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Aurora Institute

Moving from Current Models of Teaching English Language Learners to New Learning Models Designed to Meet the Needs of All Students

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Natalie Truong

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

The previous blog explored the necessity of moving schools from one-size-fits-all structures to new learning models that can better serve ELL students. This blog will examine how current models of teaching and learning are leaving many ELL students behind.

First, we will unpack the designation of “English Language Learner” and the types of educational services these learners receive.

Who Are English Language Learners?

English language learner (ELL), also referred to as English learners (EL) or “limited English proficient” (LEP), are students whose first or primary language is anything other than English and who identify as requiring assistance in school to reach English language proficiency (ELP).

ELL students are estimated to be nearly 10% of the student population nationwide or roughly 4.8 million students. This figure has more than doubled in the last few decades, and in many schools, districts and states, ELL students are an even higher percentage of the student population. It is predicted that by 2030, 40% of all K–12 students will be considered ELL students.

Despite common assumptions, a report published by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, titled Investing in Our Next Generation, stated that most ELL students are not new to the country, but were born in the U.S. In fact, more than 75 % of ELL students in grades K–5 are second- or third-generation Americans. Within the designation of “English learners” in K–12, these students represent over 400 language backgrounds; however, Spanish speakers are the fastest growing ELL population in the U.S., followed by Asians and Pacific Islanders.

ELL students face many challenges in school, and test results show an achievement gap between ELL students and their non-ELL peers. According to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 6% of fourth-grade ELL students scored at or above proficiency reading in English, compared with 34% of non-ELL fourth graders. Additionally, ELL students are less likely to graduate in four years, at a rate of approximately 63% compared with a national average of 82%. The percentage of ELL students graduating high school within four years also trails other subgroups, including students with disabilities and those who come from low-income families. These challenges often are a result of the fact that these students did not have appropriate instruction, supports and scaffolds to help them achieve.

How Are ELL Students Currently Being Served?

The classification of “English language learner” for these students is based on family surveys of home language, students’ scores on an English Language Proficiency (ELP) assessment, or both. ELP assessments play an important role in determining student placement into, and exit from, ELL services. Additionally, language standards such as the WIDA English Language Development Standards and Stanford’s English Language Proficiency Standards (ELPS) can be used to create curriculum, inform instruction, and determine where students are in their language acquisition. English language development standards are based on four domains of learning language: reading, writing, listening and speaking. Using the ELP assessment and language standards, many programs and services for ELL students provide basic oral language content aligned to the language standards and ELP assessments. There are two types of programs or services that are specifically designed to provide instruction and language acquisition for ELL students: sheltered English instruction and bilingual instruction.

Sheltered English instruction, also known as English-only instruction, provides direct English language instruction often in a stand-alone classroom, in a program, and/or via one-on-one instructional support. English-only instruction programs include (1) English as a Second Language Programs Pullout or Collaborative, where students spend little to no time with their native language; and (2) Structured Immersion (SI), or Sheltered English Programs where students receive some time with native language, though not formal instruction.

In contrast, bilingual instruction provides students instruction in both their native language and in English. Bilingual instruction programs include (1) Early Exit or Transitional Bilingual Programs, which provide ELL students with up to three years of supplemental instruction in primary language; (2) Developmental Bilingual Education Programs, which provide ELL students with supplemental instruction in primary language through elementary school, even after becoming proficient in English; and (3) Dual-Language or Two-Way Bilingual Immersion Programs, in which ELL students continue receiving instructions in both languages throughout their school career.

While developing proficiency in the language(s) of instruction is important, many ELL services end once ELL students are considered proficient in oral language acquisition. Whether instruction is bilingual or monolingual, literacy is the most fundamental competency for academic success. According to the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, & Excellence (CREDE), “Everyday social language, formal academic language and subject-matter lexicons are all critical competencies for ELL student success. Integrating all of these components into everyday learning should not be a passive exercise for ELL students. They must participate and help drive instruction tailored to their individual needs and interests, and take an active role in defining their own educational pathways.”

Many education programs focus solely on remediating ELL students to transition from their primary language to English. Often, learning structures and mindsets in the traditional education system continue to hold ELL students back. To the extent that ELL students are framed as deficient in English language, many programs tend to overlook other aspects of their learning crucial to student success. This is reflective of a deficit perspective rather than understanding the diverse language capabilities and multiculturalism as significant assets. More holistic approaches – recognizing the design of new models based on the learning sciences, the importance of social-emotional learning, and meeting students in their zone of proximal development – are also critical.

Next Generation Learning Models for ELL Students

Next generation learning models are designed to embrace the diversity of ELL students, provide innovations in support of equity and transform learning for all students by supporting ELL students toward mastery in language development, literacy, social-emotional learning, academic knowledge, and other critical skills and dispositions.

This is the second blog post in a series that explores how personalized, competency-based education can advance learning for English Language Learners from iNACOL’s report, Next Generation Learning Model for English Language Learners: Promising Practices and Considerations for Teaching and Learning. The next blog post will explore promising practices in how ELL students learn best, and examine how student-centered learning can provide the environment, supports, and personalization to help each student succeed.

View the first blog in the series here: Next Generation Learning Models for English Language Learners.