George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teacher Development

Ask Ellen: English-Language Lagging

How do I help English-language learners catch up for standardized tests?
    Credit: Bart Nagel

    Dear Ellen,

    I am a third-year fourth-grade teacher in anurban school district. We have many childrenof immigrant families who seem to pick upEnglish like magic in the first few years, butby the time they get to my grade level, theirstandardized-test scores are significantly lowerthan those of their native English-speakingpeers. What can I do to help my English-languagelearners (ELLs) catch up?


    Dear Frances,

    You raise a very important question. Current researchabout language learners tends to defy conventional wisdom:Young children do not learn language faster thanadults. They certainly have fewer inhibitions about tryingout their new vocabularies, and they have anuncanny ability to pick up accents, but they're slidingby on the strength of their 3,000- to 5,000-word socialvocabularies, sounding great but understanding little.

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

    Students who started school as non-English speakersprobably lag behind their peers on core vocabularyby at least 5,000 words by fifth grade, which helpsexplain the achievement gap. So, if vocabulary is theheart of the matter, teachers look for ways to increaseEnglish-language learners' vocabulary within every lesson andcontent area.

    Direct vocabulary instruction (the goodold vocabulary word list) is a little helpful, but we knowthat students will retain many more new words whenthe new words are taught and used repeatedly in context -- and with visual accompaniment. Learning newwords can be exciting, and if you model how you actuallylearn new words, you will see your students start toshare the new words they come across.

    Reading aloud in class can be scary for ELLs; the possible land mine of an unfamiliar wordlurks in every paragraph. But your thoughtful concernfor them suggests to me that your classroom is asafe place to risk making mistakes and where challengeswhile learning the notoriously difficult-to-pronounceEnglish language are dealt with light-heartedly.Independent reading should always be valued, butreading materials for ELLs should be carefully selected.A "just right" ELL book might have new words highlightedand explained on every page, for example.

    As you create an environment that supports languagedevelopment across all content areas, you wantto be sure your students have opportunities for purposefulconversation. You might want to ask yourself, "Are my activities structured so students have to talkwith to one another? Am I providing content andstructure for meaningful conversations to happen? AmI helping my students extend their vocabulary and sentencestructure? Are my students interacting with studentsof all backgrounds and language abilities?"

    Classroom Instruction That Works, by Robert J.Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane E. Pollock, liststhe nine most effective strategies in order of promotingacademic success. Classroom Instruction That Workswith English Language Learners, by Jane D. Hill andKathleen M. Flynn, is my favorite because itidentifies why those strategies are critical to ELLs andhow they can be used for students at different stages oflearning academic English. You might also want tobecome familiar with successful programs designed forlearners of academic English, such as Guided LanguageAcquisition Design (GLAD).

    You, Frances, like many more experienced teachers,struggle to find that fine balance between makingcontent accessible for all and imparting that contentin the required time. I encourage you to work withyour grade-level colleagues, your administrators, anddistrict-level curriculum specialists to help guide youin making these important decisions in support of yourELLs. There isn't an easy answer,but I think you'll find it helpfulto be continually conscious ofthese strategies and use themwhen possible.

    Credit: Bart Nagel

    And, most importantly, keepasking these kinds of importantquestions!

    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.

    Bewitched? Bothered? Bewildered? Ellen Moir is here to help. Write her at, and please include your name, affiliation,and contact information.