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Professional Learning

Ask Ellen: English-Language Lagging

How do I help English language learners catch up for standardized tests?

November 14, 2007
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 languages 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’re 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 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’ll 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 learning the notoriously difficult-to-pronounce English language are dealt with lightheartedly. 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 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 with 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.

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, 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.

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

Best of luck, Ellen

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  • Professional Learning
  • English Language Learners
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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