How to Create a Better Classroom Environment for English Learners

In today’s public schools, English learners (ELs) are the fastest growing subgroup, making up roughly 10 percent of students nationwide. According to Dr. Elena Izquierdo, author of Escalate English and Associate Professor at University of Texas, El Paso, most of today’s classrooms are woefully unprepared to serve the unique needs of ELs. In her webinar titled “Equity, Evidence, and Efficacy in Meeting Academic Needs of English Learners,” she discussed the keys to creating a classroom where this population of students can thrive.

How Can Teachers Better Serve ELs?

Many teachers focus on the simplification of language, but this can water down the curriculum for students, which creates disengagement. And once students are disengaged, it can be very difficult to bring them back.

According to Dr. Izquierdo, teachers need specialized professional development to teach them how to integrate language learning across all of their content. Most importantly, they need to learn how to reach ELs who are high-achievers in their native language(s) (L1), and learn to focus on literacy in both L1 and English (L2, or for some students, L3 or even L4!). As Dr. Izquierdo says: “Students who are bilingual perform better than fluent monolingual students or students [who] aren’t fully proficient in more than one language.”

Whenever possible, teachers should use L1 to support learning in L2. This approach allows for continued cognitive and academic development. Tools such as specific instructional materials, relevant technological aids, bilingual dictionaries, and partner work can help to support ELs. For example, partnering ELs with students they are comfortable working with allows them to interact in a safer setting, lowering the stakes of failure while still engaging them with real content.

Who Are ELs?

One common misconception is that all ELs need the same kind of instruction. The truth is that these students have different language backgrounds, different literacy levels in L1, and different levels of academic achievement in their prior schooling.

The largest group of ELs is Spanish speakers, but Chinese, Vietnamese, and many more languages are represented in schools nationwide. Some students were high-achievers before starting L2, while other students have had interrupted learning. Some students are struggling with literacy in L1, let alone L2. Each student requires a different kind of classroom approach.

Dr. Izquierdo wants to change the paradigm “from a deficit model to an assets mindset.” The contributions ELs make to our society will depend on the caliber of their K-12 academic experience. So, how do teachers best serve ELs? The secret comes from the 3 E’s: equity, evidence, and efficacy. Let’s take a look at each!

Equity

The first question an educator should ask is: How am I planning to achieve equity for the ELs in my classroom?

Roughly three-quarters of classrooms in the United States now have at least one EL student. Teachers should prioritize providing an instructional focus that builds on each EL’s background and needs. This means providing instructional materials that specifically address and integrate language development via grade-level content.

Dr. Izquierdo believes teachers should integrate oral and written English development throughout all academic activities, regardless of subject matter. This means introducing new vocabulary words whenever possible, especially when they are relevant to the curriculum. Educators should also be prepared to intervene when students are struggling. Ultimately, ELs succeed when they are provided with ongoing, structured routines to utilize and develop their language skills.

Evidence

The second question teachers should be asking is: What evidence will I gather? Or in other words, how do you know it’s working?

Professional development is a key part of gathering evidence. It teaches educators how best to address the needs of ELs and the best ways to go about monitoring ELs’ progress. The best approach to language and literacy growth involves communities, the school district, schools, and professional development for teachers. Most importantly, teachers must seek out professional development wherever it’s available. If it isn’t, they should get the community involved and try to set up programs to support ELs.

Efficacy

Finally, teachers need to be asking: How am I going to achieve efficacy? Am I enacting effective strategies routinely and systematically?

Faithful implementation is integral to ELs’ academic achievement. Teachers should be purposeful about providing an instructional focus built on EL needs. They should be intentional about continuously integrating language development and instructional materials relevant to EL teaching and learning at every level. And they should be systematic in establishing routines in planning, preparation, and delivery of instruction that supports EL learning.

This means simple routines such as getting ELs writing every day, even through quick writes. These small routines are both nonnegotiable and invaluable, as they help to grow self-confidence in ELs. A little goes a long way, and each piece is a brick in the wall to build the academic excellence of ELs in public schools nationwide.

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View the recording of Dr. Elena Izquierdo’s webinar, “Equity, Evidence, and Efficacy in Meeting Academic Needs of English Learners,” to learn more about maximizing EL student achievement in the classroom.

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