William T. Grant Scholar Guanglei Hong on the Benefits of Early Instruction for English Language Learners

Guanglei Hong is using advanced statistics to understand the nature of educational settings and the ways that public policies and teachers’ practices affect the academic growth of immigrant-origin students whose first language is not English.

As a native Mandarin speaker, Hong continued to work on her English language skills throughout her graduate studies in the U.S. But Hong’s interest in the education experiences of immigrant children was piqued while at the University of Toronto, where researchers debated how many years of English language learning (ELL) support were necessary for learning academic English, and which types of ELL programs would be most effective. As a William T. Grant Scholar, over the past five years, Hong has been deeply involved in investigating these questions. This work is a natural extension of her interest in understanding how schools accommodate diversity in developmental stages, academic proficiency, and language background among age-grouped children within the existing organizational structure.

Hong’s William T. Grant Scholars award, “Causal Inference Methods for Studying Instruction Effects for Language Minority Students,” examined the short- and long-term effects of providing ELL services in kindergarten and first grade on students’ math learning throughout the elementary school years. Using a non-randomized study of about 3,000 language minority students from kindergarten through the fifth grade, Hong and her colleagues set out to answer complex questions, such as how to assess the benefit of an additional year of ELL support, and why a given ELL program produces (or fails to produce) its impact. She explains, “I ask how we can find empirical answers from the best data at hand and how to avoid being misled by spurious associations in the data.”

Hong’s research revealed that the number of years a student receives ELL services, the form in which ELL services are implemented, and the ways that teachers organize math instruction in a language-diverse classroom all affect learning. If language-minority kindergartners are incorrectly placed in a group of students with lower math skill levels, for example, it can be detrimental to their future academic achievement. Hong and her colleagues also found that ELL support in kindergarten boosted the math skills of Spanish-speaking children—a benefit that was maintained through the fifth grade. An additional year of ELL support beyond kindergarten, however, did not appear to have any clear added value to these students’ math learning. But the researchers caution that these results should not be generalized to Spanish-speaking students’ English language learning or learning in other subject areas.

Hong also evaluated whether different ELL programs had an equal impact on student engagement in the classroom, based on teacher observations. In general, immigrant-origin students who experienced difficulty comprehending others and communicating their own ideas tended to become marginalized. These students may fail to follow instruction and may eventually lose interest in learning.

Experts usually argue that it takes more than several years before an English language learner achieves a level of English proficiency comparable to that of native English speakers. Altogether, Hong’s investigations reveal that ELL services may help overcome important barriers to class participation in the first year of schooling and may generate a benefit that seems to be long-lasting.

Hong credits the Scholars award for giving her the opportunity to conduct research that might otherwise have been hard to launch. “The value of the Scholars award far surpasses the financial support it provides,” says Hong. “Perhaps more importantly, the Scholars award granted me membership in a community in which everyone is driven by the desire to improve the lives of young people, regardless of their disciplinary background or methodological approaches. The community is formed to promote human development—not only to advance the well-being of those whom we study, but also to nurture our own well-being. As a graduate of the Scholars program, I feel I must carry that same spirit forward.”


A version of this profile originally appeared in our 2014 Annual Report.