A Key Ingredient for Teaching ELL Students


June 4, 2014


Is there a recipe for a “super teacher” when it comes to helping English language learner (ELL) students develop academic English skills? That question is important throughout the nation, as the proportion of ELL students has climbed by almost 64 percent from 1994–95 to 2009–10. During the same 15-year period, the ELL population grew by 46 percent in the Northwest.

Complicating the challenge is the fact that many schools serve students from multiple language backgrounds. In Anchorage, for example, ELL students speak 93 different languages, with the most prevalent being Spanish, Hmong, Samoan, Tagalog, and Yup’ik.

We asked literacy expert Michael Kamil for his thoughts on what makes a teacher especially adept at helping ELL kids become proficient in English language arts. Kamil, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, visited Education Northwest in January to consult with our staff on our study of Project GLAD, a popular model for instructing English learners.

Speak the same language

According to Kamil, the number one ingredient in that super teacher recipe would be to learn a second language. “What we have are a lot of people who want to teach English language learners without fully understanding the language of the students,” he said. “The reason that’s important is that the best of our research really shows that the judicious use of the native language in learning English as a second language is more effective than anything else.”

But, what happens when you have a few students who speak Russian and others who speak Somali and still more who speak Cantonese? “Then, what you’ve got to do is either regroup them for reading instruction or find aides or parents or somebody who can come help,” suggested Kamil. Another approach would be to pair students from the same background, teaming up a more proficient student with a less advanced peer.

To help develop a teaching force that is conversant with languages other than English, Kamil would like to see a requirement that every high school student learn a second language. Nationally, more than half the states require world language credits for graduation or are considering such a requirement. In the Northwest, the Washington State Board of Education has been working toward phasing in graduation requirements for world language credits but, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction website, “currently there is no change in the high school graduation requirement in world languages for the class of 2016, and there is no timetable for when the world languages graduation requirement would be implemented.” The state, however, recently adopted a seal of biliteracy to recognize students who have attained proficiency in both English and one or more other languages by the time they graduate. According to OSPI, “this is a statement of accomplishment that helps to signal evidence of a student’s readiness for career and college, and to engage as a global citizen.”

You can find out more about standards for learning languages that incorporate the Common Core State Standards from the American Council for Teaching Foreign Languages. For help in determining how your school or district can best support English learners, contact us about conducting an ELL program review.

What works in your classroom or school when it comes to supporting literacy instruction for English learners?

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