What Language Arts Teachers Should Know About Teaching English Learners

June 2018
teacher helping students in a classroom

Based on research, we identified key principles that teachers with English learner students in their classrooms should know. These principles are “big ideas” or concepts about second language acquisition and the academic challenges English learners face.

English learners benefit from the same basic approach to learning to read and write as their peers but need additional instructional supports.

There is substantial research available on good literacy instruction for students in general. Up to a point, these same findings are also applicable for English learners. However, English learners need additional supports, both when they are first learning to read, and later on as they develop more advanced reading and writing skills.

Teachers should:

  • Provide opportunities for additional work in English oral language development
  • Ensure that adolescent English learners receive ongoing literacy instruction and supports
  • Provide explicit instruction in writing for academic purposes

Many literacy skills transfer across languages

Despite tremendous variation, many languages use some of the same sounds we use in English. Sometimes, they represent them using the same letters, and even when they do not use the same letters, many still work with the alphabetic principle that letters represent sounds. Also, since English draws from multiple language traditions, some important vocabulary words are similar to related words in other languages (especially, but not only, Spanish). Students can generally transfer knowledge they have in their own language about sounds, letters, and vocabulary quite easily to the task of learning English. This is easiest to do when languages are similar (such as English and Spanish), but transfer is also possible across languages as different as English and Korean. Building on this transfer saves instructional time—teachers do not have to spend time teaching students who already read in Spanish the idea that letters represent sounds.

Teachers should:

  • Use primary language literacy as a starting place for English literacy instruction
  • If feasible, teach students to read in their primary language as well as in English

To learn more about the services we provide to states, districts, and schools to better support English learner students, visit our area of work page and contact Kelli Scardina.