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The opportunity is now for English language learners

6 min read


English language learners comprise the most rapidly growing segment of students in K-12. More than 10% of students are now identified as foreign language learners of English. Many states, including Alabama, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Indiana have seen the number of ELL students increase three times or more over the past 10 years.

Historically, there are stark achievement gaps between ELLs and their peers. For example, in the latest NAEP results, in 2013 for fourth graders, the reading proficiency gap was 6% (ELL) versus 29% (non-ELL) and in math, it was 13% (ELL) versus 36% (non-ELL).

However, as schools and districts across the country prepare all students to be college and career ready, there is a tremendous opportunity to look at how we can best support ELL students and help them reach their maximum potential.

The need to learn academic English and not just social English

There are two types of English that all students learn — social English and academic English. Social English is what we learn and use in everyday communication. For students, it’s what they use outside of the classroom. Social English is what native speakers of English will acquire by just “growing up” in an English speaking household and community.

In contrast, academic English is what is generally taught in schools — our society’s accepted practices for formal English, including proper grammar, vocabulary and writing, and the ability to read such texts. This means that technically, all students, whether they are native speakers of English or not, must learn academic English. In other words, all students must make progress in their ability to converse, interact and compose using formal English to prepare them for college and careers. Mere fluency of social English is not sufficient.

As the Common Core State Standards were designed with the end goal of college and career readiness, the new standards require all students to progress in their mastery of academic English. There are 249 distinct language standards in the common core, from kindergarten through high school, that define in detail the structure of academic language that students should use across all subject areas.

Universal Design for Learning

ELL students used to be primarily placed and educated in segregated ESL (English as a second language) classrooms. Similar to students with disabilities, districts have largely transitioned to an integrated delivery model that includes ELLs in general-education classrooms, according to best practice.

Furthermore, brain science continues to demonstrate that even amongst groups of students that might be described as “typical,” there is in fact great variability in how their brains process information.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a long-established framework that helps educators address the diversity of learners in the classroom. UDL has its roots in brain research, specifying an architectural design that makes structures inherently accessible to people of all types.

The classic illustration of universal design is the design of ramps cut into pedestrian sidewalks at intersections.  These ramps were initially designed for an exceptional population — people in wheelchairs. However, these same sidewalk ramps benefit a wide variety of people: parents with strollers, people who use walkers, etc. Designing the sidewalk to be more accessible for some has benefited all. Similarly, designing instruction that is more accessible to some benefits all students in the classroom.

Proven strategies for enriching academic language instruction

There are proven instructional strategies that were initially motivated and targeted for English language learners, but have been shown to be best practices for all students especially in light of the rigor of the common core. “Good teaching is good teaching” as they say.

  •  Juicy sentences: Integrated language instruction

Professor Lily Wong Fillmore of University of California, Berkeley has studied second language learners in school settings for over thirty years. One of the key conclusions of her work is the importance of integrating conversations about language in the context of larger lessons across subject areas.

One of her most well-known strategies is what she calls “Juicy Sentences.” A teacher selects a particular sentence that illustrates a grammatical structure, language complexity or other important feature. Most importantly, the sentence comes from an authentic text that was studied in class. This is what makes the language activity integrated into the classroom. The educator explicitly engages in a conversation of dissecting and understanding the meaning and structure of the sentence in the context of a text they studied.

  • Tier 2 academic vocabulary instruction

Vocabulary is a major component of acquiring academic English. Research and implementation work by academics such as Isabel Beck at the University of Pittsburgh and Kate Kinsella at San Francisco State University have shown that the most important words to focus on in vocabulary instruction are “Tier 2” words.

Tier 1 words are those that are common in social English (e.g. “happy” or “car”). Because they are common in everyday conversation they typically do not require explicit instruction in school.

Meanwhile, Tier 2 words are used with high frequency in academic contexts across multiple subject areas (e.g. “pragmatic,” “assumption,” and “potent”). Because they do not typically occur in social English, they require focused instruction in school.

Tier 3 words are domain-specific vocabulary that are typically used only in that domain. For example, “polymer” is generally used only in the domain of chemistry.

Research in vocabulary instruction has shown that focusing on explicit Tier 2 vocabulary instruction is not only effective for ELLs but for native English learners as well.

Designing instruction that is both academically rigorous and accessible to ELLs can be challenging for educators, but these studies and strategies point the way towards effective academic English instruction for every student.

Daniel Jhin Yoo is the co-founder of Goalbook, a resource that helps educators design differentiated instructional objectives aligned to academic standards. The platform assists in developing meaningful instruction for specialized populations, including students with disabilities and English language learners. Prior to founding Goalbook, Daniel was a special-education teacher in East Palo Alto, Calif.

Chelsea Miller works in district partnerships at Goalbook, supporting district leaders with implementation and designing professional development plans. Inspired by family members with autism spectrum disorder, Chelsea was previously a special-education teacher in San Francisco, Calif., where she published original research on the effects of co-teaching, led reading intervention programs and coordinated Special Olympics tournaments.  Chelsea also teaches at the University of San Francisco, and is the Director of Curriculum for a non-profit in Silicon Valley.