English Language Learners

3 Tips to Remember When English Language Learners Struggle

The academic needs of language learners are distinct and complex—figuring out how to help when they struggle is critical for their success.

January 29, 2021
Allison Shelley for the Alliance for Excellent Education

When students who are learning English struggle in school, it can be especially difficult to figure out why—and how to help. There are plenty of “myths and misconceptions about services and supports” for English language learners (ELLs), writes Lydia Breiseth for Understood, leading schools to sometimes refer language learners for special education services when they don’t need them. It’s important to “know the facts behind these myths,” she writes, so educators can “make changes that can result in better outcomes for students.”

Start by getting to know English learners in your classroom and becoming better informed about their needs. In all cases, but especially when they’re struggling, Breiseth recommends gathering important information about them—including strengths, challenges, and background experiences—to help determine how to support them as they progress through the stages of language acquisition.

“ELLs bring unique skills, gifts, and talents to the classroom,” says Breiseth, who is the director of Colorín Colorado, a resource for teachers and families of English learners. “They often have rich background experiences, different perspectives, and the ability to navigate between multiple languages and cultures. They may also have sophisticated social-emotional skills, such as being tuned in to body language and tone of voice.”

As you get to know your English language learners, Breiseth recommends keeping the following three ideas top-of-mind:

1. Silence is a natural and important component of language learning: Just like toddlers and preschoolers who typically understand what they hear before being able to speak, “many students who are starting the process of learning a new language go through a nonverbal or ‘silent’ period,” Breiseth writes. The length of this interval depends on “the richness of the student’s language instruction and interaction in the classroom,” the student’s confidence level, and “whether they’re being encouraged to take risks” in the classroom.

This silent period is entirely natural and productive, yet language learners should be gently encouraged to steadily increase their talk time each week using strategies like “turn and talk,” Breiseth advises. “English language learners in particular benefit from ample talk time,” agrees high school ELA teacher Rosie Reid. “While it is possible to learn by listening, I’ve found that oral participation leads to greater gains in student literacy and engagement.”

Consider giving language learners questions ahead of time so they have time to prepare, and remember to speak slowly and add a few seconds after posing a question to give students time to think. “For English learners, it gives time to translate, process their thinking, translate back into English, and develop the courage to answer,” writes elementary and ESL teacher Emily Kaplan.

2. Students often understand you better than their language skills suggest: Language comprehension tends to develop faster than speech, and students might fully understand directions but not yet be able to respond fluently. This can create misunderstanding and frustration between students and teachers. “In many situations, students are actually succeeding, even though it doesn’t look like success to their teacher,” says Breiseth.

Using visuals like graphic organizers can help English learners organize their thoughts and learning—and demonstrate to you that they are on the right track, even if their grasp of the language is still developing.

Consider pairing pictures with important vocabulary words, or include them in assessments, or alongside printed directions to boost comprehension. When ESOL teacher Karissa Knox Sorrell taught Romeo and Juliet, she gave her English learners handouts with difficult words they’d encounter in each scene. “The handout had the word in English, a picture, and a place for students to write the translation of the word in their own language,” writes Knox Sorrell, who also projected the words and pictures on the board and explained each one.

3. English learners need a rich, engaging environment: When English learners struggle, Breiseth says there’s a tendency to look to special education for individualized support and attention—but that’s often a mistake. “This is not to say that when an ELL experiences academic challenges, it is always only a question of language,” she cautions. “But special education placement without careful consideration is not likely to help.”

Instead, she says it’s important to keep in mind that English learners need regular exposure to the “rich language environment and scaffolded support that matches their level of language proficiency.” They need access to rigorous curricula and a special education placement may cut them off from an environment in which, given enough time and targeted support, they might thrive. 

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