Language and literacy skills of English Language Learners in middle school (grades 7-9): How do they compare to their monolingual peers?

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  • Language and literacy skills in English are essential for academic success for English Language Learners (ELLs) but very little research exists on second language oral and literacy skills of ELLs in middle school. For this research report, the oral language and literacy skills of 227 students - ELLs and their monolingual classmates in grades 7-9 - were examined and compared. The objectives were 1) to assess the extent of differences between ELL and monolingual students, 2) to examine the relationship between oral language and reading skills, and 3) to determine the sources of individual differences in ELLs’ performance to better understand the pathways to success and what could signal which ELLs could be at risk of falling behind. Oral language tests measured vocabulary breadth and depth and grammatical knowledge. Literacy was measured through a standardized reading comprehension test. Background information about students’ language and literacy activities outside the classroom and parental education levels was obtained through a detailed questionnaire.
    Our key findings include: 1) Many ELLs showed lower performance on oral language and literacy tests than their monolingual classmates even after several years of schooling in English in Canada. 2) ELLs who arrived in Canada in later childhood/adolescence showed lower performance than ELLs who had been in Canadian schools for at least seven years. The majority of the late arrivals performed below age expectations. 3) ELLs’ oral language skills strongly predicted reading comprehension outcomes. 4) ELLs who frequently engaged in reading activities outside the classroom showed stronger reading scores. Frequent engagement in listening activities like TV shows, movies or music, had a negative effect on reading scores.
    The main implications and recommendations are: 1) Many ELL students in middle and early high-school might be at risk for lower academic performance due to insufficient language and literacy skills. There should be adequate ESL support for ELLs in middle school, even those that have been in the Canadian school system for extended periods of time. 2) Support for ELLs should focus on both oral language and literacy. Just promoting reading might not be effective in providing adequate ESL support. 3) ELLs should be encouraged to engage in text-based activities over listening activities in their leisure time.

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    Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International