Meeting the needs of the diverse and growing number of English learners (ELs) is a pressing challenge for many schools, districts, and charter management organizations. Although many general education programs and curricula do not provide all of the specific supports ELs need, pull-out programs for most students generally do more harm than good. Specific English-language instruction is appropriate for students with the lowest levels of proficiency, but emerging and developing learners should primarily participate in mainstream grade-level instruction with targeted supports aimed at building their academic vocabulary and oral and written language. This will be particularly important as schools address ELs’ unfinished learning in the wake of the pandemic. We acknowledge that some consent decrees require pullout programs for EL students, however.
- Ensure EL students can participate in whole-class, rigorous instruction through scaffolds, including by grounding activities in academic vocabulary and using a curriculum that includes specific EL supports.
- Provide intensive small-group instruction and regular opportunities to develop written language skills based on students’ specific learning needs.
- Engage families and build on students’ prior knowledge, including home languages and cultural assets.
- Use federal funding earmarked for ELs to offer extended instructional time over and above the regular school day, such as summer and after-school programs and small-group tutoring.
Despite interruptions in in-person schooling, districts and schools must identify and offer targeted supports and accommodations to EL students. A new “EdResearch for Recovery” guide notes that federal waivers issued in spring 2020 are unlikely to recur and recommends using new digital tools to better serve ELs. These include direct outreach to families, such as through translated text messages, as well as new online professional learning for teachers and paraprofessionals.
Perhaps the most widely respected guidance on EL instruction has emerged from a project out of Stanford University called Understanding Language. Co-chaired by scholars Kenji Hakuta and María Santos, Understanding Language has considerably advanced educator knowledge about the importance of rigorous, grade-level instruction for ELs. The initiative has articulated six principles for effective lesson planning and delivery:
- Provide ELs with opportunities to engage in discipline-specific practices that build conceptual understanding and language competence in tandem.
- Leverage students’ home languages, cultural assets, and prior knowledge.
- Ensure standards-aligned instruction for ELs is rigorous, grade-level appropriate, and provides deliberate and appropriate scaffolds.
- Account for students’ English proficiency levels and prior schooling experiences.
- Foster autonomy by equipping EL students with the strategies necessary to comprehend and use language in a variety of academic settings.
- Employ diagnostic tools and formative assessments to measure students’ content knowledge and academic language competence.
In its Practice Guide on the subject, the Institute for Education Sciences considers evidence from nineteen separate high-quality studies. The guide supports small-group interventions for EL students, but also stresses “enhancing the core instructional program” in three of its four recommendations. These are:
- Teach a set of academic vocabulary words intensively across several days using a variety of instructional activities.
- Integrate oral and written English language instruction into content-area teaching.
- Provide regular, structured opportunities to develop written language skills.
- Provide small-group instructional intervention to students struggling with literacy and English language development.
The guide also notes that teachers should find ways to group English learners with their non-English-learner peers because students in heterogeneous groups are likely to benefit from hearing opinions or oral language expressions from students at different proficiency levels. Other discussions of “what works” underscore the importance of explicit and intense instruction in academic vocabulary and the related need for “engaging students in academic discussions about content.” Thankfully, several high-quality English language arts curricula on the market are designed to support teachers in delivering instruction that meets the needs of EL students.
Quality language and literacy instruction occurs throughout the school day and across content areas. All teachers in the building, including history, math, science, and other disciplines, should incorporate these recommendations.
Baker, S., Lesaux, N., Jayanthi, M., Dimino, J., Proctor, C. P., Morris, J., Gersten, R., Haymond, K., Kieffer, M. J., Linan-Thompson, S., and Newman-Gonchar, R. (2014). “Teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in elementary and middle school (NCEE 2014-4012).” Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
Bunch, G., Kibler, A., and Pimentel, S. (2012). “Realizing Opportunities for ELLs in the Common Core English Language Arts and Disciplinary Literacy Standards.” Presented at the annual meeting of the Understanding Language Conference, January 2012.
Goldenberg, C. (2013). “Unlocking the Research on English Learners,” American Educator. Summer 2013. 4-11.
Goldenberg, C. (2008) “Teaching English Language Learners,” American Educator. Summer 2008. 8-23, 42-44.
Mavrogordato, M., Callahan, R., DeMatthews, D., and Izquierdo, E. (2021). “Supports for Students Who Are English Learners.” EdResearch for Recovery.
Santos, M., Darling-Hammond, L., and Cheuk, T. (2012). “Teacher Development to Support English Language Learners in the Context of Common Core State Standards.” Presented at the Understanding Language Conference, January 2012.
“Understanding Language,” Stanford Graduate School of Education (Retrieved May 12, 2021).