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English proficiency is one of the most in-demand skills in the global job market. Latin American countries have made significant investments to provide opportunities for English Language Learning (ELL) in their public-school systems, but there is still much to be done to ensure their quality. To advance the ELL agenda in the region, on August 8, 2018 the Inter-American Dialogue held the first Regional Forum on English Language Learning in Latin America in Panama City, in partnership with the Panamanian Ministry of Education and with support from Pearson. The event brought together over thirty participants from 10 different countries to share their countries’ experiences with ELL programs, in order to identify common challenges, lessons learned and opportunities for regional collaboration on this topic.
The event began with opening remarks by Eneida López, director of the Ministry of Education’s Panama Bilingüe program, Gina Garcés, Vice Minister of Education of Panama, and Ariel Fiszbein, Education Program Director at the Inter-American Dialogue. Participants then engaged in a roundtable discussion, during which they shared their perspectives on the main challenges and lessons surrounding English language instruction, based on their experiences working in ELL programs.
Key messages from the discussion included:
Policy frameworks for ELL programs:
- Passing legislation on ELL is important, but not enough: Almost all countries seem to be experiencing issues financing English language programs and ensuring their sustainability. In most contexts having a law or policy on English language instruction helps to prioritize the issue politically and guarantee financial resources for these programs. However, participants agreed that laws do not always lead to implementation nor the continuity of programs.
- Effective legislation on ELL contains explicit and measurable goals, a budget, and an agency dedicated to executing the strategy: One way to promote the sustainability of programs is to pass ELL legislation that explicitly assigns responsibilities to different actors and entrust the execution of the law to a specific entity, whether within or outside the Ministry of Education.
- At the same time, it is important to develop formal and informal networks that support implementation: Participants mentioned the importance of complementing legislation with multisectoral commissions that work to ensure the law’s enforcement, and of creating civil society groups that encourage greater demand for high-quality ELL programs and promote government accountability.
English teachers in Latin America:
- There are not enough English teachers in Latin America with the necessary linguistic and pedagogical skills: Participants stressed that the main challenges facing ELL programs today relate to teachers’ proficiency levels, the inadequate quality of pre-service teacher training (stemming in part from a lack of measurable standards), the weak connection between pre-service and in-service training, and the unequal access to in-service training opportunities, among others.
- Countries need to improve their ELL teacher policies: There was consensus around the need to develop a comprehensive ELL teacher policy. Some elements to consider include:
- Policymakers must develop data-driven strategies: The participants’ experiences (particularly those of Chile and Costa Rica) pointed to the need to collect more and better data on teachers to guide recruiting, training and certification efforts. Investing in data collection is crucial to developing sound policies.
- Policymakers should make better use of technology in ELL, both as a pedagogical tool in the classroom and as a tool to provide continuous support to teachers: In order to maximize the impact of technology in ELL, 1). Programs must have monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to measure their impact on English proficiency levels, and 2). Teachers must receive adequate training on their use and possess a strong pedagogical background. In other words, technology should complement, not supplant, teachers’ instruction.
- Another strategy that has rendered positive results are teacher support systems such as peer networks: Experiences from Colombia, Mexico and Chile show that teachers benefit significantly from collaborative work in networks or in pairs with other teachers, given that they are often more receptive to this kind of support than to more formal types of supervision.
The event ended with a conversation on opportunities for future collaborative work on this topic. Participants were eager to meet in the future to advance a regional project on one or two specific areas, possibly focusing on teacher evaluations and learning standards.