Three Strategies to Support English Learners

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There are over 5 million English Learners (ELs) in our schools today, a number that continues to rise. It can be challenging to support such a diverse group of students and national data continues to show a significant achievement gap between ELs and their native English-speaking peers. Rising standards and accountability measures have also underscored the lagging academic progress of many ELs.

Traditionally, the programmatic focus for English language instruction was based on learning English, often at the expense of mastering grade level content. This tradeoff helped contribute to the formation of long term English Learners (LTELs), a population that has been designated as lacking adequate academic English language skills, despite having been in U.S. schooling for several years.

To help educators working with EL students, we have outlined three strategies that, when used effectively, can accelerate the development of academic English:

  1. Consider new instructional shifts. Rather than focusing on what ELs can manage, focus on what they need to become strong learners. This can be as simple as encouraging EL students with high expectations and providing them with grade-level texts, a major shift for many ELs who are often provided with texts that are below grade level.

However, with grade-appropriate texts in hand, ELs need to have access to the right level of academic language and vocabulary to be successful with them—success that can then extend across all subject matters. The trick is to provide appropriate scaffolds that ensure they can succeed with these texts, which leads us to step number two.

Apply rigor. One of the most effective ways to infuse rigor is to interact with students at point of reference with the text, prompting them to use details from the text to draw inferences, interpret meaning, and support the claims they make. Students can also annotate their responses to teacher prompts, and teachers can review them as a way to monitor students’ growth in analytic reasoning, as well as their ability to use academic language to formulate responses.

Students gain confidence and thrive when teachers expect them to produce the language of academic discourse on a daily basis, both orally and in writing. Purposeful conversations that call for students to respond to teacher prompts by using academic English to discuss the text with peers is one way to help students gain confidence and grow their ability. Frequent, short performance tasks, stepped out with supports, are another excellent method to promote oral and written responses to challenging texts.

Engaging families. Building insight, trust, and mutual respect between educators and families yields a sustainable wave of energy and commitment that is mutually beneficial for everyone involved. This engagement can be achieved by sharing ideas about how to support students at home, as well as offering insight about how to understand different types of assessments, their purposes and how to interpret academic reports family members may not be familiar with. When schools adopt a sustainable, comprehensive approach to engaging families in systematic ways across the life span of the student’s career, they set the stage for the most enduring growth.

Teachers can have an undeniable impact on an EL student’s growth, and this impact can tip the scales for long-term benefits that endure into adulthood. Setting high expectations to acquire rigorous academic English skills, supporting students as they stretch to reach these goals and engaging families are three strategies that have consistently yielded strong results that last a lifetime.

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Photo: Dual language kindergarten teacher Blanca Hernandez

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Rebecca Salinas
Learning Architect, HMH