Friday / July 19

Launching the Just-Right Tools for English Learners

Many are using social networking to get word out that the US Departments of Education and Justice released guidance and tools about the legal obligations of teaching English learners. Last month, the US Department of Education released an English Learner Toolkit to help state and local education agencies help English Learners (ELs) by fulfilling these obligations. The guidance is an important time to remind us of the following.

English Learners are Not a Monolithic Group

English learners speak over 350+ languages and, while many come from countries other than the US, the majority of elementary-aged and a significant number of secondary ELs are born right here in the U.S. While some have had prior language and academic learning experiences that are similar to their American English-speaking peers, many don’t have the school matched language and literacy skills that are needed; live in extreme poverty; have experienced or are experiencing trauma, violence and chronic stress from civil strife, war, extreme poverty, being undocumented citizens and fearing deportation, and more.

One of two of the most comprehensive research syntheses about improving the outcomes of English learners shows that it takes several years for anyone to become competent in English, active participatory members of the school community, and demonstrate proficiency on state exams of English language arts and mathematics. And, the amount of time it takes depends on many variables including the strength of our policies, programming and practices to harness the potential and possibilities of ELs.

Critical Importance of Culturally Relevant Learning

Research shows that students learn more when their learning experiences are compatible with their social, cultural and language experiences. Many ELs and others come from collectivist cultures that believe strongly in relationships and community membership as a way of life. This is different from those of us from individualistic cultures; which place a high value on independence and competition.  With so much depending on standards and the standardized tests based on them, sometimes we can forget that the glue that binds education, for many, is the quality of human interaction and relationships. In the book, In It Together: How partnerships with students, families and communities Advance Engagement and Achievement in Diverse Classrooms, Michael Silverstone and I say it like this: “If we liken education to the art of baking, relationships represent the essential binding ingredient—the eggs, the butter that is the difference between a savory confection and a crumbly bowl of good ingredients.”

Large-Scale Initiatives Have Not Been The Magic Potion

Historically, many initiatives have been targeted to improving the outcomes of our nation’s students. All intended to remedy the chronic opportunity gap between some groups of students and others—including ELs whose rates of graduation and performance on standardized test scores are chronically among the nation’s lowest.

Focus on Engaging English Learners 

It may not be magic, but the two most comprehensive analyses of the research shows that education works when we build programming that is meaningfully and intentionally:

  1. Connected to students’ and families’ personal, social, cultural and world experiences.
  2. Based on students’ stage/level of language and literacy learning to support high levels of interactions orally, in writing, graphically, and kinesthetically.
  3. Linked to students’ prior learning experiences and academic knowledge so that they can draw from these to meaningfully express what they are learning.
  4. Focused on teaching students the thinking skills that are needed (e.g, the process involved in recounting information or analyzing, or summarizing) and providing multiple practice opportunities, visual displays, and authentic experiences to engage in these processes.

To do this, we need to strengthen our policies, programming and practices firmly in who English learners really are.  And, there is no better or more urgent time to do this than right now with the US DOEs guidance and tools in hand.


This article was drawn from the Corwin TeachALL APP available for Iphone and Ipad users, In It Together: How Partnerships with Students, Families and Communities Advance Engagement and Achievement in Diverse Classrooms (co-written with Michael Silverstone), Mastering academic language: a framework for supporting student achievementThe Essential Guide for Educating Beginning English Learners (co-written with Judie Haynes), and Transforming Schools for English Learners: a comprehensive framework for school leaders.

Written by

Debbie Zacarian is known nationally for her work in advancing student achievement PreK-16. A policy and practice expert, she has provided professional development for thousands of educators, written policies for numerous urban, suburban and rural districts and state agencies, and supported the efforts of many school and district improvement initiatives. She is a popular and frequent speaker at state, national and international conferences of major education organizations. Debbie is also a prolific author. Some of her professional books are In It Together, Mastering Academic Language, and Transforming Schools for English Learners. Schedule an on-site or virtual consultation, seminar, or workshop with Zacarian today!

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