Help Each English Language Learner Find a New Voice

By Natasha H. Chenowith, Ph.D., Manager, Professional Development

Of all the journeys our students undertake, learning to read and write is among the most important and the most challenging. Along this journey, students can face substantial highs and lows; some of these lows can adversely impact their motivation to become capable readers and writers. As teachers, our goal includes guiding students along this journey towards literacy, regardless of the subject we teach, but it can be much more challenging than it sounds.

As a foreign language and English as a Second language (ESL) teacher, I have seen the challenges of this journey compounded by a variety of other factors: prior schooling (or lack thereof), cultural and social differences, and the similarity or dissimilarity of previously learned languages, just to name a few. One of the greatest obstacles to learning a new language is often fear: of being misunderstood, of making a grammatical error, of sounding different than native speakers, of being judged.

A student once explained this to me beautifully: “The hardest part of learning English is in my heart. When I can’t express myself, it is very frustrating, because I feel I can’t be myself.” I’ll never forget hearing those words, because it was the first time I realized how intensely personal these feelings are for students who struggle to read and write. This emotional aspect of learning often gets overlooked, especially for students who are learning a new language.

We know the population of English language learners (ELLs) in the United States is growing year after year. Data from the National Center for Educational Statistics demonstrates that the American student population is becoming increasingly linguistically diverse. Since 2000, the ELL student population has grown to 5 million (even doubling in some states) or about 10% of the total student population.

Since 2000, the ELL student population has grown to 5 million (even doubling in some states) or about 10% of the total student population.

What is more shocking, however, is the seemingly insurmountable achievement gap between ELLs and their native-speaking peers. The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that ELLs consistently score below basic proficiency levels, across subject areas. In 2011, less than one percent of ELLs in 8th and 12th grade scored at the proficient level for writing. Since 2003, we’ve seen no significant improvements in reading proficiency for this student population.

This means ELLs are not acquiring the skills necessary to become literate in their second (or third, fourth, etc.) language by the end of high school. The immense consequences of this problem cannot be ignored. These students will struggle to leverage reading and writing as threshold skills for college, career, and everyday life. We must deduce that our strategies for teaching English language learners, and the preparedness of our teachers for this task, lag far behind the need. Investing in quality resources for teaching ELLs and impactful professional learning for teachers shouldn’t be optional. They are needed now.

One of the challenges faced by ELLs involves learning content and language simultaneously. Content knowledge requires essential background knowledge and vocabulary. Learning both language and content at the same time presents an enormous cognitive challenge. As opposed to fluent readers and writers, who can process content from working memory into long-term memory, these tasks are much more difficult for those learning a new language.

Try to put yourself in an ELL’s shoes for a minute. You’re a 5th grader who recently moved to China (or Guatemala, or Mexico, or France…you pick) and you need to understand a real-world mathematical problem in Mandarin (or Spanish, or French). How can you solve an abstract math problem in Mandarin, whose background knowledge and vocabulary are foreign to you, without using the literacy skills required to understand the problem in the first place? And how would you retain what you learned, in order to succeed on tests at the state and national levels? Furthermore, consider how much time and hard work it actually takes to become fluent in another language: many years of immersive practice.

So what do educators do to bridge these cavernous language and achievement gaps? Where do we even begin? First of all, it’s crucial to recognize that ELLs are not a homogenous group of struggling readers and writers. Their linguistic, cultural, social, and (as I will never forget) personal needs are as varied and distinct as the students themselves. We know that a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching doesn’t work for any student. Taking a differentiated and balanced approach to literacy instruction is essential for ELLs, too.

This approach should incorporate modeled, shared, and independent practice in the four domains of language: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Additionally, we cannot forget word study and grammar. For ELLs, these are essential because they provide the foundation on which ELLs will build other linguistic skills and content area knowledge. Explicit instruction of both social and academic vocabulary and grammatical structures is paramount.

So let’s return to the role of fear, and my student’s struggle to identify with his second language. Linguistic and sociocultural factors compound the struggle to read and write, but in my experience as a teacher and language learner myself, fear appears to be the greatest obstacle of all. Creating a low-anxiety, communicative environment for learning is essential for ELLs and for their success.

Linguistic and sociocultural factors compound the struggle to read and write, but in my experience as a teacher and language learner myself, fear appears to be the greatest obstacle of all.

It is important to help students realize that their participation is valued as a member of a classroom learning community. Fostering opportunities for interaction with peers, partnerships, and cooperative learning teams can be great avenues for reducing anxiety. In practice, this might look like peer tutoring, cross-age reading, speaking partners, or book club discussion groups. These set the stage for learning both social and academic language, building a learning community in which all participants learn from one another.

One way to begin this process is by exploring the features of Raz-Plus ELL. Learning A-Z supports ELLs with resources for balanced and blended learning instruction. Blended learning combines technology with face-to-face instruction, allowing for effective differentiation. These flexible resources help students build key social and academic vocabulary, and provide scaffolded opportunities for students to practice literacy skills. Resources are differentiated by grade band and language proficiency levels. I also invite you to explore our professional learning opportunities, including live webinars, recorded webinars, eLearning courses, customizable webinars, and on-site workshops about Raz-Plus ELL.

Active engagement and participation in their own learning helps ELL students retain the knowledge they’ve acquired and gain self-confidence in their academic achievements. Isn’t that our ultimate goal as teachers, for every student we serve? The daunting task of achieving fluency in reading, writing, speaking, and listening will not happen overnight, but the journey begins with taking the first step. Take the step, because you are not just teaching a language, you are helping your students find a new voice.

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