A new report put out by the U.S. Department of Education reveals that the number of children ages 5 to 17 who spoke a language other than English at home and who spoke English with difficulty more than doubled between 1979 and 2003.
The report from the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that the number of school-age children who spoke a language other than English at home rose by 161 percent. The number of children in this group who spoke a non-English language at home and also spoke English with difficulty increased by 124 percent.
Xiaochin Yan is an Education Policy Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. Yan, a native of China who speaks English fluently, says it is very easy for illegal and legal immigrant children to become linguistically isolated. “A lot of schools don't have the teachers and the resources to teach these students,” she says, “and a lot of them get misdiagnosed as 'special ed' or having learning disabilities.”
In many cases, Yan notes, children have been misdiagnosed because their minor speech problems have been masked by a lack of English proficiency. Some students, she points out, “may just have a speech impediment, and they're not speaking English; so, therefore, they're not doing well in the classroom.”
The education policy researcher is concerned by the National Center for Education Statistics' finding that, in less than 25 years, the number of U.S. students who could not speak English properly grew from 1.3 million to 2.9 million. She believes the growing number of English-illiterate students in American schools today can be attributed in part to factors associated with surging illegal immigration.
This is important information to consider, Yan says, and she asserts that “for the number of children who are not able to speak English very proficiently at home, the large reason is because many of the parents do not speak English at home, and it makes it much more difficult for the children to learn English.”
In her experience, Yan notes, education programs that encourage students to learn in the target language work best. The schools that have the most success in getting children who are not native English speakers to make the transition to English, she says, are those schools that use full immersion rather than bilingual education programs.