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A Race Against the Clock

The Value of Expanded Learning Time for English Language Learners

Report from Melissa Lazarín explores the value of expanded learning time for English language learners.

Sister Simone Campbell, left, and Sister Diane Donoghue, right, lead the way as the the
Sister Simone Campbell, left, and Sister Diane Donoghue, right, lead the way as the the "Nuns on the Bus" arrive on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, July 2, 2012, after a nine-state tour to bring stories of hardship to Congress. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

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Time is of the essence for children learning English. Kindergarten English language learners enter school with a vocabulary of 5,000 English words fewer than their native English-speaking peers. ELLs must not only learn a new language; they must keep pace with their English-proficient classmates who are continuing to rapidly grow their vocabulary and further develop their already advanced literacy skills. More than two-thirds (69 percent) of English language learners are citizens by birth or naturalization and begin their education in U.S. schools, but for those newcomers who enter the U.S. school system in later grades, time and the constraints of the traditional school day pose a particularly serious challenge.

Expanded learning time, a schoolwide strategy that entails redesigning and lengthening the school day and/or year to help support teaching and learning for all students, can be particularly beneficial for ELLs. Current efforts to promote the expansion of learning time suggest increasing the school day by two hours or lengthening the year by 360 hours—the equivalent of at least 30 percent more learning time. This additional time can be pivotal in closing both the academic and language gap for ELLs.

Time plays a unique role in the educational career of the English language learner. Time affects the facility of learning a new language and the likelihood of high school graduation, especially among immigrant ELLs in high school. This report reviews some of the relevant research findings as well as examples of existing initiatives that include this population. Surprisingly, only limited research examines the effect of expanded learning opportunities, including after-school programs, on English language learners’ educational success. Additional research is clearly needed given the growing presence of this population in our schools. The little evidence that does exist suggests that English learners have much to benefit from expanded learning time. And schools and districts that have incorporated more academic learning time appear to confirm these research findings.

While expanded learning time initiatives appear to hold significant promise for English language learners, it is important to have whole-school implementation. Unless all students in a school are involved, redesigning the school schedule to maximize the opportunities of additional time is unlikely and success will be limited. Both the research and schools’ experience incorporating expanded learning time suggest that more time is a necessity for ELLs, but all students benefit from expanded learning time.

This report will examine the role that time plays in their education and learning, and how the expansion of learning time can be a key strategy in improving educational outcomes for ELLs. Some schools and districts have already begun to recognize the valuable role that time can play in educating students who are learning English and are now offering before-, after-, or summer school learning opportunities to this population. This report will highlight some of these examples, providing insight into how a few districts and schools are approaching expanded learning opportunities for ELLs and lessons learned in the process.

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Melissa Lazarín

Senior Policy Adviser