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History of ELL

English Language Learners

The United States experienced phenomenal growth in the number of English-language learners over the first decade of the 21st century, expanding the need in many public schools to provide special language instruction. Texas implemented the English Language Proficiency Standards (ELPS) in December 2007 to address the needs of non-English speaking students.  The ELPS require all content teachers to incorporated instruction in the four language domains of listening, speaking, reading, and writing within the subject area instruction.

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*Bilingual education in the United States dates back farther than you might imagine – as far back as the first settlements in North America in 1664. In addition to many Native-American languages, at least eighteen languages were spoken in the U.S. in the 17thcentury. During the 18th and 19th centuries, groups with various cultural and linguistic backgrounds continued to settle across the country, and starting in 1839 some states began to adopt bilingual education laws that authorized instruction in languages other than English. 

However, during the first few decades of this century, immigrants – especially those in large urban areas – were taught to assimilate and encouraged to replace their own cultural heritage with a more “American” one (a trend commonly attributed to the changing political winds of WWI).  Although some communities taught students in their native languages, non-English speakers were often “submerged” in the English-only classroom with no second language instruction.  By the mid-1920s, most bilingual schools throughout the country were dismantled, and English-only instruction continued until the 1960’s, when the government stepped in again to sanction bilingual programs. 

1963—Largely as a result of the rise in the number of Cuban immigrants during the 1960s, the first large-scale government-sanctioned bilingual program was initiated in Dade County, Florida, and soon became an unofficial model for the nation. Educators from all over the country came to examine the curriculum in an effort to investigate the use of bilingual schooling for English Language Learners (ELL).

1966—TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages), a professional organization, was established in response to the increased demand for ESL materials and methodologies due to the influx of immigrants, refugees, and international students to the United States.

1968—Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act under Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This represented the first national acknowledgment of the special educational needs of non/limited-English speaking children. Under Title VII’s “poverty criterion” for eligibility, however, bilingual education was seen as a strategy for “repudiating the effects of poverty and cultural disadvantage”.

1974—A suit by the Puerto Rican Legal and Educational Fund resulted in a Federal court order that required the New York City chancellor of education to develop adequate bilingual programs that included intensive English instruction and some content instruction in Spanish. 

1974—In the pivotal Lau vs. Nichols case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Lau and 1,789 other Chinese students in San Francisco were being denied access to equal educational opportunities because they could not sufficiently understand the language of instruction. The Lau case set the expectation that school systems must adopt some kind of comprehensive strategy that addressed the needs of non-English speaking students, though the Court refused to mandate any particular model.

1984—The majority of programs funded by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) were re-organized into two divisions. Title I provides money for disadvantaged students, as well as migrant education programs. Title II provides block grants to the states under such laws as “Ethnic Heritage Act” and the “Emergency School Aid Act.” Funding for Limited English Proficient (LEP) students (another term for ELL), comes from all of these programs to varying degrees.

1998—California’s Proposition 227 was passed during the primary election and effectively restructured education for language minority students by mandating a one-year structured English immersion (SEI) program, although parents can choose to opt out of the program.  Proponents of 227 have maintained that LEP students have acquired English at a higher rate since the inception of the proposition in school year 1998-99.  Many academics, however, have found no empirical evidence supporting the assertion that LEP students have benefited from the legislation. 

2000—The frenzied bilingual debate showed no sign of slowing down.  Arizona passed Proposition 203 and effectively ended bilingual education in that state.  Led by California software mogul Ron Unz, the non-profit corporation One Nation, One California is pursuing similar legislation in Colorado, New York, Massachusetts, and Texas.*


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