundations for a Brighter Future. (2010). Leveraging Afterschool for English Learner Success: Report from a California Convening. Goldenberg, C. (2008). Teaching English Language Learners: What the Research Does and Does Not Say. American Educator.
9 Arslan, A. (2008). Implementing a Holistic Teaching in Modern ELT Classes: Using Technology and Integrating Four Skills. International Journal of Human Sciences. Vol. 5. No. 1.
10 Saunders, W.M., Foorman, B. R. & Carlson, C.D. (2006). Is a Separate Block of Time for Oral English Language Development in Programs for English Learners Needed? The Elementary School Journal. Vol. 107. No. 2.;
Vaughn, S., et. al. (2006). Effectiveness of a Spanish Intervention and an English Intervention for English-Language Learners at Risk for Reading Problems. American Educational Research Journal. Vol. 43. No. 3.;
August, D. & Shanahan, T., eds. (2006). Executive Summary, Developing Literacy in Second-Language Learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p. 4.;
Gersten, R., Baker, S.K., Shanahan, T., Linan-Thompson, S. & Collins, P. (2007). Effective
Literacy and English Language Instruction for English Learners in the Elementary Grades. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
11 London, R.A., Norman, J.R. & Gurantz, O. (2008). The Effect of Afterschool Program Participation on English Language Acquisition. Stanford, CA: John W. Gardner Center for Youth and their Communities.
12 Lee, O. (2005). Science Education with English Language Learners: Synthesis and Research Agenda. Review of Educational Research. Vol. 75. No. 4
Casteel, C.J. & Ballantyne, K.G., eds. (2010). Professional Development in Action: Improving Teaching for English Language Learners. National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition. p. 41.
13 Gandara, P. & Rumberger, R.W. (2007). Resource Needs for California’s English Learners. University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute. p. 3;
Bhattacharya, J. & Quiroga, J. (2009). Learning English & Beyond: A Holistic Approach for Supporting English Learners in Afterschool. California Tomorrow.
14 Gandara, P. & Rumberger, R.W. (2007). Resource Needs for California’s English Learners. University of
California Linguistic Minority Research Institute. p. 3.
15 National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network. (2005). Oral Language and Reading: Reply to Bracken (2005). Developmental Psychology. Vol. 41. Issue 6. pp. 1000-1002.;
Zehr, M. A. (2009). Oral-Language Skills for English-Learners Focus of Researchers. Austin, TX: Education Week, Volume 29, Issue 08.
17 Newhouse, C. (2008). Afterschool Programs in the Central Valley Benefit Children and Youth: Evaluation Results from the 2006-2007 School Year. Central Valley Afterschool Foundation.
18 London, R.A., Norman, J.R., & Gurantz, O. (2008). The Effect of Afterschool Program Participation on English Language Acquisition. Stanford, CA: John W. Gardner Center for Youth and their Communities.
19 Newhouse, C. (2008). Afterschool Programs in the Central Valley Benefit Children and Youth: Evaluation Results from the 2006-2007 School Year. Central Valley Afterschool Foundation.
20 Community Lodgings. Family Learning Center. Retrieved from , http://communitylodgings.homestead.com/Family-Learning-Center.html.
21 Latin American Youth Center. Retrieved from http://www.laycdc.org/images/stories/results/evaluations.highlights.fy09.pdf
22 National Summer Learning Association (2011). Summer Times.
23 Goldsmith, J., Jucovy, L. & Arbreton, A. (2008). Gaining Ground: Supporting English Learners through After- School Literacy Programming. The James Irvine Foundation. Retrieved from,
24 No Child Left Behind, Title IV Part B, Sec. 4205(a)(6).
25 U.S. Department of Education (2003). 21st Century Community Learning Centers, Non-Regulatory Guidance.
26 No Child Left Behind, Title III, Sec. 3115(d)(4-6).
27 No Child Left Behind, Title III, Sec. 3115(c).
28 The Administration for Children & Families. Refugee School Impact Grant. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from, http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/programs/ref_school_impact.htm.
29 The Administration for Children & Families. Refugee School Impact Grant. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from, http://www.acf.hhs.gov/grants/open/foa/view/HHS-2010-ACF-ORR-ZE-0038/html.
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