English language learners' and non–English language learners' perceptions of the classroom environment

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  • Psychology in the Schools, Vol. 46(6), 2009 C 2009 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com) DOI: 10.1002/pits.20398

    ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNERS AND NONENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNERSPERCEPTIONS OF THE CLASSROOM ENVIRONMENT

    COURTNEY LECLAIR, BETH DOLL, ALLISON OSBORN, AND KRISTIN JONES

    University of Nebraska-LincolnThis study examines the degree to which English language learners (ELL) descriptions of class-room supports for learning are similar to or different from the descriptions of non-ELL students.Specifically, the study compared the classroom perceptions of ELL students and general edu-cation students using the ClassMaps Survey (CMS), which includes indices of classroom rela-tionships (teacherstudent, peer, and homeschool) and supports for self-regulation (self-efficacy,self-determination, and self-control). It was hypothesized that the CMS subscale scores woulddiffer for the two student groups. Results indicated that ELL students rated themselves signifi-cantly lower in academic efficacy and rated their classmates as more likely to follow class rulescompared to the ratings of non-ELL students. Implications for practical application of the resultsand suggestions for future research are discussed. C 2009 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

    English language learners (ELLs) represent a growing segment of students in the United States.In fact, nonEnglish-speaking students are the fastest growing subgroup of students among thepublic school population, with their numbers increasing by approximately 10% each year (Kindler,2002; McCardle, Mele-McCarthy, Cutting, Leos, & DEmilio, 2005). An estimated 5.5 millionstudents attending public school in the United States speak a language other than English as theirfirst language (McCardle et al.).

    The U.S. Department of Education describes ELL students as those who did not grow upin a primarily English-speaking setting and lack the skills necessary to learn in an English-onlyenvironment. In particular, students who qualify for ELL services must have been raised in a settingwhere English is not the dominant language (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006). Toqualify for ELL services, students for whom English is not their first language must demonstrate thatthey are unable to learn successfully in English-dominant classrooms, due to insufficient English-language reading, writing, speaking, or listening skills.

    Unfortunately, many ELL students are not succeeding in U.S. classrooms, despite receivingadditional support services. ELL students have lower levels of academic achievement and higher ratesof poverty, mobility, and high school noncompletion than students proficient in English (McCardleet al., 2005; U.S. Department of Commerce, 2004; U.S. Department of Education, 2004). Just 30%of eighth-grade ELL students in the United States achieved at the basic level in reading, comparedto 84% of their European American, non-ELL peers (National Assessment of Educational Progress,2007). Their limited progress in reading is concerning given the impact that reading ability has onstudents decisions to complete school and the association between reading ability and positive lifeoutcomes (Stanovich, 1986). Furthermore, ELL students are more likely to attend underperformingschools and are disproportionately represented in referrals for special education services relativeto their English-proficient peers (Artiles & Trent, 2000; Coutinho & Oswald, 2004; Zehler &Fleischman, 2003).

    Enhanced instructional practices, such as strong core instruction and frequent opportunities topractice new skills, may allow ELL students to overcome some of the struggles that they face in U.S.schools. For example, ELL students benefit from the explicit and systematic reading instruction thatis also important for the learning of non-ELL students (Mathes, Pollard-Durodola, Cardenas-Hagan,

    The ClassMaps Survey is available on request from the second author at bdoll2@unl.edu.Correspondence to: Courtney LeClair, Department of Educational Psychology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln,

    35 Teachers College Hall, Lincoln, NE 68588-0345. E-mail: leclair.courtney@gmail.com

    568

  • Perceptions of Classroom Environments 569

    Linan-Thompson, & Vaughn, 2007). In addition, techniques unique to the needs of ELL studentsare important for their success, such as the use of concrete gestures; visual aids; consistent routines,phrases, and language; interactive and engaging instruction; scaffolding; and explanations usingknown or native phrases (Ediger, 2000; Mathes et al., 2007). Many researchers are examining otherways to augment the academic progress of ELL students through the use of various school-basedinstructional interventions (Chiappe, Siegel, & Wade-Woolley, 2002; Fletcher, Coulter, Reschly,& Vaughn, 2004; Graves, Gersten, & Haager, 2004; Gunn, Biglan, Smolkowski, & Ary, 2000;Linan-Thompson, Vaughn, Hickman-Davis, & Kouzekanani, 2003; Vaughn et al., 2006).

    An important but frequently overlooked research question is whether ELL students classroomlearning environments may be affecting their academic progress. Researchers have traditionallyunderemphasized the social and psychological factors that impact students learning, while focusinginstead upon instructional factors that affect students academic progress (Carroll, 1963; Glaser,1982; Masten et al., 2005; Wang & Walberg, 1985). There are many reasons to suspect that thelearning environment may contribute to ELL students school success. First, relational and self-regulatory aspects of classroom environments have been shown to have a significant impact onthe school success of non-ELL students (Doll, LeClair, & Kurien, 2009). A review of the schoollearning research showed that social and emotional variables, as well as classroom climate variables,were equivalent to traditional instructional and cognitive measures in their impact on a studentseducational progress (Wang, Haertel, & Walberg, 1990). In fact, research has demonstrated thatsupportive learning environments can close the gap in learning between socially advantagedand disadvantaged students (Hamre & Pianta, 2005). Perhaps the fact that students spend morethan 15,000 hours in school during their formative years explains why the classroom environmentis so significant in their development (Rutter & Maughan, 2002; Rutter, Maughan, Mortimore,Ouston, & Smith, 1979). If social and psychological factors within the classroom affect non-ELL students performance in the classroom, it is likely that they will also impact ELL studentsprogress.

    Second, classroom learning environments have been shown to affect ELL and non-ELL studentengagement. For non-ELL students, engagement has been defined as observable displays of moti-vation, including intensity of, amount of, and emotional attachment to the effort displayed (Reeve,2002). Students academic engagement is enhanced when they experience autonomy, relatednessto teachers and peers, and an understanding of the environments contingencies, as well as theirown self-efficacy and control (Zimmer-Gembeck, Chipuer, Hanisch, Creed, & McGregor, 2006).These environments tend to be supportive, warm, and structured (Deci, Nezlek, & Sheinman, 1981;Newmann, Wehlage, & Lamborn, 1992; Zimmer-Gembeck et al.). In high school, high levels ofengagement are a significant predictor of grade point average, achievement test scores, and mo-tivation to stay in school (Brand, Felner, Shim, Seitsinger, & Dumas, 2003; Furrer & Skinner,2003; Isakson & Jarvis, 1999; Shernoff & Hoogstra, 2001; Wenztel, 1998). Thus, strong learn-ing environments lead to student engagement, and subsequently to academic success and schoolcompletion.

    Doll and colleagues have identified eight variables from the research on developmental riskand resilience that are significant components of the learning environment with the potential toalter students classroom success (Doll, LeClair et al., 2009; Doll, Zucker, & Brehm, 2004). Theseeight variables include three self-regulatory factors (academic efficacy, self-determination, andbehavioral self-control) and five relational factors (teacherstudent relationship, peer friendships,peer conflict, concerns about bullying, and the homeschool connection). Each of these factors hasbeen demonstrated to affect at least one of the following important outcomes: school completionrates, student engagement within and outside of school, student vocational and prevocational success,and academic performance.

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    Other researchers have examined ways in which similar characteristics of classroom environ-ments affect ELL students academic progress. Szpara and Ahmad (2007) concluded that social andcultural support is essential to creating classroom environments that promote academic achievementand facilitate the transition from the students home culture to his or her new classroom. Social andcultural support can be enhanced by instructors learning about students cultures, family history, andhome life, explicitly voicing high expectations for all students, demonstrating a willingness to helpstudents overcome barriers to academic success, and inviting students to add content from their ownbackgrounds. Doherty and Hilberg (2007) found that increases in achievement among ELL studentswere correlated with teachers use of classroom strategies that included collaboration among stu-dents within small groups, cooperation, and frequent opportunities to dialogue with teachers aboutassignments and work goals. Lesson plans and assignments that allowed students to incorporatetheir home culture and language also contributed to ELL students academic progress (Doherty &Hilberg).

    Fletcher, Bos, and Johnson (1999) compared the accommodation practices of teachers inbilingual education classrooms and general education classrooms for ELL students with learningdisabilities. They found that the achievement of ELL students is increased and classroom cohe-sion and social support are promoted when the classroom has a positive and cooperative learningenvironment in which teachers grouped students together to complete assignments and incorpo-rated students culture and language into the curriculum (Fletcher et al., 1999). Gillanders (2007)conducted a case study of a classroom composed of ELL and non-ELL students and determinedthat the teachers strong relationship with her students enhanced the ELL students social sta-tus and vocabulary skills. The teacher developed the teacherstudent relationship by establishingtrust, learning to communicate without words, showing an interest in the ELL students first lan-guage, and establishing a consistent classroom routine that allowed the ELL students to fullyparticipate.

    Finally, Morrison, Cosden, OFarrell, and Campos (2003) analyzed the differences betweenELL and non-ELL students sense of school belonging as well as the factors contributing to theseperceptions. They defined school belonging as the extent to which students feel personallyaccepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school social environment (p. 87).Results indicated that beginning the fourth grade as an ELL student was associated with lowerperceptions of school belonging across the academic year. Fourth-grade students perceptions ofschool belonging were also influenced by strong peer relationships and teacher report of academicsuccess. The sixth-grade students perceptions of school belonging were not influenced by ELLstatus, but were significantly affected by their peer relationships.

    These studies suggest that supportive classroom environments, characterized by positive andcollaborative interactions with peers and teachers, are important to ELL students academic per-formance. The self-regulatory characteristics found to be important to school success for non-ELLstudents, such as behavioral self-control, self-determination, and academic efficacy, have been lesswell-studied among ELL students. Moreover, no prior studies have examined how ELL studentsclassroom perceptions may be similar to or different from those of their non-ELL peers (Nickolite& Doll, 2008). However, given that classroom environments affect school engagement and ELLstudents are often underengaged in school, a plausible hypothesis is that ELL students perceivemany of these crucial variables to be weaker in their classroom environment.

    The purpose of this study was to examine whether ELL and non-ELL students perceptionsof their general education classroom environments differed. It was hypothesized that these woulddiffer and that ELL students would describe a less welcoming and supportive classroom. Ultimately,this line of research could examine the ways in which ELL students classroom environments mayaffect their school progress.

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    METHOD

    Participants

    Participants in this study included 257 students representing all upper elementary (third throughfifth grade) students attending a neighborhood school on the day of data collection in a medium-sized Midwestern school district. Of these, 37 students (14%) received ELL services for part of eachday. The participants gender and ELL status are detailed in Table 1. Participants ethnicity wasnot identified because of constraints imposed by the school district and the university InstitutionalReview Board (IRB). However, given the high participation rate of the school population in thecurrent study, participants ethnicities were reflective of the school enrollment, which included 61%European American, 14% African American, 13% Asian American, 11% Latino, and 1% NativeAmerican students. Furthermore, 72% of the schools students participated in the free or reducedprice lunch program, 12% qualified for special education services, and 27% participated in theschools ELL program. (The schools ELL enrollment was higher in Kindergarten through secondgrade, and the number of ELL participants in this study was consistent with the number of ELLstudents enrolled in the third through fifth grades). Although the ELL participants in the study didnot report their first language, 50.2% of students in the school districts program for ELL studentsspoke Spanish, 20.3% spoke Vietnamese, 12.9% spoke Arabic, and 7.0% spoke Kurdish, with 46other languages making up the remaining 9.6%.

    Participants were identified as ELL or non-ELL based on their previously established ELLstatus in the school. During initial school registration, students were referred for assessment by theschool districts ELL program if enrollment information indicated that their primary language wasnot English. As part of this assessment, educational and language history information was gatheredfrom the students families, and students speaking, writing, and reading abilities were assessedusing the IDEA Oral Language Proficiency Test (IPT; Williams, Ballard, Tighe, Dalton, & Amori,2004) and the Language Assessment System (CTB/McGraw-Hill, 2008). Using the two assessments,students were categorized into one of six levels of English proficiency. In this district, students withthe lowest levels of English capabilities begin at Level 1 and they progress through to Level 6 as theirproficiency improves. Students in Level 1 need extensive support from their teacher to completesimple tasks, and are categorized as beginning to understand the dominant cultures norms andstandards. In contrast, students in Level 5 or 6 are able to complete complex tasks independently andconverse with others at near-native levels. At the time of this study, there were no Level 1 ELLstudents in the upper elementary grades; all participants in the study were Level 2 or higher. Because11 of the 36 elementary schools in the district offered ELL programming, some participants fromthis schools ELL program were residents of other schools cachement areas, but were being bussedto this school to receive ELL services.

    Measures

    Students perceptions of the eight self-regulatory and relational classroom environment vari-ables important to school success were assessed with the ClassMaps Survey (CMS; Doll et al., 2004).

    Table 1Gender of Study Participants, by ELL StatusELL Status ELL Non-ELL

    GenderMale 25 (68%) 102 (46%)Female 12 (32%) 117 (54%)

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    The CMS is composed of eight subscales, each assessing one key characteristic of the classroom en-vironment. Three subscales assess student self-regulation in the class: academic efficacy (Believingin Me; BIM), self-determination (Taking Charge; TC), and behavioral self-control (Following ClassRules; FCR). Sample items include: I can do as well as most kids in this class (BIM); I learnbecause I want to and not just because the teacher tells me to (TC); and Most kids follow the rulesin this class (FCR).

    Five subscales assess classroom relationships: teacherstudent relationships (My Teacher; MT),homeschool relationships (Talking with My Parents; TWP), peer friendships (My Classmates; MC),peer conflict (Kids in this Class; KITC), and concerns about bullying (I Worry That; IWT). Sampleitems from the subscales include: My teacher likes having me in this class (MT); My parents andI talk about good things I have done in this class (TWP); I have friends to eat lunch with and playwith at recess (MC); Kids in this class tease each other or call each other names (KITC); andI worry that other kids will hurt me on purpose (IWT). The CMS is available by request from thesecond author.

    Each of the subscales in the CMS comprised five to eight items, and the full survey contains55 items. The CMS is intended for students in elementary or middle school. Students select theirresponse from a 4-point Likert scale (Never, Sometimes, Often, or Almost Always). Onthe six positively worded subscales, Never responses were coded as 0, Sometimes as 1,Often as 2, and Almost Always as 3. Thus, more positive responses were those closest to3, whereas the more negative responses were closer to 0. Items on negatively worded subscaleswere reverse-coded to maintain that pattern. Subscale total scores were computed by averagingacross all items in the subscale.

    The reliability of the CMS has been examined in prior research (Doll et al., 2004; Doll, Kurienet al., 2009; Paul, 2005). Coefficient reliability was used because the CMS subscales are relativelybrief, there is no alternative form, and the CMS has a four-item response format. All subscales of theCMS have yielded coefficient values ranging from the upper .80s to mid .90s. The surveys validityhas also been examined. Paul (2005) compared the CMS with the Yale School Climate Survey (HighSchool version; Haynes, Emmons, and Ben-Avie, 1997) and demonstrated correlations rangingfrom .473 to .586 between equivalent subscales of the two surveys. In addition, a confirmatory factoranalysis upheld the eight-factor structure of the surveys subscales (Doll, Kurien et al., 2009).

    ProceduresParents were informed of the study by letter and were given the option of withdrawing their

    child from participation, in accordance with the University of Nebraskas IRB guidelines. No parentsrefused to allow their child to participate in the study, and thus all students in attendance duringthe days the CMS was administered participated in the study. The CMS was administered in thestudents general education classrooms during April and May of 2007. Students completed thesurveys anonymously; only grade and gender were reported on the survey. Students ELL statuswas indicated by a slight difference in the color of the paper on which the CMS was printed.Because some students moved between classrooms and teachers during the day (for ELL, specialeducation, or gifted services), all students completed the CMS in their general education classroomand were instructed to answer the questions with the general education classroom and teacher inmind. A graduate research assistant read the survey aloud to the students, while one or two othergraduate students circled the room, answering questions as needed. The ELL students in each classcompleted the CMS at the same time but were seated together at a table located in the generaleducation classroom. This allowed for the ELL students slower reading and response pace, andmade it possible for a graduate student to monitor their understanding of the survey questions. The

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    ELL grouping strategy was suggested by teachers, because all students in their classrooms wereroutinely and flexibly grouped for different tasks at different times in the school day. It is not likelythat the ELL students responses were affected by the seating arrangement in the room during thesurvey administration as it was consistent with typical classroom practices.

    AnalysesGroup statistics, including means and standard deviations, were computed for the ELL and

    non-ELL participants for each of the eight CMS subscales. The MannWhitney U test, computed toevaluate whether significant differences existed between the two populations perceptions of theirclassroom environment, is a nonparametric significance test that is used to compare distributions ofscores on a quantitative response variable obtained from two groups when the data are not normallydistributed or when the sample is too small to use a traditional t test. The test ensures that Type Ierrors are minimized when working with small sample sizes. For these reasons, the MannWhitneyU test was chosen for this analysis, thereby addressing the unequal sample size between the ELL andnon-ELL participants, the non-normal data distribution of the sample, and the risk for Type I errors.A significance level of 0.05 was used for the MannWhitney U test. The Bonferroni correction wasunnecessary because the different comparisons within the study were independent of one another.

    RESULTSTable 2 describes the means and standard deviations for ELL and non-ELL participants for

    all eight CMS subscales. Mean scores closer to 3 indicated a more positive response to subscaleitems. Means clustered between 2.01 and 2.55 for the eight subscales, indicating mostly positiveresponses for both the ELL students and non-ELL students. Exceptions were FCR (1.85) and TWP(1.80) for non-ELL participants.

    The MannWhitney U test was used to compare the distributions of the CMS subscale scoresobtained from the ELL and non-ELL participants. The MannWhitney U score, z score, and asymp-totes of each subscale are also summarized in Table 2. Results indicate that ELL and non-ELLstudents viewed two aspects of the same general education classroom differently. Specifically, ELLstudents endorsed lower levels of academic efficacy compared to their non-ELL peers (U = 3203,p = .038). This result indicates that they felt less able to do their work correctly, do as well as othersin their class, be a very good student, and get good grades. ELL students also rated their classmates

    Table 2Means, SD Values, and MannWhitney U Test Summary for ELL and Non-ELL Participants

    Mean Subscale Score SDAsymptote

    CMS Subscale ELL Non-ELL ELL Non-ELL MannWhitney U z Score Significance

    Believing in Me 2.07 2.25 0.53 0.51 3203.0 2.08 0.038aTaking Charge 2.13 2.06 0.46 0.55 3909.0 0.39 0.700Following Class Rules 2.02 1.80 0.53 0.63 3187.0 2.12 0.034aMy Teacher 2.55 2.47 0.43 0.53 3793.0 0.67 0.504Talking with My Parents 2.01 1.85 0.72 0.80 3598.5 1.13 0.260My Classmates 2.34 2.24 0.70 0.74 3704.5 0.88 0.379Kids in This Class 2.21 2.11 0.62 0.76 3418.5 0.31 0.754I Worry That 2.14 2.20 0.85 0.80 3299.5 0.31 0.758

    ap < .05.

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    as more likely to follow class rules than did their non-ELL peers (U = 3187, p = .034), believingtheir peers worked quietly and calmly, listened carefully, worked when they were supposed to, andbehaved well even when the teacher wasnt watching. Importantly, significant differences were notfound among the remaining six subscales that measured self-determination, teacherstudent rela-tionships, homeschool relationships, peer friendships, peer conflict, and concerns about bullying.

    DISCUSSIONThe results of the study demonstrated that, in two respects, the hypotheses were upheld and ELL

    and non-ELL students perceptions of their general education classroom differed to a statisticallysignificant degree. ELL students described themselves as having lower levels of academic efficacyand described their non-ELL classmates as having higher levels of behavioral self-control. It is notsurprising that ELL students rated their efficacy lower than non-ELL students. ELL students tend tohave lower academic performance than their non-ELL peers (McCardle et al., 2005; U.S. Departmentof Commerce, 2004; U.S. Department of Education, 2004). Thus, it seems as though ELL studentsmay be just as aware of the discrepancy between ELL and non-ELL academic performance asconcerned administrators and policy makers. Or, perhaps ELL students feel frustrated with theirdiminished performance in English-speaking schools compared to their academic performance intheir countries of origin. The causes of ELL students lowered efficacy must be examined moreclosely in future studies to better understand this phenomenon.

    The second finding, that ELL students rated their class as more orderly and perceived theirclassmates as more consistently following class rules, was less expected. One might anticipate thatELL students lack of familiarity with the classroom environment and procedures would causethem to perceive their environment as more chaotic. Although the mechanism behind this findingis not clear, various explanations are plausible. Perhaps ELL students are better behaved, positivelyinfluencing their perceptions of their peers self-control. It is also possible that classrooms in theELL students native countries were simply less structured, making U.S. classrooms appear moreorganized by comparison. Further research will be necessary to fully explain this apparent differencebetween ELL and non-ELL students. In particular it would be useful to examine shifts in ELLstudents classroom perceptions depending upon their number of years in U.S. schools or their levelof English proficiency.

    An additional key finding of this study was that there were no confirmed differences betweenELL and non-ELL students perceptions on the indices measuring students self-determination ortheir relationships with their teachers, parents, and peers. The disconfirmation of these hypothesesis a particularly important finding because these results are unexpected given the documentedproblems with school completion and school belongingness among ELL students (McCardle et al.,2005; Morrison et al., 2003; U.S. Department of Commerce, 2004; U.S. Department of Education,2004). It appears that ELL status was related to students interpretations of their own and theirpeers self-regulatory characteristics but not related to different perceptions of their school-basedrelationships.

    It is promising to find that ELL students perceptions of their school relationships were notsignificantly different than those of non-ELL students, given that previous research has indicated theimportant role that social support plays in ELL students school experiences (Doherty and Hilberg,2007; Fletcher et al., 1999; Gillanders, 2007; Morrison et al., 2003; Szpara and Ahmad, 2007).Indeed, these results suggest that there are certain conditions under which ELL students perceivetheir classrooms to be positive and supportive learning environments. It may be that teachers haveresponded to the large ELL population in this study by incorporating many of the instructionalpractices stated above that have been shown to positively impact ELL students academic engage-ment and feelings of school belongingness. Future studies should examine whether ELL students

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    perceptions of their classroom environment are more positive when their school is composed of alarge ELL community or when their teachers have adopted preferred instructional practices.

    However, it still is not clear whether ELL and non-ELL students different perceptions ofclassroom self-regulatory supports, in the absence of different perceptions of social supports, couldbe sufficient to explain the school disengagement of many ELL students. It is possible that feelingsof alienation documented in prior research may emerge in later grades beyond elementary schoolor that the early differences perceived in behavioral self-control or academic efficacy evolve intoa general dissatisfaction with school and disengagement. Perhaps ELL students perceptions oftheir classroom environments are different in elementary, middle, and high schools, becoming morenegative with time. More research will be necessary to determine how these findings change orstay the same throughout the grades, and which environmental factors are most important to ELLstudents school engagement and success.

    In the current study, only the perceptions of upper elementary students from one elementaryschool in the Midwest were examined. Although the sample was sufficient to detect differencesbetween the ELL and non-ELL students perceptions of their classroom environments, it will beimportant to compare these findings to results from other grades, schools, and geographic regions. Inaddition, future researchers may wish to see whether differences exist between students in differentgrades, and even among third, fourth, or fifth grade students. It will be necessary to replicate thisstudy with a larger sample size from multiple schools and states. In addition, longitudinal studies thatfollow the same cohort of students over time will be important to the advancement of the researchbase on ELL students success, as well as classroom supports that may or may not increase theirsuccess over time.

    In the future, researchers may also examine classroom perceptions of specific populations withinthe ELL community, such as Latino or Asian students, for potential between-group differences. Giventhat this study was exploratory in nature, findings are preliminary. Replication and extension of thisstudy will be important to identify differences that exist between ELL and non-ELL students viewsof their general education classroom and to examine the relationship between these differences andindices of school success. To effectively support ELL students academic engagement and schoolsuccess, the unique contribution of each of the relational and self-regulatory factors underlyingpositive classroom environments also should be examined more closely. With a clearer understandingof the mechanisms underlying ELL disengagement from school, stronger interventions can beimplemented, making school completion and success more likely. Improving the academic andsocial experiences of ELL students in U.S. schools is crucial to providing a positive and effectiveeducation for all U.S. students.

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