As the number of English learners continues to increase, educators are searching for the most effective instructional strategies for these students. Diane August of the American Institutes for Research reviewed the latest research and identified seven strategies.

National Study Shows Dramatic Gains for English Learners

Achieve3000’s 2017-18 National Lexile Study studied results for more than 287,000 English learners from across the country. Overall, and on average, students using Achieve3000 between one and two times each week, with high engagement, exceeded expected Lexile growth of 74L by 2.5X to nearly 3.5X!

Instructional Best Practices for English Learners

From differentiated instruction to peer-to-peer learning opportunities, here are seven of the best instructional strategies for English learners based on recent research.

Best Practices for English Learners

1. Differentiate Instruction with Grade-Level Course Content

Meeting the needs of English learners means providing them with instruction, content, and assessment that is appropriate for their grade level. According to research, grade-level content is critical to helping students increase academic achievement and build their English proficiency. It has also been found to be more engaging.

“In literacy instruction, differentiated content helps each student engage with learning the subject matter at their own reading level. Differentiation also helps our teachers adapt student work based on reading proficiency.”

Danielle Murray, Teacher Leader. Gilbert Spruance Elementary School.

To differentiate content for English learners, you should get to know their interests and preferences, as well as benchmark their current reading, or Lexile, level. You should also consider that they come to the classroom with content knowledge in their language. With this information, you can provide lessons that matches their English proficiency and reading levels and adapt as their skills increase.

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2. Use Strategies Proven to Be Effective with Native Speakers

As with native speakers, English learners must develop the skills needed for college and career readiness, including the ability to read complex text independently. But you don’t have to reinvent the wheel with your EL students. Research shows that many of the practices used with native speakers benefit English learners as well.

One proven way to build literacy skills for all learners is through the Literacy Routine that is at the core of Achieve3000 Literacy. Each step strengthens targeted literacy skills

The Achieve3000 Literacy Routine

  • Ready: Build background, get focused, get ready to learn.
  • Read: Read the article at your reading level.
  • Respond: Increase your comprehension by completing a set of multiple-choice questions.
  • Reflect: Answer a reflective question about the article.
  • Write: Think critically about the article and cite evidence to support your ideas when you respond

While this routine is very effective with native English speakers, those still working on proficiency need additional structure to build their literacy capacities. Three additional routines you can use to help your English learners advance their skills include:

  • An independent vocabulary routine that builds academic and cross-literacy terms
  • A paired or small-group peer-reviewed writing process that helps students build shared meaning around a topic through discussion and revision
  • Whole-group academic discussion to be exposed to and practice use of discipline-specific language

3. Support Core Content and Skills Mastery Through Language and Learning Scaffolds

A wide body of research shows that English learners benefit from verbal and visual supports. For elementary students, these could include videos, pictures, and graphic organizers to help them better understand vocabulary and concepts, as well as student glossaries and discussions that focus on clarifying key themes. Teachers can provide further support for middle-grade students through tables, diagrams and concept maps for science; illustrations and videos for language arts; bilingual glossaries; and sentence and paragraph frames. Older students will benefit from access to content in their native language so they can build content skills while reinforcing their English proficiency.

In the Fort Worth Independent School District (FWISD), 30 percent of the student population are English learners. As part of a city-wide initiative to ensure 100 percent of third-grade students read on grade level by 2025, they began incorporating two Achieve3000 Literacy lessons each week for every student. On average, students who used Achieve3000 Literacy improved by 67 scale score points on the STAAR reading assessment from spring 2017 to spring 2018. Those who completed 80 or more lessons and maintained an average first-try score of 75 percent, improved by 90 scale score points.

4. Advance the Academic Language of English Learners

Building vocabulary is essential for comprehension. That’s why all learners need to be proficient in language that spans every subject area. Not only will a strong vocabulary help them advance academic skills, it will also help them acquire and share ideas through public presentations or in other formal settings.

However, it’s important to recognize that academic language differs across content areas, and that this can be challenging for English learners. For example, while science requires skills in vocabulary, syntax and discourse, both science and math call for proficiency in non-linguistic language, including diagrams, charts, and equations.

The Importance of Vocabulary Supports

Instructors can help English learners advance academic language through regular vocabulary supports that reinforce both discipline-specific words and cross-discipline words. Before a lesson, teachers can model these words orally, ask students to hold up fingers to indicate whether or not they’re familiar with a term, establish meaning through discussion, and encourage practice through the use of graphic organizers such as a 4-Corner Vocabulary Chart.

Achieve3000 Literacy with Boost has hundreds of sentence and paragraph frames to help readers structure their thoughts and writing.

5. Provide Peer-to-Peer Learning Opportunities

Research shows that one of the key components for teaching a second language is giving students the opportunity to interact with peers through speaking, writing, reading, and listening. By engaging in activities like peer reviews, students learn to work collaboratively, provide productive feedback, accept constructive criticism, and revise their work based on input from others.

At Health Sciences High in Middle College in San Diego, California, teachers are required to plan for 50 percent of their classroom time to be spent on collaborative classroom practices and peer-to-peer learning. Oscar Corrigan, a History teacher at the school, offers the following best practices for effective peer-to-peer interactions:

  • Using student input, create classroom norms to hold learners accountable for their behavior
  • Assess student reading levels with a systematic approach that facilitates differentiated instruction
  • Instill trust and confidence by forming balanced discussion groups according to reading ability to ensure all students can actively participate
  • Engage in close reading before and after small and whole group discussions
  • Assess student work during and after collaborative discussions

6. Build on English Learners’ Prior Knowledge and Experiences

Home language, prior academic knowledge, and cultural background all have a significant influence on the literacy development of English learners. Studies show that English learners taught in bilingual classrooms that incorporated students’ native languages performed as well or better than those instructed primarily in English. Instructional routines that build on students’ prior knowledge and experiences could include:

  • providing vocabulary definitions and background materials in a student’s first language
  • giving students the opportunity to discuss concepts in their native language
  • connecting key ideas to a student’s prior experiences at home and in their community

Culturally inclusive instruction also means addressing issues like social injustice and promoting equity in the classroom so that every student has the opportunity to achieve success in the classroom and beyond. Educators can promote equity by getting to know their students’ interests and needs in order to make education meaningful.

“Equity is about giving kids what they need to be successful. It’s about acknowledging that the academic needs of a child are related to their social, physical, and emotional needs.”

Dr. Pedro Noguera, Dean of the Rossier School of Education. University of Southern California

7. Assess, Monitor Progress, and Support Struggling English Learners

To support students on their English journey, educators first need to understand a student’s current literacy level, monitor their progress throughout the year, and provide reading intervention when students struggle. When assessing English learners for reading challenges, it’s important to separate language development from disability. According to studies, districts should provide schools with training to assess English learners for literacy challenges, consider gathering progress data for at-risk learners more than three times a year, and use the data to inform instruction.

At Ysleta Independent School District (YISD), a quarter of the students body is English learners. However, they lacked a holistic strategy to gauge student progress and provide content tailored to the unique needs of their English learners. With the help of Achieve3000 Literacy, they implemented a systematic approach to differentiated instruction that allows them to adapt content and instruction based on regular assessments. As a result, they saw a 12-percent decrease in the number of English learners whose Lexile measures fall below college and career readiness expectations.

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Achieve3000: The Leader in Differentiated Instruction

Achieve3000, a McGraw Hill company, delivers a comprehensive learning platform that significantly accelerates and deepens learning in literacy, math, science, social studies, and ELA. Using personalized and differentiated solutions, Achieve3000 enables educators to help all students, including English learners, achieve accelerated growth. For more than five million students in grades PreK-12, Achieve3000 improves high-stakes test performance and drives college and career readiness.

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