English Learners

Mindshift in How We Teach English Learners

4 Min Read
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In Dr. Elena Izquierdo’s recent webinar, “Equity in Working with English Learners,” she explains some of the major “gaps” English learners (ELs) face in school and shares the ways that schools can reimagine how they teach ELs.

ELs make up about 9.4% of the student population in the U.S. and are one of the fastest-growing demographics in the country. However, according to the NAEP, ELs in fourth grade score 37 points lower than their peers in reading comprehension, while ELs in eighth grade score 43 points lower than their peers. EL students are lagging behind in what is called the “achievement gap.”

In a previous blog, Dr. Izquierdo shared what she sees as the main gaps that contribute to the achievement gap: the rigor gap, the resource gap, and the professional development gap. ELs spend most of their school time in integrated classes with native English speakers. Too often, these classes do not accommodate the specific needs of ELs, whether it is in regard to academics, technology, or teacher preparedness. So how can we as educators more equitably serve our ELs?

The key, according to Dr. Izquierdo, is in creating mindshifts—reconfiguring the way we view second-language acquisition and adapting our practices, policies, and resources to reflect it.

Optimal Classroom Contexts Expand Learning Possibilities for ELs

When teaching ELs, many educators believe that they should encourage their students to only use English in the classroom and to avoid using their native language(s). However, it’s important to utilize your students’ linguistic and cultural backgrounds in the classroom. An important part of the learning experience is being able to make connections between past and present knowledge, and for ELs, most of their experiences aren’t in English or are from a different cultural background. Don’t be afraid to use “translanguaging”—using the native language as an example or a model—to help your students make better connections. When you demonstrate to your students that you value their native language and culture as much as you value them learning English and American culture, your students will feel they have more to contribute and will engage more in the classroom.

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Rigor, Language, and Content Learning

A common and potentially harmful misperception is that because of their language proficiency, ELs aren’t ready for rigorous content, but that couldn’t be further from the truth! In order for ELs to truly master English, they must receive challenging and engaging grade-level content that promotes critical thinking. EL students know when they are receiving watered-down content or when teachers believe they aren’t ready for rigor—and it can demotivate or disengage students. When you show ELs that you believe they are ready to be challenged, they will rise to it. In regard to rigor, however, you cannot sacrifice language development—content learning and language development must be fully integrated.

Relevant Resources for ELs

Dr. Izquierdo defines relevant as resources that are created with ELs in mind by design. We need to seek out resources and technology solutions that integrate the needs of ELs into their programs. This is essential to support the rigorous learning that ELs need. With effective technology, language development and content learning can be scaffolded and can support comprehension—not just through reading and writing, but through visual, oral, and listening comprehension as well. For example, if students are reading a digital text, they should be able to easily click on a word, read a definition, hear it spoken, and even see a video of someone saying the word.

EL-Relevant PD

To properly integrate these mindshifts, teachers must receive supportive professional development. Usually, specialists are the only educators who receive training to serve ELs, but ELs are increasingly put into general education classes where the teachers may not have that kind of specialized training. Given that the student population of ELs is growing, all teachers need to receive support that focuses on intentional and systematic EL scaffolding, second-language acquisition, and integrating content and language development.

Equity matters, and all ELs deserve to receive an education that serves their interests in a rigorous and engaging way.


Watch our webinar Secondary Newcomers: Equitable Pathways for Diverse EL Profiles to learn how to best address newcomers entering U.S. schools post-primary education.

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

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