English Language Learners: Strategies for Effective Literacy Instruction

English learners (ELs) — also often referred to as English language learners (ELLs) — represent a sizeable population of students in public schools in the United States. According to 2018 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), English language learners made up 9.5% of students, an increase from the 8.1% of students they comprised in 2000. In 2018, 4.8 million students were classified as English language learners. The NCES predicts that by 2026, that number will rise to more than 5 million.

These statistics make something very clear: More and more English language learners will enter the U.S. public education system year-over-year, and educators must be equipped with the knowledge and skills to provide them with a high-quality, equitable education that helps them keep up with the achievement of their English-speaking peers.

In this on-demand webinar from the Consortium on Reaching Excellence in Education (CORE), Drs. Elsa Cardenas-Hagan, President of Valley Speech Language and Learning Center, and Dale Webster, CORE’s Chief Academic Officer, answer a common question among educators tasked with teaching literacy to this growing group of students: What strategies are appropriate for English language learners?

What Strategies Are Appropriate for English Language Learners?

Over the course of the hour, Drs. Cardenas-Hagan and Webster discuss English language learners, strategies for teaching literacy to English language learners, and engagement strategies for English language learners that integrate evidence-based lessons into reading instruction. Specifically, the two experts highlight Structured Literacy and why this is among the most effective strategies for teaching English language learners to read.

In the webinar, Drs. Cardenas-Hagan and Webster cover the following topics:

  • The essential components of Structured Literacy
  • Special consideration for implementation of Structured Literacy among English language learners
  • Cross-linguistic features for the development of second language and literacy skills
  • Lesson routines designed to incorporate language opportunities within Structured Literacy lessons for English language learners

Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners to Read: Structured Literacy

Despite their size, English language learners are one of the lowest-performing subgroups when you compare reading performance among groups of students. To improve those scores, educators must explore new ways to teach literacy and language to English language learners. Drs. Cardenas-Hagan and Webster argue that Structured Literacy is among the best strategies for teaching English language learners to read.

In 2000, the National Reading Panel released a report on the five essential components of reading instruction. These are:

  1. Phonological awareness
  2. Phonics
  3. Fluency
  4. Vocabulary
  5. Comprehension

These five elements formed the foundation for evidence-based reading instruction for English-speaking students. However, the presenters point out that they also serve as the foundation for English language learners.

Preview the webinar in the clip above and then watch the full webinar in the link below for more about English language learners, strategies for teaching these students how to read, and engagement strategies for English language learners that integrate evidence-based lessons into reading instruction. Sample lessons are provided and demonstrated throughout the on-demand webinar, making it a great professional learning opportunity for your team!

Video Transcript

I find that the math texts, explanations in books and word problems are some of the most difficult reading material students encounter in K-12 and maybe beyond. Although this statement is from 1994, it really does still apply today. Math speak and text is an integrative and often confusing blend of words, symbols, visuals, semantic and syntactical challenges, and lots of academic and math specific vocabulary.

According to Zwiers and others at the Understanding Language, Stanford Center for Assessment and Learning and Equity at Stanford University, teachers can foster student’s sense-making by amplifying rather than simplifying or watering down their use of disciplinary language. For example, simplifying would be to continually refer to the numerator as the top number in a fraction, whereas, amplifying would be to build on a student saying, “the top number” by asking, “Well, what do we call that?” Maybe refer to an anchor chart or have the class chorally repeat the term “numerator” and put their hands above their heads while they’re saying it, so they get a visual of that idea. There are different methods to increase awareness and understanding and use of academic language and these are example of amplifying versus simplifying.

We look here and research around English language learners, let’s take a moment to read this. I’ll pause while you do so. While we incorporate strategies to make mathematics and mathematical word problems more accessible to all students, the focus for students is still on the math. It’s not on the technique or the language and it’s important to remember that access and work with applications, word problems, and larger texts, are important parts of math education for all kids.

Here are six ideas from the Institute of Educational Sciences in a guide published online in 2012. It’s called Improving Mathematical Problem Solving in Grades 4 to 8. The IES conducts meta-analysis of research from which they draw conclusions and make recommendations, such as these six on the slide. Take a moment to look these over. I’ll pause while you get a chance to look them over. To let you know, all of these and many more techniques will be what we share throughout this presentation, within the six categories I mentioned earlier, that I’m going to review quickly in a moment. Again, take a moment to read this. This is probably one of the last quotes we’ll be reading today.

I want you to think about how this description of problem solving relates to how you see students solving math word problems and tasks. What level of thinking do the problems engage students in? What challenges do you see student having with word problems and tasks? I also want to notice the importance of students doing this type of work beginning in kindergarten, so it’s not we wait until middle school or wait until they get a strong foundation, knowledge or mathematics, and then they can start applying it. Students can start applying problems from kindergarten with the math they learn at that level, with problems that fit that math.

All right, so as mentioned here, again are the six categories under which I’ve arranged the techniques I’m sharing during this session today. With some of these techniques, I’ll simply describe the technique, with some I’ll show examples to illustrate and clarify them, and with some I’ll actually have you do a little bit of the math, utilizing the technique in order to experience it a little bit better.