George Lucas Educational Foundation

Ask Ellen: English-Language Lagging

How do I help English-language learners catch up for standardized tests?
By Ellen Moir
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
Credit: Bart Nagel

Dear Ellen,

I am a third-year fourth-grade teacher in an urban school district. We have many children of immigrant families who seem to pick up English like magic in the first few years, but by the time they get to my grade level, their standardized-test scores are significantly lower than those of their native English-speaking peers. What can I do to help my English-language learners (ELLs) catch up?


Dear Frances,

You raise a very important question. Current research about language learners tends to defy conventional wisdom: Young children do not learn language faster than adults. They certainly have fewer inhibitions about trying out their new vocabularies, and they have an uncanny ability to pick up accents, but they're sliding by on the strength of their 3,000- to 5,000-word social vocabularies, sounding great but understanding little.

Like adult language learners, they often won't admit they are lost, so you need to look beyond what they say ("Oh, sure, I understand") to how they perform in class, on independent assignments (including homework), and on standardized tests.

Students who started school as non-English speakers probably lag behind their peers on core vocabulary by at least 5,000 words by fifth grade, which helps explain the achievement gap. So, if vocabulary is the heart of the matter, teachers look for ways to increase English-language learners' vocabulary within every lesson and content area.

Direct vocabulary instruction (the good old vocabulary word list) is a little helpful, but we know that students will retain many more new words when the new words are taught and used repeatedly in context -- and with visual accompaniment. Learning new words can be exciting, and if you model how you actually learn new words, you will see your students start to share the new words they come across.

Reading aloud in class can be scary for ELLs; the possible land mine of an unfamiliar word lurks in every paragraph. But your thoughtful concern for them suggests to me that your classroom is a safe place to risk making mistakes and where challenges while learning the notoriously difficult-to-pronounce English language are dealt with light-heartedly. Independent reading should always be valued, but reading materials for ELLs should be carefully selected. A "just right" ELL book might have new words highlighted and explained on every page, for example.

As you create an environment that supports language development across all content areas, you want to be sure your students have opportunities for purposeful conversation. You might want to ask yourself, "Are my activities structured so students have to talk with to one another? Am I providing content and structure for meaningful conversations to happen? Am I helping my students extend their vocabulary and sentence structure? Are my students interacting with students of all backgrounds and language abilities?"

Classroom Instruction That Works, by Robert J. Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane E. Pollock, lists the nine most effective strategies in order of promoting academic success. Classroom Instruction That Works with English Language Learners, by Jane D. Hill and Kathleen M. Flynn, is my favorite because it identifies why those strategies are critical to ELLs and how they can be used for students at different stages of learning academic English. You might also want to become familiar with successful programs designed for learners of academic English, such as Guided Language Acquisition Design (GLAD).

You, Frances, like many more experienced teachers, struggle to find that fine balance between making content accessible for all and imparting that content in the required time. I encourage you to work with your grade-level colleagues, your administrators, and district-level curriculum specialists to help guide you in making these important decisions in support of your ELLs. There isn't an easy answer, but I think you'll find it helpful to be continually conscious of these strategies and use them when possible.

Credit: Bart Nagel

And, most importantly, keep asking these kinds of important questions!

Best of luck,

Ellen Moir is a veteran bilingual teacher who is focused on the challenges faced by new teachers as well as on the needs of those with long careers in education. She is also the executive director of the New Teacher Center, at the University of California at Santa Cruz, a resource for educator-induction research, policy, and practice.

Comments (3) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a new 2nd grade teacher with several ESL students. Do you have any suggestions on how to reach these students & help them learn while in the regular classroom? I've used a "word for the day" in both Spanish & English hoping to involve the whole class in learning the language unknown to them. Any suggestions?

Thank you.

Kamala Bhaskar's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach English as Second Language from grades K to 5. Although I cannot claim that I am an expert, I can give you a few suggestions for you to try with your ESL students.
a. If they do not know how to read in English and if you have to teach them the alphabet, use the letters and sounds songs so they get familiar with the letter sound connection. They can listen to the tape or CD independently and match the letters and pictures in a book.
b.Use books with repetitive language to help them with learning vocabulary and language structure. They can connect the text to their real life situations and use the same structure for writing. You can assign an English speaking 'buddy' who can read to the ESL stdent during center time or any other time that you choose.
c.Let them listen to plenty of books on tape.
d. During morning meetings, you can choose a song, put the words on a chart paper and sing with all your students. Pointing to the words as you sing,
helps them to see the words while they sing.
e.We use a very useful website for our ESL students. It is
It is very useful for developing reading skills. They can use headphones so they do not disturb the others in your class.
These are a few things that we do regularly. You can use these strategies without too much disturbance to your schedule.

I hope this helps.

Kamala Bhaskar

Matt M's picture
Matt M
West Fargo

I am a 9-12 grade social studies ELL teacher. Many of the ideas mentioned in the article are great at helping students become better at taking tests. Building the background knowledge and vocabulary are really important for ELL students to do better on assessments. As we know, this is a lot easy said than done. I have been to quite a few different workshops and like the article mentions giving them time to talk in English with their peers is important. However, there is quite a difference between academic language and basic communication. At the high school level, I only have students for a few years to bet them prepared for college or the work force. In any case, speaking and writing academically is important. I am wondering for those high school teachers who teach ELL students what are some activities/strategies that you use to help students learn the academic language that you find on most tests or assessments?

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.