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Promising Practices for Teaching English Language Learners

CompetencyWorks Blog


Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This post originally appeared at iNACOL on January 2, 2018.  It is the third blog in a series that explores the ideas in the iNACOL report, Next Generation Learning Model for English Language Learners: Promising Practices and Considerations for Teaching and Learning. Read the first post here.

Ensuring success for English language learner (ELL) students requires challenging commonly held assumptions of teaching and learning for this student population. Educators and education programs must move away from making English language proficiency an end to itself and focus on supporting success for the whole child. Instruction should be focused on how ELL students learn best and personalized to meet each learner where they are.

This blog explores promising practices in teaching for ELL students, and how student-centered learning can provide the environment and instruction to best support each student.

Research on how ELL students learn best generally covers three main categories: instructional strategies, learning supports and assessments. When aligned, best practices in these three categories can support ELL students in overcoming variances in proficiency in their prior language and content knowledge.

Instructional strategies for ELL students include explicitly teaching academic English alongside content. Broadly speaking, academic English refers to the language needed for success in school settings. Within the fields of linguistics and education, there are a variety of approaches and definitions of academic English. Standards for academic contexts should explicitly incorporate the kinds of language that ELL students need to learn to succeed in school, such as academic language in math, science, social studies and English language arts.

Instructional strategies also include data-driven interventions and strategic groupings or cooperative groupings, where students are grouped based on proficiency and performance levels. In cooperative learning environments, students work interdependently on group instructional tasks and learning goals. This method can encourage practicing reading and speaking in English and discussions to promote comprehension, also known as instructional conversations.

Educators can use instructional tools to support ELL students in the four domains of language development. For example, specific writing adaptations can sometimes take commonly used writing prompts and graphic organizers to include academic English vocabulary and translation. These supports should take into consideration student levels in language proficiency standards, build on ELL students’ prior knowledge, and provide appropriate scaffolding for these students without compromising rigor or content. For example, adaptive technologies could provide students with access to instructional content that corresponds to the student’s current language level and grade level that continuously increases in word and content complexity.

Additionally, ELL students need extended time and differentiated supports based on student interests, prior learning experiences and student background. Central to teaching ELL students is the understanding and acceptance that not all students enter school at the same place in their English proficiency nor will all students progress at the same pace in their language development. Student characteristics, such as proficiency in the student’s first language, the disability status of the student and mobility and stress-related factors of the student, all play a role in how the student will access the content and pace through language development and acquisition. Having this perspective is crucial in designing learning opportunities for ELL students.

The English Language Learner Alliance at the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northeast & Islands studied how long it takes for ELL students in New York City schools to become reclassified as proficient in the four domains of English language development depending on factors such as age, background and disability status. The study followed NYC public school students classified as ELL students in levels one and two in their English language proficiency between 2003 and 2010. About half of students who entered kindergarten as ELL students were reclassified within four years, and students who entered in later grades took longer to become reclassified. The study shows that the time it took students to become reclassified as “former ELL” depended on a number of student characteristics, including grade of entry into schools, the initial English language proficiency at time of school entry, and the disability status of the student.

Based on students’ backgrounds, the REL study recommends several strategies: focusing on writing instruction, using academic vocabulary in content courses and considering the variety of factors that impact students’ English language proficiency.

It is rare for students to reach fluency within a year or two of English immersion. Based on research on developing language across content by the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, & Excellence (CREDE), students beginning to learn the language can make what appears to be fairly rapid progress, but then slow down once they reach intermediate proficiency. To reach full proficiency, students need early interventions, explicit instruction and practice in academic English. Effective strategies to reaching full proficiency include teaching students to read in their first language, which promotes higher levels of reading achievement in English; and, when instructing ELL students in English, modifying teacher instruction to take into account students’ language limitations. These strategies show the importance of knowing where students are in their learning and then taking appropriate steps to meet students where they are. This requires educators to be well-versed in English language development and responsive to students’ needs or next steps. In other words, this means putting students at the center of teaching and learning.

Because ELL students come from a wide variety of languages, skills and backgrounds, no uniform solution, tool or process exists that will impact the learning of ELL students in the exact same way. The Center for Applied Linguistics, however, points to the need for integrating English language with content learning to provide holistic instruction and accurate assessments and feedback in student learning.

CREDE research on language development suggests that educators can help ELL students bridge the gap in learning the English language and content knowledge through explicitly teaching academic vocabulary and literacy. According to research from Center for Public Education, the three main areas of language and literacy development for ELL students are as follows:

  • »  English language proficiency (ELP) refers to the ability to speak, read, write and comprehend the English language in general. ELP assessments measure four domains of language: reading, speaking, listening and writing.
  • »  Academic English proficiency refers specifically to the ability to speak, read, write and comprehend academic English, which is characterized by academic and content-specific vocabulary, complex sentence structure and the process of academic discourse (e.g., interpretation and analysis of data or text).
  • »  Content mastery refers to students’ ability to demonstrate mastery of subject-area knowledge on academic measures.

It is not enough to measure one of these three learning areas. According to the Center on Instruction’s report: Practical Guidelines for the Education of English Language Learners: Research-based Recommendations for Instruction and Academic Intervention, each must be explicitly taught, measured and tracked in tandem with each ELL student’s progress. For example, reaching ELP and becoming reclassified as English proficient is not indicative of how ready ELL students are to succeed in English-only classrooms or programs without additional support, how long it takes for them to achieve proficiency in academic English, or how long it takes for these students to perform well on academic content achievement measures.

Read the Entire Series: