Main Body

8. Helping English Language Learners Develop Literacy Skills and Succeed Academically

Tess M. Dussling


The aim of this chapter is to provide educators with background knowledge on English language learners and information on how to better assist culturally and linguistically diverse students to develop the literacy skills crucial for academic success. Differences in social and academic language will be addressed, at6s well as theories of language acquisition and language learning. Recommendations to educators will be offered to better assist students as they become proficient in the English language while being exposed to new content in the classroom. The chapter also will draw upon the importance of including students’ previous experiences, along with embracing students’ cultural and linguistic diversity.

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, readers will be able to

  1. discuss how English language learners’ prior experiences influence how they learn;
  2. explain different types of programs available for English language learners in schools;
  3. describe the difference between social language proficiency and academic language proficiency;
  4. explain the developmental stages of learning a new language;
  5. offer suggestions for helping English language learners succeed academically.


Today’s classrooms in the United States are filled with children who speak a variety of native languages and who bring great diversity, culture, and previous experiences with them. As schools become increasingly diverse, there is an urgent need to prepare all teachers to meet the challenge of teaching both content and English language skills to students. English language learners are the fastest growing population of students in the United States (Calderón, Slavin, & Sanchez, 2011), raising many concerns over how educators can best meet the needs of this diverse group of learners. School-aged children considered to be English language learners (ELLs) rose from 3.54 million in 1998-1999 to 5.3 million in 2008-2009 (National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition, 2011), and it is estimated that one in five students has a home language other than English (Gonzalez, Yawkey, & Minaya-Rowe, 2006). As the number of ELLs increases in schools across the country, educators face the challenge of providing instruction in English to students who are learning English while combatting academic achievement gaps. While the research cited and strategies discussed in this chapter are presented in the context of teaching English language learners in schools in the United States, educators in other countries can also apply what is reviewed when teaching English as a new language abroad.

Who are English Language Learners?

The definition of an English language learner is not a simple one as some students may have relatively no knowledge of the English language when entering the classroom while others have mastered many English skills and are now focusing on more difficult academic content. Terms used to describe English language learners do tend to cause some confusion as terms may overlap and change over time. In order to alleviate any confusion, some common terms and acronyms will be briefly explained for a better understanding throughout the rest of the chapter.

English language learner (ELL) is a term used for a person learning English in addition to their native language. It is important to keep in mind that English language learners are students learning English while learning in English. Throughout the chapter the term English language learner will be used as a way of emphasizing that the students are learning and progressing in a new language. This term is often preferred over others, as it highlights the learning aspect of acquiring a new language instead of suggesting that students with other native languages are in some way deficient.

Some schools still use the term English as a second language (ESL), but that term may not be accurate for students who already have knowledge of more than one language. Often, ESL refers to the instructional support English language learners receive while in school. You may hear teachers or students refer to ESL class or ESL time during the school day. Certified ESL teachers may be “push-in” teachers, meaning they come into general education classrooms to assist English language learners, or they may pull English language learners out of class for more intensive English language instruction.

English as a new language (ENL) is a term gaining popularity over ESL in some schools and teacher certification programs and is also the term used by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (2010). Similarly, as a way of highlighting that many English language learners may have competency of more than two languages, the state of New York has changed Common Core Learning Standard terminology from English as a Second Language Learning Standards to New Language Arts Progressions (EngageNY, 2014). Other common terms seen in schools include English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), English as a foreign language (EFL), and English as another language (EAL). Limited English proficient (LEP) is the term used in legislation and state or federal documents to refer to students who lack sufficient mastery of the English language; however, it has been suggested by teachers and researchers that this term has a negative connotation and views the child as “limited,” when in fact, the child is actually acquiring new language skills. A subpopulation of English language learners who have experienced little or no formal schooling are referred to as students with interrupted formal education (SIFE) or students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE). This group of ELLs has missed educational experiences in their home country due to a number of factors including the unavailability of school, war, or migration. It is quite possible that students with limited or interrupted education may not have a strong grasp of literacy in their native language and face a triple threat when entering schools in the United States: developing proficiency in the English language, learning grade-level subject matters, and developing and/or improving literacy skills (DeCapua, Smathers, & Tang, 2007). It should be noted that it is often much easier for a student to learn to read in English when they are already literate in their primary language (e.g., August & Shanahan, 2006; Rolstad, Mahoney, & Glass, 2005; Slavin & Cheung, 2005). Some researchers believe this is because students who are learning to read for the first time in a new language have to do twice the work since they are learning the process of reading while learning a new language (Short & Fitzsimmons, 2007). In a large review of scientific research on English language learners in the United States, Genesee, Lindholm-Leary, Saunders, and Christian (2005) reported that English literacy development is greatly influenced by literacy knowledge in the learner’s first language. Additionally, English language learners who are literate in their first language can draw upon strategies they already know such as making inferences and using prior knowledge to help gain understanding when reading in a new language.

English Language Learners in Schools

The academic performance of English language learners cannot be fully understood without considering their social, cultural, and economic characteristics, as well as the institutional history of U.S. schools (Jensen, 2008). As would be expected, there is a large range of socioeconomic status levels and parental education attainment levels among English language learners. However, English language learners are more likely than native English speaking students to live in poverty and have parents with limited formal education (García & Jensen, 2006). This is mentioned because it is important to keep in mind that the educational achievement of English language learners, like native English speaking students, can be impacted by a variety of background factors including family income, parental educational attainment, parental language proficiency, and family structure.

It is imperative for educators to understand that children’s prior experiences can impact how they learn (e.g., Hammer, Lawrence, & Miccio, 2007; Konishi, 2007). There may be a tendency for teachers to lump English language learners into one group, expecting the children to act and learn in the same way. In reality, like native English speakers, English language learners come from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and languages. ELLs are a highly heterogeneous group of students with diverse backgrounds, abilities, and needs. These children bring with them a range of experiences and varying prior knowledge. Children will develop language skills at different speeds, and teachers should be aware that they cannot expect all ELLs to learn in the same fashion (Harper & de Jong, 2004). It is also important to consider a child’s prior language experiences. Some children come to school with prior exposure to English, while others may not be introduced to English until they begin school. Children’s outcomes may differ depending on when they were first exposed to English (Hammer et al., 2007). Understanding students’ linguistic and cultural knowledge both at school and beyond school (e.g., first language literacy, oral proficiency levels, language(s) spoken at home, and prior experiences) can help teachers link new material and vocabulary words to things students may already know (Cummins et al., 2005; de Jong, Harper, & Coady, 2013).

The amount of cultural and linguistic diversity in a classroom may vary depending on its location. In a metropolitan area there may be students from a great number of countries, representing many different languages, or a group of students that share the same native language if it is a location where many immigrants come to work in a specific industry or in a community that has recently welcomed a large refugee population. Each of these situations offers its own unique advantages and challenges. In a classroom full of cultural and linguistic diversity, English will be the only possible method of communication between a teacher and students. This will inevitably create a situation where students have no choice but to practice English often. On the other hand, if many of the students speak the same language, a teacher can embrace this by having the class note similarities and differences between the languages. Additionally, students can offer support for one another in their native language. Regardless of the composition of a class, it is important to remember that English language learners are not a homogenous group. As a reminder, even in a class where most of the students speak the same native language, they could have a variety of socioeconomic status backgrounds, may have lived in radically different parts of the same country, and could have vastly different experiences with formal schooling. For example, an English language learner in your class may have come from a country where students attend school for eight hours a day, five or six days a week, and prepare for competitive exams. Another student may have attended school in a refugee camp where classes with 70 to 80 peers took place in temporary shelters with little furniture.

Educational programs for English language learners

There is quite a bit of controversy about how to best ensure the success of English language learners. Policy makers, researchers, and educators alike have been trying to figure out what is the appropriate role of a child’s native language when learning English. A landmark legal case, Lau v. Nichols (1974), brought the issue of educational practices regarding English language learners into the limelight. Chinese American students challenged the school board in San Francisco, saying that they were not receiving appropriate educational opportunities because of their limited English proficiency. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students, acknowledging the need to better serve English language learners. While the outcome of the case was an important legal event for bilingual education, it did not establish any specific bilingual policy.

When referring to different types of educational programs for English language learners, it should be noted that there is a wide variety of both bilingual programs and English-only programs. Bilingual programs can encompass anything from dual language to early exit programs; while English-only programs may differ in the amount of help from the primary language they allow (Krashen & McField, 2005). In dual language programs, children are taught content in two languages throughout the school day, whereas early exit programs begin instruction in a child’s native language and then gradually transition to completely English instruction.

In immersion programs, a child’s native language plays virtually no role. While teachers may use supportive strategies to help English language learners, a common feature is the exclusive use of English text. English immersion programs are being encouraged in several states due to adoption of English-only legislation. These laws require that all children be taught English by using solely English, with claims that children can reach English proficiency in one year’s time (MacSwan & Pray, 2005). For example, California, Arizona, and Massachusetts have passed laws with the intention to bar the use of primary language instruction for English language learners. These states have replaced bilingual programs with Structured English Immersion programs, which aim to expedite the English learning process by using simple English in the classroom with little to no attention on the students’ native languages (Gándara et al., 2010). All three states aim to have students in Structured English Immersion programs for no more than one year before they are moved to regular classes. However, evidence from research suggests that students need three to five years to achieve advanced English proficiency (Genesee, Lindholm-Leary, Saunders, & Christian, 2006). In their study on acquisition of English, MacSwan, and Pray (2005) found that only about two percent of children attained English language proficiency in one year. It has been suggested that since the United States has made an effort to maintain the dominance of the English language in schools, a culture has developed that defines students by English proficiency (Gándara et al., 2010). An example of this can be found in terms used in government documents and schools, such as Limited English Proficient, that focus exclusively on how well a student has acquired the English language.

In contrast to English-only programs, bilingual education programs involve both the native language and English when addressing academic content. Bilingual education can refer to a wide range of instructional programs for children whose native language is not English with the goal of helping students acquire English so they can succeed in mainstream classes. In the United States, the most common bilingual programs offer instruction in English and Spanish, as approximately 80% of ELLs in U.S. schools are from Spanish-language backgrounds (Loeffer, 2007). Proponents of bilingual education believe that effective bilingual programs should strive to instill proficiency in both English and the student’s native language. In two-way bilingual programs, half of the students are native English speakers and half are considered English language learners. These programs aim to teach children more about language and culture and rest on the premise that diversity is a valuable resource. According to Krashen and McField (2005), “when it comes to English acquisition, native-language instruction is part of the solution, not part of the problem” (p. 10).

A benefit of bilingual education programs is that children are able to further their language abilities in their home language while learning a new language. Studies conducted by Willig (1985) and Wong-Fillmore and Valadez (1986) found that benefits of bilingual education included improved reading and other academic skills, plus a recent meta-analysis by Rolstad et al. (2005) showed that bilingual education is superior to English-only programs by showing that bilingual education does promote academic achievement. Coppola (2005) stressed that knowledge gained in one language is available for use in the second language and that some language abilities can be transferred. A fear of English-only programs is that children will begin to lose skill in their native language. It is not a stretch to say that if children lose proficiency in their home language, they lose a piece of their identity. If students begin to lose their home language, communication with family members can become difficult, causing tension and disruption of family dynamics. Sadly, children may even begin to view their native language as inferior to English. Still, the hope is that bilingual programs will be adding a new language instead of replacing the native language with English. It should be noted that while benefits of bilingual education have a strong research base, a common argument against bilingual education is that many people have succeeded in acquiring a new language without such programs, fueling restrictive language policies in some states as mentioned previously.

Academic and Social Language Proficiency

Historically, literature has noted a divide between the development of social language abilities in English language learners and the development of academic language (Hawkins, 2004). Cummins (1979) coined the acronyms BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills) and CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) to help explain students’ language abilities to teachers. This distinction helps highlight that many English language learners may quickly develop proficiency in casual spoken English but may continue to struggle with academic language and writing. Awareness of the differences between social language and academic language can help teachers assist students in all domains of language—listening, speaking, reading, and writing. When making the distinction between conversational or social language and academic language, Cummins drew upon work by Skutnabb-Kangas and Toukomaa (1976), who had been studying Finnish children living in Sweden. While the children were seemingly fluent in both Finnish and Swedish, they were falling behind academically and not meeting grade level expectations. Cummins (1979) hypothesized that there were two elements of language proficiency, one reflecting the ability to carry on conversations about everyday events, and another that was needed to comprehend school subjects. In one study testing this hypothesis, Cummins (1984) examined four hundred teacher referral forms and psychological assessments of English language learners from a large school district in Canada. Similar to what was found with Finnish children in Sweden, the forms prepared by teachers and psychologists noted that the children had no difficulty understanding English, yet they were performing poorly on English tasks in the classroom and on the verbal portions of cognitive ability tests. Since the English language learners appeared to speak English well, the teachers and psychologists assumed difficulties in class were due to cognitive abilities rather than linguistic factors and placed many of the children in special education. Cummins argued that English language learners may not necessarily have difficulties learning, but that there was the possibility that they had not developed the appropriate type of language proficiency to be successful in an academic setting. He believed that these ELLs had developed the ability to converse casually, but had not developed academic language proficiency.

Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS), which are typically acquired first when learning a new language, refers to language skills often needed in social settings. Social language is the type of language students need for mingling in the lunchroom, on the playground, and in school hallways. Students may pick up on classroom routines quickly and learn essential vocabulary words such as water and bathroom. This is the type of language that is learned when there are many clues to aid comprehension. Background knowledge on the topic and clues such as facial expressions provide a context to understand this type of language; however, it can be easy to mistake the social ability that English language learners first develop for the type of proficiency and fluency necessary to succeed in the classroom.

Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) refers to the formal academic language that is needed for success in school. In the literature surrounding the education of English language learners, academic language is thought of as the focus of the curriculum, textbooks, and formal instruction. This type of language is not part of a student’s typical vocabulary, yet is often required for lectures, reports, and other academic situations. When faced with academic language, students must be able to rely on the actual language, not clues, to make meaning. Introducing key terms before a lesson, utilizing pictures with new vocabulary words, and assessing background knowledge are all ways teachers can help engage English language learners with academic language.

Cummins (1980) stated that BICS, language used in informal and face-to-face interactions, can be acquired by English language learners quite quickly and easily, while the more cognitively challenging CALP takes longer to acquire. Teachers are confused often when English language learners, who seem to converse with great fluency, struggle in academic areas. It is likely that this confusion is due to the fact that it takes much longer to develop proficiency in content material because it is much more demanding cognitively. The distinction between BICS and CALP is often shown using a picture of an iceberg (see Figure 1). The tip of the iceberg that we can see represents BICS, the conversational fluency that can often lead to mistaken assumptions about a student’s academic work abilities. However, the much larger portion of the iceberg is beneath the water, representing CALP, the academic language necessary for success in the classroom.


Figure 1. The visible tip of the iceberg represents how conversational fluency may lead to assumptions about a student’s academic work abilities. The section of the iceberg beneath the water represents the actual academic language necessary for success in the classroom.

Language Acquisition Theories and Application

For teachers to effectively meet the needs of English language learners, it is important to have an understanding about the process of acquiring a new language. Research has long supported the idea that similar language and thinking processes are at play between acquiring a first language and acquiring another language (e.g., Dulay & Burt, 1974; Ervin-Tripp, 1974; Ravem, 1968). English language learners, like monolingual learners, acquire language through a series of developmental stages that form a continuum. This continuum is divided into levels signifying the proficiency level of the language learner. It is important to understand that while all English language learners typically acquire English by passing through the same series of stages, the pace of acquisition varies greatly. Students who are literate in their native language or who have had continuous schooling are much more likely to move through the stages at a faster pace than someone who is not literate in their native language or who has had limited or interrupted formal education. Understanding a student’s English proficiency level can help teachers plan appropriate lessons and assessments to meet the individual needs of the English language learner.

Generally, English language learners have stronger receptive language skills (listening and reading) than productive language skills (speaking and writing), and their vocabulary will be stronger in whichever language they are exposed to the most often. An English language learner may know the name for a word in one language but not in the other language. For example, a child may know words for microwave and refrigerator only in Spanish because all prior experience with those objects occurred in the home with parents who speak Spanish. Conversely, the same child may know the names of school objects only in English because that is where they are exposed to them. Given appropriate exposure and opportunities to develop both languages, children can gain comparable abilities in each language.

Theories about how people learn a new language are often derived from theories about how people learn a first language. Since first language acquisition is accomplished by children worldwide, researchers and educators interested in second (or third or fourth) language acquisition have often used first language acquisition theories as a model. Linguist Stephen Krashen believes that there is no fundamental difference between how people acquire their first language and how they acquire subsequent languages. However, Krashen (1982) does make a distinction between language acquisition and language learning. He notes that language acquisition is a natural process in that young children typically acquire their native language at home with no formal teaching. Acquiring a language is simply “picking it up” and being able to use the language in natural situations. When people have acquired a language, they do not need to think about the formal rules of the language. Instead, there is a subconscious feeling that sentences “sound right” or “sound wrong.” On the other hand, learning a new language includes understanding things such as grammar and the formal rules of the language.

Krashen’s theories about how a child acquires a new language have been influential in promoting instructional practices that encourage teachers to focus on communication with students and that allow students to develop at a pace that is appropriate for their developmental stage. In their classic book The Natural Approach (1983), Krashen and Terrell first explored the stages of language acquisition and explained ways teachers could help with the process in the classroom. These naturally occurring stages, often referred to in literature surrounding the education of English language learners, are 1) pre-production, 2) early production, 3) speech emergence, 4) intermediate fluency, and 5) advanced fluency. An adapted summary of these five stages follows, along with approximate time frames, characteristics of each stage, and suggested instructional strategies for teachers. More information and summaries of these stages can be found on pages of websites such as ¡Colorín Colorado!, Everything ESL, ESL Base, and Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

The pre-production stage is generally thought to last anywhere from a few hours to the first six months when learning a new language. Often referred to as the silent or receptive stage, English language learners are beginning to understand the new language but typically do not engage in conversations. Students at this first stage may just be starting to feel comfortable in a new setting and may use nonverbal communication to respond to comments. It is important to keep in mind that silence does not necessarily mean that the student is not learning. The English language learner may be taking in a lot of information, but is just not yet ready to speak. Helpful instructional strategies include using real objects to illustrate concepts, role playing or pantomiming, pointing to pictures, and employing total physical response (TPR). The total physical response method, developed by psychologist James Asher (1977), coordinates language with physical movement to help students learn the target language. In early TPR lessons, students may learn simple commands such as stand up or clap your hands (taught while the teacher is standing up or clapping his or her hands). As students begin to develop a greater grasp of the language, the commands can become more complex and students can even give out commands for their teacher and peers to follow. TPR does not have to be limited to students at the earliest stage of language acquisition. Including body movements can help children of all language levels and in a variety of subject areas (Segal, 1983; Zwiers, 2007). It is quite likely that a student would gain a deeper understanding of vocabulary and concepts, such as how planets rotate around the sun by actually moving objects around a model of a sun. The same could be true for acting out an important event being taught in a history or social studies class.

Early production, the second stage, thought to last six months to a year, is characterized by limited comprehension and the initiation of short sentences. Students at this phase are likely to grasp the main idea of topics but not every word spoken. During early production students may respond with one to three word groupings and begin to produce words that are frequently used. Teachers can help students at this stage by asking them yes or no questions during class. Granted, teachers are usually encouraged to ask open-ended questions to elicit more information from students; however, asking an English language learner yes–no questions during this phase may help create a low anxiety environment, help them feel more included in the classroom activities, and keep them engaged in the lessons. It may also be beneficial for teachers to rephrase statements using simpler vocabulary to boost comprehension.

Speech emergence, lasting anywhere from one to three years, is thought of as a time of experimentation as students begin to learn more about vocabulary and sentence structure. Students at this stage often engage in trial and error as they initiate simple sentences. Teachers can help by providing language models for students to use in response to questions and by expanding the question format to include how and why questions.

Students in the intermediate fluency stage begin to use longer and more complex sentences. At this time, students have typically been immersed in the new language for three to five years. Teachers can foster development at this stage by asking students to compare elements of language and focus on the similarities and differences between English and their native language. Many languages have cognates, which are words with shared meanings from common roots (e.g., curious/curioso, geography/geographía). Pointing out simple cognates can help increase students’ vocabularies and comprehension. This may also be a good time to point out false cognates which can be the root of some trouble in conversations for students. Examples of false cognates include rope and ropa, with ropa meaning clothes, and an even more troubling one includes embarrassed and embarazada (pregnant). During the intermediate fluency stage, teachers can also help students identify words they overuse, such as nice and good and build their vocabularies with more sophisticated terms.

The last stage in Krashen and Terrell (1983) is advanced fluency, which usually happens between years five and seven of learning a new language. At this point students are beginning to converse and write in much the same way as native speakers of English. It is also during this time that students truly begin to grasp the academic language used in formal schooling, which allows teachers to focus more on abstract terminology and concepts.

Knowing about stages of language acquisition helps educators understand that language learning is a gradual process and helps move some teachers away from the idea of avoiding presentation of academic content until students have a strong grasp on the language. Understanding the stages of language learning and where a student falls on the language learning continuum can help teachers tailor their lessons to meet the various needs of the students. Furthermore, when teachers understand an English language learner’s oral English proficiency, they can ask questions in a variety of appropriate forms, such as requiring a one word answer or a lengthy response (de Jong et al., 2013). Appropriately scaffolding instruction helps students feel challenged in the classroom, but not overwhelmed. Recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of all learners in the classroom involves targeting instruction at each student’s zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978). The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is a theory proposed by psychologist Lev Vygotsky explaining what a child can accomplish with support (e.g., scaffolding), compared to what he or she can accomplish independently. It may be helpful for teachers to think of this area as the area between what a student can do right now on their own and the point you want them to reach next. Teachers can help students reach that next area by providing support, guidance, modeling, and feedback to help them progress.

Building upon Cultural and Linguistic Capital

The rapidly changing demographics of the U.S. have posed extraordinary challenges for educators to accommodate the various needs of English language learners, including ways to promote the sociolinguistic, sociocultural, and socioemotional development of such a diverse student population (Li & Wang, 2008), in addition to teaching reading and content knowledge. To successfully address the needs of English language learners and to ensure their academic success, it is important for teachers to develop instructional practices that are culturally responsive and that build upon students’ linguistic and cultural backgrounds (Gay, 2000; Li, 2008). For teachers to implement culturally responsive instructional practices, they must learn who their students are, where their students are from, factors that influence student learning both inside and outside of school, the types of resources available to the students, and appropriate strategies to facilitate student learning.

Culturally responsive teaching is built on the notion that culture is central to student learning. According to Nieto (2000), culturally responsive teaching creates optimal learning environments by recognizing, respecting, and using students’ identities and previous experiences as meaningful sources of information. Language learning is complex and can be affected by many interrelated factors. How can teachers build upon the rich cultural and linguistic capital of their students? How can we expect English language learners to succeed in the classroom without bearing in mind how their cultures, languages, and previous experiences have shaped their background knowledge? Making connections to students’ backgrounds is one of the most important aspects of culturally responsive teaching. While building background knowledge is essential for all learners, it is especially important for English language learners who are learning content and language simultaneously. Whenever possible, programs for ELLs should support the child’s native language. This helps show value in the English language learner’s native language and ensures that learning English is an additive process and not one that results in losing the native language.

Teachers must be able to understand the linguistic needs of English language learners and implement lessons that effectively meet those needs. Many teachers find it helpful to gain specific information regarding how much English their students use, when they use English, and with whom they speak English. Often, teachers may be working with children who may not yet have a strong foundation in their home language, making acquisition of English even more difficult. Young children in particular may not have completely developed many aspects of their first language.

Additionally, it is important for teachers to know about students’ levels of literacy in their first language, levels of oral proficiency in English, and educational background. A case study by Rubinstein-Avila (2004) of Miguel, an adolescent English language learner who was struggling with literacy development, was able to show that even “students who do not necessarily conform to teachers’ notions of ‘academic applied pupils’ may possess a great deal of awareness about their own learning and be highly motivated” (p. 300). Although Miguel was a struggling reader at school, his literacy skills were crucial for life at home. He helped his mother with legal documents and by scouring weekly sale advertisements to find the best deals. Miguel also served as a translator, both written and oral, for his mother. Studies such as this one are crucial to the field to show educators that English language learners bring a variety of skills with them to the classroom and have a lot to offer. This study showed that the ways in which an individual uses literacy may not necessarily conform to traditional school views of literacy. It is important for both researchers and educators to be aware of the various contexts in which students use literacy.

As English language learners are being enrolled in American schools in record numbers, educators must strive to provide effective learning environments that are developmentally and linguistically appropriate for all learners. Given that increasing numbers of students are coming from non-English speaking households, there is a need for educators to know about the needs of diverse students and to have an understanding of cultural and linguistic diversity (Coppola, 2005; Fernandez, 2000).

Helping English Language Learners Develop Literacy Skills and Succeed Academically

Research has shown that the process of learning to read is lengthy. It is recommended that all children, especially those at risk of experiencing reading difficulties, be exposed to print-rich environments that promote language and literacy growth (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). Components of appropriate language environments for students include engaging them in conversations to foster oral communication and cognitive abilities. English language learners benefit from exposure to language modeling and may need specific developmentally appropriate strategies to assist the development of language skills (Oades-Sese, Esquivel, Kaliski, & Maniatis, 2011).

Six years after the publication of the Report of the National Reading Panel (NRP; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD], 2000), which excluded studies with English language learners, a large research review on educating English language learners was published. The National Literacy Panel (NLP) examined research on literacy development of English language learners ages 3 to 18 and included studies from around the world (August & Shanahan, 2006). The NLP found that English language learners who are learning to read in English, just like native English speakers learning to read in English, benefit from early and explicit instruction in the crucial components of literacy identified by the National Reading Panel—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension (NICHD, 2000). According to Linan-Thompson, Cirino, and Vaughn (2007), there is growing evidence suggesting that many early reading intervention strategies that have been shown to be effective with native English speaking students can also be effective with English language learners. With the majority of English language learners receiving reading instruction solely in English (August, 2006; Goldenberg, 2008), it is important to continue to identify interventions that have been effective with English speaking struggling readers that are also effective for English language learners who are struggling to learn to read.

Some adolescent English language learners may have reasonably developed language abilities, but still struggle learning to read. August and Shanahan (2006) suggest that it may be necessary, particularly for adolescent ELLs who cannot read or write in any language, to explicitly teach the basic components of reading, beginning with phonemic awareness and phonics. After adolescent ELLs have acquired the basic skills necessary for reading words, instruction can focus on comprehension strategies, fluency building exercises, and fostering greater vocabulary understanding through explicit instruction of words, word parts, and word relationships.

In addition to knowledge related to language and reading skills, teachers working with diverse learners also need a collection of strategies and techniques to help meet the diverse cultural and linguistic needs of students. Students who are at the early stages of English language proficiency benefit from linguistic, graphic, and visual supports (Facella, Rampino, & Shea, 2005; Herrel & Jordan, 2012). For example, linguistic supports could include things such as opportunities to interact and engage in conversations, providing students with language models, and modification of sentence patterns. Examples of graphic supports would be providing tables or graphic organizers to assist learners. Graphic organizers, such as idea webs or story pyramids, are greatly beneficial to ELLs because they can facilitate an understanding of challenging concepts and ideas without the use of long explanations that may be confusing. Cummins, Mirza, and Stille (2012) advocate for the use of visual aids and graphic organizers as a way to scaffold academic language for English language learners, noting that this can enhance literacy engagement. See Table 1 at the end of this chapter for websites offering graphic organizers that can be downloaded. As a way of providing visual supports, teachers can use pictures or illustrations, manipulatives, and multimedia. Effective teaching strategies for ELLs as described by Facella and colleagues (2005) include the use of gestures and visual cues, repetition, and the use of real objects. Other useful strategies for teachers may include grouping ELLs with students who have strong English abilities, exposing ELLs to rich oral language, and incorporating their home language whenever possible. It is important to note that these groups and tasks should be purposefully designed and monitored by the teacher to ensure comfort and inclusion. While cooperative learning activities can be extremely helpful for English language learners, it is imperative that teachers scaffold these activities so that English language learners of all proficiency levels can benefit (Zwiers & Crawford, 2011). Teachers should also encourage parents to read with their children, even if that is only possible in their home language. As mentioned before, language skills can transfer and skills in one language can support language and literacy building in the other language.

Many schools across the country use a framework known as sheltered instruction that incorporates techniques and strategies such as the use of graphic organizers and cooperative learning, as a way to help English language learners access the curriculum while emphasizing the development of academic language (Echevarria, 2006). The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) Model was developed through a federally funded research project (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2015) to help educators design and teach lessons aimed at improving the literacy abilities of English language learners. Additional research is still needed to specifically explore the effectiveness of the SIOP Model, since to date, no well controlled studies have been done to evaluate the model in comparisons to other approaches using evidence standards of research outlined in Chapter 2 of this textbook.


With the population of English language learners in U.S. schools continuing to rise, more and more teachers will be responsible for educating culturally and linguistically diverse students. English language learners come to the classroom with varying levels of English proficiency, various life and school experiences, as well as different learning needs. This chapter was designed to move through theory and into practice to help teachers engage all learners and design effective instructional opportunities for English language learners. A brief background of English language learners was presented, with an emphasis on language acquisition and learning theories. Information in this chapter provides educators with background knowledge and strategies to best meet the needs of English language learners to promote language acquisition and help them succeed academically.

Resources Sponsor Weblink
Table 1. Links to Selected Resources for Teachers of English Language Learners
Bilingual (English and Spanish) website for families and educators of English language learners ¡Colorín Colorado!
Lesson plans, teaching tips, and resources (including graphic organizers) for ESL teachers Everything ESL
Meeting place for ESL and EFL teachers and students from around the world Dave’s ESL Café
Collection of ready-to-use graphic organizers TeacherVision

Questions and Activities

  1. Discuss some of the possible benefits of bilingual education as opposed to English-only instruction.
  2. How do social language and academic language differ? Which type of language typically develops first and why?
  3. Suppose you overhear a teacher say that an English language learner in her class seems to have a strong grasp on the language because she hears him talking and joking with his friends at lunch and recess. She expresses concern and confusion over why he continues to struggle with the content in class. What can you say to this teacher to help her understand language development for English language learners?
  4. Think about preparing a science lesson for a class that includes English language learners of varying English proficiency levels. What are some ways that you can scaffold the science lesson to help the students understand new terms or content?
  5. Discuss why it is important for a teacher to understand the developmental stages of learning a new language.
  6. Briefly explain how teachers can elicit responses and encourage classroom participation from English language learners in each of the stages of language acquisition addressed in this chapter (pre-production, early production, speech emergence, intermediate fluency, and advanced fluency).
  7. Discuss how English language learners’ prior experiences may influence how they learn.


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