Creating an Effective English-Language Learners Program
As the population of English learners in our public schools continues to rise across the nation, school districts are searching for ways to successfully educate our students who are learning English as a new language. We have discovered through decades of research and experience that the key to success is to get everyone on board—students, teachers, administrators, parents, and the community. As a secondary principal and instructional leader, you can play a vital role in this endeavor by setting the tone and expectations for your school staff and the community at large. Fortunately, a new resource has recently been published by a trusted and respected source, TESOL International Association (www.tesol.org), that will assist you in ensuring that best practices are in place for your English learners. The 6 Principles for Exemplary Teaching of English Learners: Grades K–12 (TESOL, 2018) is a succinct and practical text for you to explore with your school improvement or leadership team, with study questions and resources available on the book’s companion website. This article provides a short summary of the principles with sample applications to help you put them into practice.
Principle 1: Know Your Learners
English learners across the country are a diverse group of students from various countries and cultures. The English learners in your school district may represent this diversity, or they may belong to only one or two main cultural or language groups. Whatever the demographic, it is important to know who your learners are and what experiences they come with so you can determine what these students need to adjust to their new culture and be academically successful.
To know the learners in your school and help them adjust to their new situation, you can:
- Learn about the cultures of your students and encourage staff to do so—your families will appreciate your interest. As a start, you can gain information from the website http://guide.culturecrossing.net. Be sure to engage translators and interpreters, as needed, so that parents understand the communication coming from the school and the school understands the families’ needs.
- Encourage staff to affirm the strengths, capabilities, and rich experiences that English learners bring to the learning community, rather than viewing these students as having a deficit because they do not yet know English.
- Conduct interviews with new students and their families so that you know their educational and social/emotional history and can meet their needs in these areas. If possible, conduct home visits and/or meet with families in their communities. Consider providing school supplies as a “welcome gift” for new arrivals.
- Listen to your staff as they become informed and describe issues and concerns regarding their English learners. Problem-solve together to get the appropriate academic, social, and emotional supports in place.
Principle 2: Create Conditions for Language Learning
Students learn best when they feel comfortable, respected, and free to make errors, which are a natural part of learning a language. When you visit classrooms, evaluate the learning environment to see whether English learners are taking risks and participating. Are the students working in small groups so that English learners feel comfortable speaking and asking questions? Are the instructional materials differentiated so that all students can access the subject matter? Here are a few other ways to create optimal learning conditions that foster a safe, welcoming school environment:
- Hire bilingual staff, especially for the front office. It’s the first place a new family will likely encounter.
- Aim to hire content-area teachers who also have a bilingual or ESL/ESD endorsement and/or teachers who have experience working with other cultures. Additionally, consider hiring bilingual paraeducators who can help English learners adjust to their new environment and create a vital link with families. You can find more information about the significant role that paraeducators can play in the total program for English learners in the recently published The 6 Principles Quick Guide for Paraeducators (Amaral, 2019).
- Make multilingualism part of school culture. If you speak another language, speak it to students, or try to learn a few words in their languages. Use multilingual signage in hallways.
- Support the use and development of home languages. Make sure teachers understand the role that home language can play in learning English and content subjects.
Principle 3: Design High-Quality Lessons for Language Development
Teachers need to use effective strategies to help English learners acquire content and language. English learners must be active learners, not passive students sitting in the back of the room; however, many teachers feel unprepared to teach English learners because they were never trained in this area. Assist your staff in gaining the skills they need in the following ways:
- Look for professional development opportunities provided by your state, universities, TESOL International Association, or local TESOL affiliates. Set aside funds for these conferences
- and follow up during classroom observations.
- Encourage collaboration between ESL/English language development (ELD) teachers and content teachers, and consider establishing co-planning and co-teaching opportunities.
- Set aside funds for teachers to purchase supplementary materials at various language proficiency levels and in students’ home languages.
- Ask your ESL/ELD teachers to share effective strategies such as graphic organizers, pictures, videos, and home language support through a bilingual “buddy” or translation website. Introduce your staff to the “GO TO Strategies” available through www.cal.org/what-we-do/projects/project-excell/the-go-to-strategies; encourage your staff to try out these strategies and discuss their successes and challenges.
- Work to align district curricula with state English-language proficiency standards. Review district materials and curricula for cultural and linguistic appropriateness, and modify if needed.
Principle 4: Adapt Lesson Delivery as Needed
As teachers adapt to a changing student population and try out different strategies, they are bound to have some successes and some failures. By creating an atmosphere where teachers feel safe to experiment, you can encourage teachers to break out of ineffective habits and grow professionally. After trying new techniques, they need to reflect and make adjustments, either during a lesson or afterwards as they assess what went well and what didn’t.
Fortunately, there are several networking places online where teachers can make inquiries and confer with other teachers of English learners. TESOL International Association has Interest Sections available to members through www.tesol.org/connect/communities-of-practice, and here are some blogs to explore: www.colorincolorado.org/blog; www.empoweringells.com/blog; and larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/larry-ferlazzos-english-website.
Principle 5: Monitor and Assess Student Language Development
Analyzing data is also important in order to know whether your school is successfully educating your English learners. Besides classroom tests and grades, you generally have two types of assessment data to examine: data from English proficiency assessments, which are normed on English learners; and other standardized assessment data, which are not normed. The latter types, consequently, are less reliable as indicators of success. Here are some suggestions to help you navigate English proficiency data:
- Ensure that you and your staff know how to interpret the data from your state’s English proficiency assessment. Use all four domains of the English proficiency data to analyze performance issues, and ask yourself: Do students have high speaking and listening scores but low reading and writing scores, or vice versa? Use this analysis to promote discussion with teachers and make targeted instructional improvements.
- Ensure that all staff know that the performance of English learners on English proficiency assessments is now part of the school’s and district’s accountability report under the Every Student Succeeds Act.
For other standardized assessment data, you should:
- Use caution when interpreting English learners’ performance on standardized tests given in English, as they are being tested in a language that they are still learning.
- Rely more on the progress your English learners have made, rather than on the level of achievement they have reached.
- Know which “supports” (such as bilingual dictionaries, time extension, and native language translations) are allowable for English learners to use on standardized assessments, and then make them available. Have your students practice using these supports in class before the test.
Principle 6: Engage and Collaborate Within a Community of Practice
When the administration, teachers, families, and the community work together, schools can create a quality education for English learners. In this complex endeavor, members of a school community need to share expertise and experiences, reflect on successes and failures, and move forward with necessary changes. Here are some suggestions to help promote collaboration and make effective use of resources:
- Consult experts in your district, other districts, and universities regarding best practices for working with English learners.
- Encourage teachers to collaborate and share successes and best practices, and give them time to do so.
- Make use of community resources and ensure that families know how to access them.
- Ensure that the ESL/ELD and bilingual staff are involved in the process for determining whether ELLs have special needs and providing them with necessary services. Be familiar with the laws in this area.
- Use The 6 Principles for Exemplary Teaching of English Learners: Grades K–12 in a book study group with your school improvement or leadership team, and encourage your teachers to do so in their professional learning communities. Use the book with the handy checklist in the appendix to reflect on your current practices and to guide program improvement efforts. See the6principles.org to learn more about the resources available.
Creating optimal learning conditions for English learners requires a determined, multifaceted, “all hands on deck” approach. The 6 Principles for Exemplary Teaching of English Learners: Grades K–12 can serve as a guide as you take the lead in creating these conditions. The rewards are many as you observe your English learners accomplish the task of learning English and their school subjects, graduate from high school and beyond, and become productive members of society.
Helene Becker is the instructional specialist of the English-language learner education department in the Norwalk Public Schools in Norwalk, CT. She was a member of the writing team for The 6 Principles for Exemplary Teaching of English Learners: Grades K–12 (2018) and is the author of Teaching ESL K–12: Views from the Classroom (2001).
Sidebar: A Success Story
One school district created targeted programs that focused on the specific needs of ELL students—ultimately improving their academic trajectory:
“As our school district began to receive high school-aged students with limited education, we formed a committee to figure out how to meet their unique needs. As a result, we instituted changes to our academic program by offering foundational courses in ESL, math, and science. We opened an ESL tutoring center so that students could get their homework done during the school day. We also found that many of these students had experienced trauma in their home countries, so we brought the Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools program. Lastly, we created a summer program so that students could accelerate their language acquisition. By learning about these students’ academic histories and goals, we have helped them graduate and go on to postsecondary education or careers.”—Helene Becker