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Principles for Effective Teaching of English Language Learners

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Educating English Language Learners: A Review of the Latest Research” by Diane August in American Educator, Fall 2018 (Vol. 42, #3, p. 4-9, 38-39),
In this article in American Educator, Diane August (American Institutes for Research) summarizes seven principles representing the current research consensus on teaching English language learners:
• Provide access to grade-level course content. This is essential as it gives ELLs the concepts and skills needed to master grade-level coursework, move up through the grades, and become fully proficient in English. “It is important to keep in mind,” says August, “that many skills and types of knowledge transfer from students’ first language to their second, and that ELLs may have already acquired core content in their first language.”
• Build on effective practices used with English-proficient students. Many best practices for regular-education classes also apply to ELLs, says August – for example, in the early grades, hearing the individual English sounds and phonemes within words; using letters and spelling patterns within words to decode the pronunciation; reading texts aloud with appropriate speed, accuracy, and expression; using various strategies to learn new words; thinking about the meaning of what is being read; and writing appropriately for the task and the audience.
• Provide supports to help ELLs master core content and skills. These include visuals (pictures, diagrams, tables, concept maps, short videos, and graphic organizers to represent complex concepts and vocabulary) and verbal supports (glossaries, sentence and paragraph frames, teacher-chosen words in context, and whole-class, small-group, and partner discussions focused on clarifying key ideas). It’s also helpful to provide core content in the home language for some students.
• Develop ELLs’ academic language. Becoming proficient in the language used in school, in written communication, in public presentations, and in formal settings is crucial for English language learners. Academic language varies by subject area, with science especially challenging, and researchers have found that embedding instruction within the subject area is a promising technique.
• Encourage peer-to-peer learning opportunities. “One of the key principles of instruction in a second language,” says August, “is enabling students to interact via speaking, listening, reading, and writing with peers in their second language.” Peer talk, in pairs or small groups, is most effective when it focuses on curriculum content. The Peer Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS) program has proven to be an effective strategy.
• Capitalize on students’ home language, knowledge, and cultural assets. This might involve previewing and reviewing material in students’ first language; connecting the concepts to students’ prior knowledge and home and community experiences; giving first-language definitions of targeted vocabulary; drawing attention to cognates that provide a bridge between first and second languages; and providing opportunities for students to talk about the content during a lesson in their first language.
• Screen students to find the root cause of language and literacy difficulties, monitor progress, and support ELLs who are falling behind. “Historically, ELLs have been both over-identified and under-identified as having a disability,” says August. Both are problematic, and the key is accurate assessment, timely intervention when there are problems, and educator training. It’s essential to distinguish between language-learning challenges and a genuine disability. August lists the literacy skills that are vital in the early grades, and stresses that teachers need to use good assessments to monitor each child’s progress and understand how to use assessment data in following up with students.

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