Skip to content
Aurora Institute

The Promise of Next Generation Learning Models for English Language Learners

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Natalie Truong

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Next generation learning models hold promise for transforming education for every student by providing a personalized, student-centered approach to learning. It’s worth comparing how the current system is falling short of preparing English language learner (ELL) students for success in several key areas and how next generation models may better serve the needs of all students and solve critical flaws in the education system and improve learning outcomes for all.

Challenges of the Current Education Model to Meet the Needs of ELL Students

Traditional education models teach ELL students based on narrow goals for student success tied to testing, one-size-fits-all pedagogy and fixed, deficient-based mindsets on the skills and abilities of these students. Recurring challenges in implementing best practices in the classroom depend largely on pedagogy at the core of instruction, curriculum and assessment, the use of time and resources, educator training and significantly, on the current structures of a traditional school model that is based on an outdated frame for educating ELL students.

Teaching based on narrow goals for English language proficiency: Most current models for ELL students focus solely on the goal for students to achieve rapid transition from their primary language to English. The problem with this goal is that it narrowly defines achievement for these students from a deficit-based perspective. Students who enter educational programs with a primary language other than English are usually defined as lacking English language skills, resulting in students regarded as being deficient in the critical skills that are necessary for academic success in the traditional education system. As a result, most educational programs, sheltered English instruction in particular, that serve ELL students are framed to remediate and repair this learning deficiency. Many ELL programs and services have made “reclassification” or moving students toward English language proficiency status the chief objective to the exclusion of most other academic content and literacy instruction.

This old framework simply isn’t working. Students who exit ELL services as English language proficient still have achievement outcomes lower than their non-ELL peers.

Assessing students with summative tests that don’t provide a complete picture of learning for ELL student: Current models for teaching ELL students are framed by two types of assessments: subject-matter assessments and English Language Proficiency (ELP) Assessment. The classification of “ELL” student and reclassification of “English proficient” is based on student performance on the four domains of English language development and assessed by ELP assessments. As these assessments only focus on language development, ELL students may become reclassified as English proficient yet still fall behind in their academic courses, leading to additional monitoring and accountability measures. Thus, most English proficiency assessments have not been good predictors of student success on literacy and content-area assessments in English over time. This intersects with problems arising from ELL students’ performance on subject-matter assessments. ELL students’ low performance on summative content assessments fuels the belief that these students are deficient in fundamental language and literacy skills and need remediation. ELP assessments are framed by the narrow goal of transiting ELL students to English proficiency while subject-matter assessments provide an incomplete picture of these students’ learning due to language barriers.

Supporting ELL students based on one-size-fits-all learning models: ELLs are a diverse subgroup of students whose range of backgrounds and prior learning experiences are often lost in sheltered instruction models and during assimilation into general English-only academic courses. While bilingual and dual-language learning models can provide students with asset-based pedagogy and integrate content with language curriculum, there is more that can be done to meet ELL students where they are. Instruction should be scaffolded based on students’ prior learning experiences, current English language development levels and student learning goals. Education programs should also consider other factors, such as student background and preferences, when designing learning experiences for ELL students.

Siloed educator roles for serving ELL students: In many ELL programs, the roles of ELL and general education teachers are often siloed with ELL educators focusing solely on language acquisition and general education teachers focusing on academic content. Collaborative teaching environments in which educators work with learners across language acquisition, literacy, academic content and competencies, would better support ELL students.

Limited educator capacity and preparation: According to an Education Week Research Center survey, nearly 5 million children in U.S. public schools are learning the English language, yet only one-third of district-level leaders believe educators in their schools are prepared to effectively teach ELL students. There is a shortage of educators with the appropriate training in ELL teaching methods and cultural competency. This is particularly acute in regions with few ELL students or where there are difficulties recruiting qualified ELL staff. Additionally, educators need training in cultural competency and ELL instructional methods so they understand how to support ELL students.

Core Principles for Next Generation Learning Models to Support ELL Student Success

With next generation learning models, educators can provide students with powerful, personalized learning experiences that best meet the unique needs of each student. These models have the potential to deepen learning for ELL students and help them succeed through new learning designs that offer personalized instructional approaches and competency-based pathways. Let’s examine some core principles and early trends in the design of new learning models that are personalized and competency-based.

Redefining success for ELL students: In next generation learning models, we are seeing a move away from and beyond narrowly defining success for ELL students as transitioning from students’ primary language to proficiency in English. In a competency-based education system, students move toward mastery of both English and/or dual-language literacy and academic content, as well as important skills and dispositions needed to ensure success in college and career.

Assessments of and for learning for ELL students: Next generation learning models focus on assessments that measure student performance not in comparison with non-ELL students but against articulated, high expectations of success and clear depictions for what success looks like. Further, a stronger focus on formative assessments along with summative assessments offer a balance of assessments of and for learning to continuously provide educators and ELL students data on where students are in their learning and inform next steps on students’ progress toward mastery.

Personalized approaches that focus on educating the whole child: Next generation learning models provide ELL students with comprehensive supports and services that are focused on whole-child learning and development. This approach takes into account the students’ backgrounds, cultures, prior learning experiences and learning preferences, among other considerations. Personalized approaches meet students where they are and allow for developing multiple pathways for learning that take into account students interests, passion and background. Competency-based progressions ensure a student demonstrates mastery with evidence of a performance of their learning before advancing to the next unit or lesson. This learning is holistic and recognizes the broader set of 21st-century skills and dispositions in addition to content knowledge.

Building educator role and capacity: To meet the needs of every student in a competency-based education system, there must be a focus on increasing educator capacity in terms of using best practices in personalized learning strategies and culturally responsive teaching for ELL students. Additionally, the role of educators needs to increase to provide both content and language instruction and scaffolds to expand access and support learning for ELL students. Assessment literacy is crucial for educators to select the appropriate assessment and build capacity in performance assessment and reliability in scoring consistently on proficiency scales. In sum, building educator capacity for next generation models to serve ELL students is a big lift. Similarly, ELL coordinators and educators need to work with content educators to provide instruction that takes into account students’ language development levels and learning goals. The focus is on student-centered curriculum, instruction and assessment that allow learning environments to meet students where they are and keep them on track toward successful outcomes.

This is the fourth 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 Models for English Language Learners: Promising Practices and Considerations for Teaching and Learning. The next blog illustrate the ways in which personalized, competency-based education can design positive, learner-centered environments that supports learning for ELL students.

Follow this blog series for key insights on promising practices for ELL students: