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Language Access in Education: Bridging the Gap

A woman teaching a young lady something on her tablet.

One of the hallmarks of the American educational system is inclusivity and access. The U.S. Constitution requires that all children have equal access to free K-12 education, regardless of their race, religion, economic status or citizenship.

That includes children who do not speak English as their primary language, children who are not citizens or who are in the country illegally, and children who are Deaf and hard of hearing. That right dates back to a 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, where justices acknowledged and codified into law that every child is entitled to the same education.

Many people view that Supreme Court decision through the lens of segregation. However, the broad implication of the court decision extends well beyond that initial scope. Subsequent rulings interpreted and upheld that decision, and Congress passed additional laws to ensure that all children have access to a complete and free education. That includes children with limited-English proficiency (LEP), also known as English language learners (ELLs).  


A Diverse (and Growing) Population of LEP Students

The U.S. has more immigrants than any other country, with over 40 million people living in America who were not born here. According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), about 61 million people speak a language other than English at home. Of those, about 25 million (around 8% of the population), speak English “less than very well,” which is the threshold to define LEP.

In the 2014-2015 school year (the most recent year for which the Department of Education has data), more than 4.8 million ELLs were enrolled in U.S. schools. That is about 10% of the total K-12 student population. It might come as no surprise that LEP students are heavily concentrated in states like California, Florida, New Mexico, Nevada and Texas. But some of the areas that saw the fastest growth in ELL populations between 2010 and 2015 were in Colorado, Kentucky, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming.


Barriers for LEP Students in Education

Students in U.S. classrooms who do not speak English proficiently or are Deaf or hard of hearing face several barriers. They often have difficulty:

  • Understanding instructions from teachers
  • Comprehending complex written text
  • Writing essays that are coherent and comprehensive
  • Making oral presentations to peers or teachers
  • Understanding and passing exams administered in English, including grade-level standardized tests, and tests for college admission (SAT or ACT)

When ELL students miss key concepts during classroom instruction, they may fall behind their peers and have a harder time catching up. If they have to miss classes for health or personal reasons, the effect of falling behind is often much more significant for LEP students than English-proficient students. The challenges of falling behind also compound year over year. Students that can pass one grade may still not be fully prepared for the next grade, and the gaps in academic achievement only grow as the student gets older.

Without adequate resources, teachers have a hard time helping students get caught up when they fall behind. Teachers are already juggling state and federal education requirements and the needs of the other 20 to 30 students in a classroom.

The global COVID-19 pandemic also amplified barriers for LEP students in recent years, as learning went from being in a classroom to online and virtual schooling. Students and parents struggled to participate in virtual classrooms without consistent access to interpreters and other necessary resources to participate fully in learning.


Barriers for LEP parents and guardians

Students and teachers are not the only ones who face challenges. LEP parents or guardians often face their own set of hurdles. They may not understand English well enough to read materials the student brings home, including documents that require a signature. They may not be able to fully participate in parent-teacher conferences to understand how their child is doing in school or what resources the child needs to succeed. They may miss registration deadlines or enrollment information or not be able to properly read the information on a report card, nondiscrimination notice or handbook. They may miss out on getting a child enrolled in special education programs that could help. Students may be asked (or forced) to interpret for their parents in situations where there is no access to a qualified interpreter, putting everyone at a disadvantage.


Current Laws and Requirements for Language Access in Education

U.S. laws require that schools provide interpretation and translation services for LEP students and parents. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI) and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 (EEOA) both require that public schools offer support and services so students and parents can participate “meaningfully and equally” in educational activities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also includes guidance for accommodating  deaf or hard of hearing students. That means:

  • Providing sufficient staffing for ELL programs
  • Avoiding unnecessary segregation for LEP students or parents/guardians
  • Providing language support in a person’s native language, including American Sign Language (ASL)
  • Offering translated documents and notifications of things like nondiscrimination policies and the availability of language support

Schools that receive any federal funding must comply with these laws. They also must offer language services to parents or guardians, even if their child is proficient in English. Schools cannot ask students, friends, or other family members to act as an unofficial translator and cannot offer up untrained staff members who speak another language to act as a translator. Many state-level laws require specific language support services or help for students, parents or guardians, and educators in addition to the federal laws.


How Quality Language Support Improves Learning Environments for Everyone

Offering adequate language support benefits LEP students, parents and guardians, and educators. It also benefits the English-proficient students learning alongside their ELL and LEP peers. With language support, students get:

  • Instruction and guidance in their native language
  • The opportunity to ask questions or clarify concepts when they don’t understand
  • Test-taking materials in a language they understand
  • A clear understanding of what is required to pass a class or move to the next grade level

Parents also get a clearer understanding of what their student is doing in school and what resources are available to help them succeed.

Ideally, schools will have on-site interpreting available at all times for LEP students. These interpreters can provide a better language support experience for students and teachers because they can evaluate and incorporate things like facial expressions and body language into the conversation. Studies show that nonverbal communication plays a big role in the effectiveness of classroom instruction and student success. 

When in-person interpreting is not available or not feasible, the next best option is video remote interpreting. Millions of students, teachers, and parents who were thrust into online learning because of COVID-19 had to use video remote interpreting services as an alternative to in-person. This option can still provide a high level of support for LEP and ELL students and parents when it’s not safe or not possible to have an interpreter there in person.  


Providing the Support Students Need & Deserve

Working with a language support service that offers highly qualified interpreters in multiple languages to accommodate your students’ needs is the best way to ensure equal access to education for everyone. Get in touch and learn how GLOBO can help  improve language access for your school today. 


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