What All Teachers Should Know About Instruction For English Language Learners

July 2018
illustration of a teacher standing on some books

The five, research-based principles in this resource are “big ideas” or concepts about second-language acquisition and the academic challenges English learners face. Taken together, the principles can help teachers adapt their instruction and better support academic success for the English learner students in their classrooms.

These five principles apply to all teachers, regardless of what grade or subject area they teach.

Principle 1

English learners move through different stages as they acquire English proficiency and, at all stages, need comprehensible input

Beginning English learners typically understand a little but may not speak very much. These students face different challenges than those with intermediate level skills, who may be able to communicate interpersonally but lack specific vocabulary. Regardless of students’ proficiency levels, they need “comprehensible input” or information that is conveyed in a manner that ensures they can understand, even if they do not know every word. For example, for some students, that might mean communication through gestures or pictures; for other students, it might mean conveying new ideas with reference to terms already learned.

Teachers should do the following

  • Scaffold their instruction and assignments and provide multiple representations of concepts
  • Promote student interaction that is structured and supported
  • Consult their state’s language proficiency standards; proficiency descriptors are helpful tools to describe how students are using language for particular audiences, tasks, and purposes.

Principle 2

There is a difference between conversational and academic language; fluency in everyday conversation is not sufficient to ensure access to academic texts and tasks

The language used in everyday communication is distinct from the language used in classroom discourse. It is all too easy to misinterpret a student’s ability to communicate with classmates on the playground or in the lunchroom—that is, a student’s facility with conversational English—as an ability to understand English in any setting, whether in chemistry labs or historical debates.

Teachers should do the following

  • Provide explicit instruction in the use of academic language
  • Provide multi‐faceted and intensive vocabulary instruction with a focus on academically useful words

Principle 3

English learners need instruction that will allow them to meet state content standards

It takes multiple years (perhaps as many as five to seven) for English learners to learn English to a level of proficiency high enough to perform on par with their native English‐speaking peers. English learners therefore cannot wait until they are fluent in English to learn grade‐level content. Instead, they must continue to develop their math and reading skills as well as their knowledge of social studies and science, even while learning English. This can happen through a variety of program models.

Teachers should do the following

  • Provide bilingual instruction when feasible, which leads to better reading and content area outcomes
  • In English‐language instructional settings, permit and promote primary language supports
  • In English‐language instructional settings, use sheltered instruction* strategies to combine content area learning with academic language acquisition

In sheltered instruction, English learners learn the mainstream curriculum but often work with modified materials and extra supports to accommodate their linguistic needs. The term “sheltered” is used to indicate that this creates a more learner‐friendly environment for the students.

Principle 4

English learners have background knowledge and home cultures that sometimes differ from the U.S. mainstream

It is all too easy for educators to see the “gaps” in the knowledge of new immigrant children who have never heard of Abraham Lincoln or old‐growth forests. In fact, English learners bring just as much background knowledge as any other student, but it is often knowledge of different histories, cultures, and places and not the background knowledge expected by schools and texts in the U.S.

Teachers should do the following

  • Use culturally compatible instruction to build a bridge between home and school
  • Make the norms and expectations of the classroom clear and explicit
  • Activate existing background knowledge and build new background knowledge to increase comprehension

Principle 5

Assessments measure language proficiency as well as actual content knowledge

Oral or written assessments inevitably measure English learners’ English skills as well as, or even more than, the content being tested. It is easy for English‐language difficulties to obscure what students actually know.

Teachers should do the following

  • Use testing accommodations as appropriate

Check out the original report on which this updated resource was based. To learn more about the services we provide to states, districts, and schools to better support English learner students, contact Kelli Scardina.