Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Illinois Aims to Help English Language Learners Get an Early Start

Illinois is working to ensure that English language learners start bilingual education classes even before they enter kindergarten. A new report by the New America Foundation details how the state is working to provide special services for ELLs beginning in its pre-K program.

The state plans to implement the new regulations fully by 2014. The requirements include training teachers on how to instruct ELLs, determining how to evaluate such children and developing instruction models specifically targeting ELL students.

But many critics believe that the requirements might be impossible to meet. The report  by policy analyst Maggie Severns notes that the changes have been controversial. Previously, bilingual education wasn’t offered until kindergarten. ”Debates are erupting among advocates and opponents of the regulations alike over whether Illinois’ bilingual pre-K regulations are developmentally appropriate, whether the state will be able to fund the programs using the existing state bilingual budget, and whether Illinois can successfully recruit a qualified workforce for bilingual/ESL classrooms,” she writes.

A shortage of certified bilingual and ESL teachers who also are trained in early childhood education is an additional challenge. However, some universities in the state are now offering specialized training in the area. Many districts still are finding it difficult to comply with regulations.

In 2010, there were 183,522 ELLs attending Illinois schools in grades PK-12.

The study notes that developing an English proficiency screening program for children so young has also prompted debate. Currently, the preschool programs use the pre-IPT, a 20-minute listening and speaking exam given by a teacher.

While critics question whether the expectations are realistic, the report ends on a hopeful note–that early investment may mean less cost later. ”Illinois may be making a shrewd investment by focusing on ELLs during their early years, gaining savings from students spending fewer years in bilingual/ESL programs, needing less remediation in the later grades, and achieving long-term gains from increased graduation rates in high school and a better-educated workforce,” the report concludes.

If you’re not in Illinois, does your state offer bilingual and/or ESL pre-K courses? What sort of program requirements exist?