Strategies for Success: Engaging Immigrant Students
in Secondary Schools. ERIC Digest.
by Walqui, Aida
High dropout rates among language-minority secondary school students
are one indication that many schools are failing to adequately support
the needs of these students. The belief that student dropout is due to
a lack of proficiency in English often leads educators to overlook the
economic, cultural, academic, and personal issues that immigrant adolescents
must confront on a daily basis. To be effective, programs must begin with
a compassionate understanding of these students and recognize and build
on the identity, language, and knowledge they already possess. Instruction
developed for native-English-speaking students may not be appropriate for
students who are still learning English. To engage immigrant adolescents
in school, educators must provide them with avenues to explore and strengthen
their ethnic identities and languages while developing their ability to
study and work in this country. This digest discusses 10 principles for
developing effective teaching and learning contexts for immigrants adolescents
and profiles one program that has been successful in promoting the academic
success of its students by implementing these principles.
TEN PRINCIPLES OF EFFECTIVE INSTRUCTION FOR IMMIGRANT STUDENTS
1. The culture of the classroom fosters the development of a community
of learners, and all students are part of that community.
Immigrant teenagers bring a variety of experiences to the classroom
that, if tapped, can serve as a springboard for new explorations that enrich
everyone's experience. In effective classrooms, teachers and students together
construct a culture that values the strengths of all participants and respects
their interests, abilities, languages, and dialects. Students and teachers
shift among the roles of expert, researcher, learner, and teacher, supporting
themselves and each other.
2. Good language teaching involves conceptual and academic development.
Effective English as a second language (ESL) classes focus on themes
and develop skills that are relevant to teenagers and to their studies
in mainstream academic classes. Immigrant students need to learn not only
new content, but also the language and discourse associated with the discipline.
Therefore, all subject matter classes must have a language focus as well.
Effective teaching prepares students for high-quality academic work
by focusing their attention on key processes and ideas and engaging them
in interactive tasks that allow them to practice using these processes
and concepts. ESL teachers need to know the linguistic, cognitive, and
academic demands that they are preparing their students for and help them
develop the necessary proficiencies. Content-area teachers need to determine
the core knowledge and skills that these students need to master.
3. Students' experiential backgrounds provide a point of departure and
an anchor in the exploration of new ideas.
Immigrant adolescents know a great deal about the world, and this knowledge
can provide the basis for understanding new concepts in a new language.
Students will learn new concepts and language only when they build on previous
knowledge and understanding. Some students have been socialized into lecture
and recitation approaches to teaching, and they expect teachers to tell
them what lessons are about. But by engaging in activities that involve
predicting, inferring based on prior knowledge, and supporting conclusions
with evidence, students will realize that they can learn actively and that
working in this way is fun and stimulating.
4. Teaching and learning focus on substantive ideas that are organized
To work effectively with English learners, teachers must select the
themes and concepts that are central to their discipline and to the curriculum.
The curriculum should be organized around the cyclical reintroduction of
concepts at progressively higher levels of complexity and interrelatedness.
Cyclical organization of subject matter leads to a natural growth in the
understanding of ideas and to gradual correction of misunderstandings.
5. New ideas and tasks are contextualized.
English language learners often have problems trying to make sense of
decontextualized language. This situation is especially acute in the reading
of textbooks. Secondary school textbooks are usually linear, dry, and dense,
with few illustrations. Embedding the language of textbooks in a meaningful
context by using manipulatives, pictures, a few minutes of a film, and
other types of realia can make language comprehensible to students. Teachers
may also provide context by creating analogies based on students' experiences.
However, this requires that the teacher learn about students' backgrounds,
because metaphors or analogies that may work well with native English speakers
may not clarify meanings for English language learners. In this sense,
good teachers of immigrant students continually search for metaphors and
analogies that bring complex ideas closer to the students' world experiences.
6. Academic strategies, sociocultural expectations, and academic norms
are taught explicitly.
Effective teachers develop students' sense of autonomy through the explicit
teaching of strategies that enable them to approach academic tasks successfully.
The teaching of such metacognitive strategies is a way of scaffolding instruction;
the goal is to gradually hand over responsibility to the learners as they
acquire skills and knowledge.
Delpit (1995) argues that the discourse of power--the language used
in this country to establish and maintain social control--should also be
taught explicitly, because it is not automatically acquired. Guidance and
modeling can go a long way toward promoting awareness of and facility with
this discourse. For example, preferred and accepted ways of talking, writing,
and presenting are culture specific. Developing student awareness of differences,
modeling by teachers of preferred styles, and study by students themselves
of differences and preferred styles are three steps in the development
of proficiency and autonomy that need to be included in the education of
language minority students.
7. Tasks are relevant, meaningful, engaging, and varied.
Some research indicates that most classes for immigrant students are
monotonous, teacher-fronted, and directed to the whole class; teacher monologues
are the rule (Ramirez & Merino, 1990). If students do not interact
with each other, they do not have opportunities to construct their own
understandings and often become disengaged. Because immigrant students
are usually well behaved in class, teachers are not always aware that they
are bored and are not learning. Good classes for immigrant students not
only provide them with access to important ideas and skills, but also engage
them in their own constructive development of understandings.
8. Complex and flexible forms of collaboration maximize learners' opportunities
to interact while making sense of language and content.
Collaboration is essential for second language learners, because to
develop language proficiency they need opportunities to use the language
in meaningful, purposeful, and enticing interactions (Kagan & McGroarty,
1993). Collaborative work needs to provide every student with substantial
and equitable opportunities to participate in open exchange and elaborated
discussions. It must move beyond simplistic conceptions that assign superficial
roles, such as being the "go getter" or the "time keeper" for the group
(Adger et al., 1995). In these collaborative groups, the teacher is no
longer the authority figure. Students work autonomously, taking responsibility
for their own learning. The teacher provides a task that invites and requires
each student's participation and hands over to the students the responsibility
for accomplishing the task or solving the problem.
9. Students are given multiple opportunities to extend their understandings
and apply their knowledge.
One of the goals of learning is to be able to apply acquired knowledge
to novel situations. For English learners, these applications reinforce
the development of new language, concepts, and academic skills as students
actively draw connections between pieces of knowledge and their contexts.
Understanding a topic of study involves being able to carry out a variety
of cognitively demanding tasks (Perkins, 1993).
10. Authentic assessment is an integral part of teaching and learning.
Assessment should be done not only by teachers, but also by learners,
who assess themselves and each other. Considerable research supports the
importance of self-monitoring of language learning (O'Malley & Chamot,
1989). Authentic assessment activities engage second language learners
in self-directed learning, in the construction of knowledge through disciplined
inquiry, and in the analysis of problems they encounter.
CALEXICO HIGH SCHOOL: RESTRUCTURING FOR SUCCESS
Calexico High School in Calexico, California, is attempting to put the
principles described above into practice. Calexico is a bilingual/bicultural
community on the southern border of the United States; 98% of the students
are Latino, and 80% are English language learners.
Once an unsupportive environment for English language learners, Calexico
High School now operates with a philosophy that is based on such principles
as respect for students' culture, language, and background; a strong belief
that all students can learn; and equal opportunities for all students to
pursue further education. Calexico staff view bilingualism as an asset
for the future and strive to develop academic proficiency, regardless of
language. They have eliminated the tracking system and have high expectations
for all students.
An efficient system of counseling is in place that provides support
ranging from interventions to sustain or improve academic success to coordination
with agencies outside the school that provide social services. Groups of
students are organized into academies and supervised by teams of teachers
to help all students feel connected academically. In addition, the school
actively involves parents by holding all school meetings in Spanish and
English and by having bilingual/bicultural staff that develop and maintain
connections between home and school.
Learning English is given utmost importance. However, teachers realize
that developing second language fluency is a long process, and that while
it is essential to continue supporting and nurturing language development,
cognitive growth also has an impact on long-range academic outcomes. Strong
support is given to continuous development of students' academic skills.
Three language options are available for required courses: They may
be taught through Spanish, English, or sheltered English. The same number
of credits are granted for all options, and all options provide academically
challenging study for students that will open doors to postsecondary education
and other opportunities.
Through their commitment to providing all students with more opportunities
to succeed, the staff at Calexico High School have created a highly effective
secondary school program for immigrant students. (For a description of
other successful secondary school programs for immigrant students, see
The 10 principles of effective programs discussed in this digest can
contribute to the success of immigrant secondary school students by creating
positive and engaging learning contexts. A strong commitment to the educational
success of immigrant students is ultimately the foundation for all successful
programs. For society, this commitment involves supporting the development
of effective programs through resources, funding, professional development,
Adger, C., Kalyanpur, M., Peterson, D., & Bridger, T. (1995). "Engaging
students: Thinking, talking, cooperating." Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Delpit, L. (1995). "Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the
classroom." New York, NY: The New Press.
Kagan, S., & McGroarty, M. (1993). Principles of cooperative learning
for language and content gains. In D.D. Holt (Ed.), "Cooperative learning:
A response to linguistic and cultural diversity" (pp.47-66). McHenry, IL,
and Washington, DC: Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics.
O'Malley, J.M., & Chamot, A.U. (1989). "Learning strategies in second
language acquisition." Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Perkins, D. (1993). "An apple for education: Teaching and learning for
understanding" (EdPress Elam Lecture, Rowan College of New Jersey). Glasboro,
Ramirez, J.D., & Merino, B.J. (1990). Classroom talk in English
immersion, early-exit, and late-exit transitional bilingual education programs.
In R. Jacobson & C. Faltis (Eds.), "Language distribution issues in
bilingual schooling" (pp. 61-103). Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.
Walqui, A. (2000). "Access and engagement: Program design and instructional
approaches for immigrant students in secondary schools." McHenry, IL, and
Washington, DC: Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics.
This digest is drawn from "Access and Engagement: Program Design and
Instructional Approaches for Immigrant Students in Secondary Schools,"
by Aida Walqui, the fourth volume in the Topics in Immigrant Education