AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: new standards for English learners in American public schools.
RS: One in nine public school students is a non-native English speaker; in twenty years, it could be one in four. The largest percentage speak Spanish. The next largest, at just four percent, speak Vietnamese. Students bring a long list of languages to America's classrooms. But there is no national policy about how to teach English.
AA: We learned all this from our guest. Kathleen Leos is an assistant deputy secretary of Education, in the Office of English Language Acquisition. She says the states face new requirements under the Bush administration's federal education law, passed by Congress in two thousand one. Not only do they have to develop English language proficiency standards, they have to link them to academic content standards in reading, math, science and social studies.
KATHLEEN LEOS: "Non-English speaking students are held to the same targets in academic achievement and expectation as native speakers. However, there's different approaches and different ways to get there.
"I think it's important to remember that you don't take a content test until the third grade. Most of the non-English speaking students in this country come into classrooms kindergarten and first grade. So they're learning the language with new academic language, not just social and communicative skills."
AA: "What about for students who come in later? Are they given more time to learn?"
KATHLEEN LEOS: "A student that's considered a recent arrival or newly arrived to the U.S. public schools, doesn't take a content test until after the second year of being in a classroom to learn language. And so even though after the first year they may take a math test, none of the scores are included in the new accountability system until after the second year. So there's a lot more flexibility that's given than what was originally intended in the law."
AA: "That was because there was some pushback from the states, wasn't there?"
KATHLEEN LEOS: "No, it was because the research -- we've been working with researchers, oh, since I first got here. And what we've been trying to do is figure out together what is it that is reasonable assessment aligned to your new content standards. What I think a lot of people heard for a while is a lot of either misinformation, misunderstanding and what I call complaining based on information that was not out there fast enough."
RS: "In the meantime, what's happening around the country, how do -- "
KATHLEEN LEOS: "Well, what's happening is what has been happening for thirty years -- not a lot. There are 'pockets of brilliance' that go on around the country. There are lot of schools that are doing really, really good things with non-English speaking students. But what I've described is a new comprehensive system that's systemic and systematic. And it takes time to develop and get that all the way down into the classroom. We're probably about halfway there.
"The next focus, the next big push and drive out of the door is this aligned instruction -- I mean curriculum, with aligned instructional strategies. Along with that will be money for professional development and retraining of teachers."
RS: "How would you see this developing in a classroom?"
KATHLEEN LEOS: "Over the next five years, what will happen is with the new aligned curriculum and the new research-based strategies that are now being published right now -- they just went to the publishers November twenty-first -- is that teachers will have the tools that they need to approach multiple languages in classrooms.
"And some of the approaches that are important for teachers to be able to use -- and this is what the science, you're going to hear this in about a month as the books are being published. The approach for not only in the language development but especially for pre-literacy and literacy skills are the same that are being used from the National Reading Panel for monolingual English-speaking students, which is development of sound.
"The discrete articulation of sound is extremely important for non-English speakers. And what does that mean? Well, that's phonics and phonemic awareness, embedded with vocabulary. Lots of literature in the classroom, so that students are familiar in content -- vocabulary out of context isn't going to make a lot of sense. And structured in what we call explicit instruction. Our children are not used to being taught explicitly in classrooms. That's a different kind of teaching philosophy that kids will pick it up because they're interested, and that's just absolutely not true."
RS: Kathleen Leos is assistant deputy secretary of Education, in the Office of English Language Acquisition.
AA: She tells us there's no interest in threatening to withhold federal education money if states do not follow the new standards -- at least not yet, she says.
RS: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is [email protected], and we're online at voanews.com/wordmaster. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.