English Learners

E3: Equity, Evidence, and Efficacy—Practices for English Learner Success

4 Min Read
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Diversity and the Achievement Gap

The demographics of public schools in the United States continue to change as the nation becomes more racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse. The population of English learners (ELs) is the fastest growing nationally in 35 of the 50 states over the past 10 years. The percentage of public school students identified as English learners makes up approximately 4.6 million or 9.4 percent of total student enrollment nationwide, according to a 2016 report from the National Center for Education Statistics

Unfortunately, the consistent academic underperformance of English learners reveals that schools are not prepared with the knowledge, skills, and resources required to work with this significant and growing population. 

In the United States, English learners lag behind in academic achievement and graduation rates. Achievement gaps for English learners are complex and challenging. 

The matter, however, is not exclusive to language proficiency, but includes other gaps pervasive in common practices and which need our attention. Equity must manifest itself throughout the curriculum. 

Many English learners are predestined to segregated programs or classrooms with teachers who lack the resources and support systems needed for equitably serving their English learners.

Rigor Gap for English Learners

More often than not, it is assumed that because of language proficiency, English learners are not ready for rigor, and in turn receive watered-down lessons and simplified language, which limit students’ academic growth. What we believe affects our students.

Teachers need the professional development and resources that, by design, are prepared with the mindset that all students can learn. Materials and activities that integrate both language development and content learning in on-grade-level lessons are optimal contexts for English learners. For English learners, scaffolding rigor is a huge benefit and motivator. 


Technology Gap for English Learners

Technology is also a great motivator, and integrating technology in our lessons helps students stay engaged. More and more, teachers are requiring out-of-class work that involves the use of multimedia and other technologies, and although this is great for their students’ education, there are a couple of access issues that lead to a technology gap:

  1. Access to technologies
  2. Access to the content in the technologies

First, not all English learners have access to technologies out of school. It is important, therefore, for K–12 school administrators to provide access to libraries and computer labs before and after school, at lunch, and at other designated times when English learners can access the use of technologies.

Second, although technology is a strength, there is a gap in the design for English learner needs. English learners need language support to understand how to use the program or software, and the software, by design, should address language development integrated with content learning.

Although the digital divide has narrowed, there is still a need to provide access to the content application. In order to make the most of instructional technology, English learners need language support for the vocabulary necessary to understand how to use the technology, and teachers need to know if the software scaffolds language development and learning in its content. Professional development in this area of technology for teachers needs more attention.

Professional Development Gap for Teaching English Learners

Professional development on understanding English learner needs must center on access to engaging, on-grade-level curriculum and instruction.

Understanding second language acquisition, language developmental stages, and English as a Second Language strategies are foundational; however, there is an urgency for more!

All teachers need to know and understand language development—and how to integrate language development and learning in content-area lessons across the curriculum. Otherwise, English learners do not have access to the content areas, and consequently, they will learn English but fall short on academic literacy (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) across the curriculum.

All teachers need to have the knowledge and skills, supported with resources, to deliver on-grade-level content instruction to English learners in their classes. If not, the rigor gap will continue with the misperception that critical thinking activities are not appropriate for English learners because of their lack of proficiency in English.

On the contrary, English learners need access to a curriculum with rigor and relevance embedded in scaffolds that allow access to the learning. Teachers need access to this knowledge and the skills to make much-needed instructional shifts.

Equity-Centered Mind Shifts, Evidence, Efficacy

  • Equity-centered mind shifts and practices must be addressed both in and out of classrooms and schools to ensure academic progress and success for English learners.
  • Teacher and principal quality are two of the most important factors in determining school effectiveness for student success and achievement.
  • Rethinking school structures and curriculum practices centered on integrating relevant responsive planning and practices in professional development aligned to the needs of English learners is evidence of equity-based curriculum.
  • Evidence is transparent in the provision and use of:
    • English learner relevant resources
    • Ongoing professional development centered on English learner needs
    • Technology centered on and relevant to English learner needs
  • Efficacy is achieved when these curriculum evidences in planning for equity become intentional and systematic in our practices.

All educators can leverage academic success for English learners by centering on equity-based resources, practices, and professional development. Equity matters!

How does your school create equity for English learners?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Hear more from Dr. Elena Izqueirdo in her Lead the Way to Literacy webinar, “Build Equity into Instruction for your ELs.” Watch the recording here.

Download our free guide to using response frames with multilingual learners.

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