Teaching K-12 English Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom

Amanda Khoe

Writer’s Comment: Amy Clarke’s Writing in Education class granted me the opportunity to explore pertinent issues in the modern American classroom. For my final project, I composed an anthology intended to serve as a relevant and useable document for educators of English Language Learners (ELLs). As the first member of my family to be born in the United States and to be educated entirely in English, I found this issue both personally and politically urgent. Here, in the anthology’s introduction, I construct an ELL teaching framework that reflects contrasting pedagogical perspectives as well as research from the related fields of linguistics and second-language acquisition. I discovered that quality education for ELLs promises improvements in educational attainment overall. This realization continues to challenge me intellectually and professionally. It is my sincerest hope that research in this area will grow and be reflected in practice so that all of America’s students might receive a world-class education.

Instructor’s Comment: Students in UWP 104D (Writing in Education) are on the verge of running their own classrooms, so I wanted their final assignment to be something they could use in their teaching and could share with their future colleagues. Thus was born the Best Practices Anthology assignment. For this large-scale project, students choose a specific challenge teachers face, compile relevant research and pedagogical articles, and write a comprehensive introduction that both synthesizes their findings and makes concrete recommendations about how to deal with that challenge in the classroom. Amanda’s decision to write about English Language Learners reflects her commitment to her chosen profession, her deeply moral sense of a teacher’s responsibility to her students and, above all, her really extraordinary writing skill. Not only did she have both a winning essay and an Honorable Mention in Prized Writing, she is also being published in another highly competitive UC Davis publication, Explorations. Selfishly, I wish Amanda were going to spend her career in a writing-centered profession, but that would deprive a generation of students of having her as a teacher.
—Amy Clarke, University Writing Program

English Language Learners (ELLs) are the fastest growing student subpopulation in the United States. From 1979 to 1999, overall enrollment in America’s K-12 public schools increased by 6 percent while the ELL population soared by 138 percent (Harper & de Jong, 2004). By the 2007-2008 school year, 5.3 million ELLs constituted 10.6 percent of K-12 public school enrollment (Calderón, Slavin & Sánchez, 2011). Even as their population burgeons, ELL students remain more likely to perform poorly on standardized tests and to drop out of school than their non-ELL peers (Verdugo & Flores, 2007). ELLs’ low academic achievement can be attributed in large part to the shortage of prepared classroom teachers. Though 42 percent of K-12 public school teachers have ELLs in their class, only 12.5 percent have received more than eight hours of professional development in ELL teaching practices (de Jong & Harper, 2005). English Language Learners require well-trained teachers and tailored instruction; unfortunately, mainstream K-12 teachers with ELL students are too often ill equipped to educate these unique students.

The size of the ELL population coupled with its disturbingly low academic achievement has spawned a plethora of studies and much heated debate on how to improve ELL pedagogy. To avoid “succumb[ing] to the allure of strategy books” (Carrier, 2005), teachers must first understand peripheral issues affecting the ELL population. Presently, no federal guidelines exist for states regarding how to identify, assess, place or instruct ELLs (Calderón, et al., 2011). The best strategies for serving ELLs are informed by distinct, in some cases even opposing, schools of thought. As the following studies demonstrate, effective ELL education is kaleidoscopic, with various strategies to match the array of possible contexts.

This anthology introduction begins with a report on the demographic composition and needs of ELL students. Next, basic theoretical frameworks that currently guide ELL education are discussed. Finally, a synthesis of the ELL literature yields concrete strategies for teaching in a mainstream classroom with English Language Learners.

The English Language Learner Landscape

Though ELL students bring myriad languages, cultures and personal histories to the classroom, they are typically classified as a single group. In the article “Effective Instruction for English Learners,” Calderón, Slavin and Sánchez (2011) catalog four discrete subcategories within the ELL population: special education ELLs, ELLs inappropriately reclassified as general education after passing a district language test, migrant ELLs whose education is interrupted as their family follows the crops from one location to another, and transnational ELLs who return to their native country and attend school only to re-emigrate to the United States. Over 20 percent of ELLs are recent immigrants, and 80 percent of second-generation children (U.S.-born children whose parents were born outside the U.S.) are ELLs. Evidently, ELLs are as diverse as they are prevalent.
In contrast to Calderón et al. (2010), Pascopella (2011) explains in her article “Successful Strategies for English Language Learners,” that there are various ELL program types to match the various types of ELL students. In dual language programs, bilingual students receive instruction in English and another language (e.g., Spanish). In newcomer programs, “separate, relatively self-contained educational interventions” (p. 32) are implemented to meet the academic and transitional needs of recent immigrants before they enter a mainstream English Language Development (ELD) program. In structured English immersion programs, students are taught entirely in English. Today, sheltered English programs are the dominant trend. The prototypical sheltered English program—Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP)—uses nonconventional methods to teach academic content to English Language Learners.

Myths and Misconceptions

In “Misconceptions about Teaching English-Language Learners,” Harper and de Jong (2004) call attention to the negative effects of ELL teaching practices based on misinformation. First, some teachers assume that mere exposure to English and interaction with English speakers will result in English-language learning. Conversely, the authors assert that ELLs require deliberate instruction in the grammatical, morphological and phonological aspects of English if they are to communicate successfully in an academic context. Second, today’s reductive approaches to ELL education are based on the premise that second-language acquisition follows a universal pattern. Unfortunately, such methods fail to meet ELLs’ idiosyncratic language needs. Third, it is a common misconception that if a teaching practice is good for native English speakers it is also good for ELLs. Harper et al. (2010) argue that teaching strategies in a classroom with non-native and native English speakers often emphasize that students must “talk to learn” but fail to address how students will “learn to talk” (p.102). Fourth, ELL teachers tend to believe that presenting concepts using purely nonverbal techniques is most effective. While nonverbal methods can support ELLs’ English acquisition, Harper et al. (2004) warn that overdependence on nonlinguistic instruction can impede students’ ability to integrate language and content.

In Protheroe’s article “Effective Instruction for English-Language Learners,” she attempts to dispel myths about young ELLs. Contrary to the notion that English-only instruction produces the best second-language acquisition results, Protheroe found that high literacy in a student’s first language (L1) presages high levels of reading achievement in his/her second language (L2). Accordingly, teachers should supplement their English instruction with instruction in the native language(s) of their students as much as possible. Unlike Harper, Protheroe asserts that instruction that works well for non-ELLs is equally effective for ELLs, so long as modifications are made to accommodate students’ language “capacities, needs, and limitations” (p.28).

Linguistic Needs

English Language Learners undertake the challenge of simultaneously learning a new language and new academic content. In “Key Issues for Teaching English Learners in Academic Classrooms,” Carrier (2005) explains that it takes an average of one to three years to reach conversational proficiency in a second language, but five to seven years to reach academic proficiency. In spite of this, ELLs normally spend just three years in 30-minute “pull-out” English Language Development programs (Calderón et al., 2011). Calderón et al. believe this is but one example of how ELL teaching practices are unsympathetic to the considerably greater linguistic needs of English Language Learners. 

Researchers in educational linguistics have found that second language learners often possess more knowledge than they can express. Nonstandard accents help illustrate this point. Underestimating their ELL students’ intellectual capacity, teachers often emphasize pronunciation over other language dimensions and academic content. But ELLs are likely to be as cognitively mature as their non-ELL peers. Typically, ELLs acquire content at a faster rate than second language skills. Thus, English Language Learners often understand more than they can articulate through spoken or written language (de Jong & Harper, 2005). Educators must recognize that an ELL’s accent or imprecise grammar does not necessarily suggest academic incompetency. Accordingly, second language instruction should provide non-linguistic means for students to demonstrate their learning.

Best Practices for ELL Education

The current educational climate prizes inclusive instruction. While this emphasis is not inherently detrimental, it is driven by the “just good teaching (JGT), native-speaker perspective” (de Jong & Harper, 2005), which assumes that all students possess at least rudimentary oral and literacy skills in English, and that ELLs learn at the same pace and in the same manner as non-ELLs. JGT practices include “activating knowledge, using cooperative learning, process writing, and graphic organizers” (p. 102). In “Preparing Mainstream Teachers for English-Language Learners: Is Being a Good Teacher Good Enough?” de Jong and Harper (2005) insist that ELLs require more than generic JGT practices to fully acquire academic content and build language skills. 

Moving beyond JGT involves activating and strengthening background knowledge in order to prime students for new content (Short & Echevarria, 2004; Coleman and Goldenberg, 2011; Verdugo & Flores, 2007). In “Promoting Literacy Development,” Coleman and Goldenberg (2011) suggest interactive and direct teaching techniques for extracting students’ existing knowledge. Interactive teaching, defined as “verbal interaction that gives students opportunities to converse with the teacher and with peers” (p. 16), combined with “extended academic talk” (Short et al., 2004, p. 12) challenge ELLs both linguistically and in other cognitive domains. Calderón et al. (2011) maintain that the consort to background content knowledge is background vocabulary knowledge. Students need long-term, explicit and comprehensive vocabulary instruction in all subject areas to foster both word-level skills (e.g., decoding) and text-level skills (e.g., fluency). Through exposure to words in multiple forms and contexts, students develop phonological awareness and better reading comprehension. Moreover, repetition prompts students’ to operate on their own vocabulary (and content) background in novel ways. 

Researchers have also found that stressing academic language can help both ELLs and struggling non-ELLs retain specific subject material. (Protheroe, 2011; Harper & de Jong, 2004, 2005; Carrier, 2005). To avoid diluting the curriculum, teachers should concentrate on introducing vocabulary terms that are key to understanding the subject matter (de Jong & Harper, 2005). The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol Model (SIOP) recommends “emphasizing academic vocabulary development” (Short & Echevarria, 2004, p. 12). For example, academic language in a unit on earthquakes might include the words plate tectonics, magnitude and seismoscope. Spotlighting academic vocabulary serves the dual goals of facilitating content and language acquisition.

Multiple Modes, Scaffolding, and L1 Development

Needless to say, English Language Learners benefit from extensive scaffolding strategies. When a teacher scaffolds, he or she shifts the difficulty and pace to meet the needs of the student. One way to scaffold learning is to use “multiple modes of input and output” that are not dependent on language (Carrier, 2005, p. 4; de Jong et al., 2005). Manipulatives, drama/role play and graphics can be used by educators to “input” content and by ELL students to “output” their own knowledge when they cannot adequately express themselves through language (Coleman & Goldenberg, 2011). Likewise, various modes of assessment can be used to capture the full scope of learning. For instance, asking a student to draw instead of write the answer to a test question can reveal learning that goes beyond rote memorization (de Jong, et al., 2005). In a related vein, teaching strategies such as question-generating, summarizing and predicting can foster metacognitive skill-building and help ELLs take ownership of their own learning (Verdugo & Flores, 2007). Multiple modes of instruction and assessment should be used regularly in ELL education.

A community orientation has proven effective in ELL instruction. In their article “English-Language Learners: Key Issues,” Verdugo and Flores (2007) found higher ELL retention rates in “supportive school environments” (p. 177) where ELL families were involved in students’ learning and small group instruction was a common practice. In peer groups, students gain confidence and build social skills. (Mays, 2008) Additionally, students can scaffold each others’ learning by offering translations between English and an ELL’s primary language.

ELLs’ development in their primary languages can predict and facilitate their development in English. Thus, classroom teachers with ELL students must avoid the temptation to implement English-only policies. Such policies can actually hinder, not help, ELLs’ English acquisition (Mays, 2008; Coleman & Goldenberg, 2011). Teachers should use students’ primary language as much as possible to “support [students]…and to make content more accessible” (Coleman et al., 2011, p. 16). A teacher might draw a Spanish-speaking student’s attention to the cognates found in English and Spanish (e.g., “activity” and “actividad”). If the teacher cannot speak the student’s primary language, he or she can opt for the scaffolding strategies mentioned earlier. Focusing on the similarities and differences between English and students’ primary language in addition to assessing students’ proficiency in their primary language can “help students consciously transfer the skills and knowledge from their primary language to English” (Coleman et al., 2011, p. 18). 

Cultural Considerations

English Language Learners straddle the border between the world of their heritage (native/primary) language and the English-speaking world. Mays (2008) emphasizes the importance of cultural sensitivity in the ELL classroom in her article “The Cultural Divide of Discourse: Understanding How English-Language Learners’ Primary Discourse Influences Acquisition of Literacy.” While the American classroom values active questioning and collaboration, many ELLs are accustomed to classroom etiquette that is radically hierarchical. ELL students may be uncomfortable expressing their own opinions and questioning the authority of the teacher or the textbook. Or, some ELLs may consciously reject the “host [American] culture and [English] language” (de Jong & Harper, 2005, p. 117) because acquiring English would signal assimilation and cost them social capital. Moreover, multicultural sensitivity doesn’t account for all the issues that arise in a multilingual classroom.

Cultural incongruence between mainstream teachers and their ELL students can obstruct teaching and learning. In California public schools, where 61 percent of students are from minority backgrounds, just 21 percent of teachers identify as minorities (Verdugo & Flores, 2007). Consciously or not, non-minority teachers might hold lower expectations for their minority students. Thus, teachers must be self-critical about their own attitudes towards multilingualism and vigilant about the implicit messages sent by “English-only” classroom policies (de Jong & Harper, 2005). To reconcile cultural differences, teachers are responsible for familiarizing themselves with students’ cultures and respecting their primary discourses (Mays, 2008). 

Teachers can support the diverse cultures and languages of their students through assignments, assessments, and classroom materials. Assigning personal narratives for homework and facilitating multilingual book clubs mitigate the collision of students’ primary discourses and the academic discourse. In addition to assigning tasks that encourage students to share their family and community experiences, teachers should maintain a classroom library that is representative of students’ diversity. Embedding instruction and materials from different cultures forges an atmosphere of tolerance for ELL and non-ELL students alike. Finally, Mays (2008) advocates “culturally responsive management styles and unbiased assessments” (p. 416). Teachers should vary question types and media, and they should discuss the process of arriving at an answer (whether correct or incorrect). Taking the time to “value the ELL voice” (p. 418) builds student-teacher relationships based on mutual trust and respect; in turn, these genuine bonds nurture learning. 

Closing Remarks

In 1972, the Supreme Court ruling in Lau v. Nichols mandated that school districts help students overcome language barriers so they can participate in and benefit from mainstream schooling. Nearly forty years later, the severe disparities in academic achievement between ELLs and non-ELLs continue to hinder the nation’s overall educational attainment. While policymakers, researchers, and educators have yet to reach a consensus on how to best instruct this growing subpopulation, competing theories on ELL teaching share several themes. The model for future ELL education is naturally multifaceted, refined by trial and error, and ultimately based on contextual features. 

Collectively, the research articles cited in this introduction detail ELL teaching practices that are effective in most circumstances. A concerted training program is needed to prepare teachers for the multilingual classroom. Broadly speaking, effective ELL teaching begins with an understanding of the second language acquisition process and an embracing of the diversity within the ELL population. In the classroom, mainstream teachers should strive to tap into students’ existing knowledge and relate academic content to students’ cultural backgrounds. By identifying the distinct linguistic demands inherent in different subjects, teachers can provide explicit vocabulary instruction—an essential foundation for literacy development. To encourage long-term academic literacy, teachers should capitalize on innovative scaffolding strategies, including but not limited to, multiple modes of instruction and assessment, as well as using students’ primary language. Given these frameworks, K-12 classroom teachers can tailor effective strategies to promote their English Language Learners’ academic achievement. 


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Calderón, M., Slavin, R., Sánchez, M. (2011). Effective instruction for English learners. The Future of Children, 21 (1), 103-127. 

Coleman, R. & Goldenberg, C. (2011). Promoting literacy development. Education Digest, 76 (6), 14-18.

De Jong, E. J. & Harper, C. A. (2005). Preparing Mainstream Teachers for English-Language Learners: Is Being a Good Teacher Good Enough? Teacher Education Quarterly, 32(2), 101-118.

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Pascopella, A. (2011). Successful strategies for English Language Learners. District Administration, February 2011, 29-44.

Protheroe, N. (2011). Effective instruction for English-Language Learners. Principal, 90 (3), 90, 26-29.

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Verdugo, R.R. & Flores, R. (2007). English-language learners: Key issues. Education and Urban Society, 39: 167-194. DOI: 10.1177/001312450629485