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Books in Translation

December 2004/January 2005 | Volume 62 | Number 4
Educating Language Learners Pages 84-85

Research Matters / Successful Strategies for English Language Learners

Tracy Gray and Steve Fleischman

Cut through the fog of competing claims made by researchers and policymakers about effective approaches for meeting the needs of English language learners (ELLs) and one fact remains: Educators daily face the challenge of teaching this large and growing student population. More immigrants arrived in the United States during the 1990s than during any other decade on record. This fall, in response to this trend toward linguistic and cultural diversity, the New York City school district created an office to translate information for parents into eight languages. The Los Angeles Unified School District already spends more than $6 million yearly to translate its materials (Zehr, 2004).

Today, students in our schools speak more than 450 languages (Kindler, 2002). About 12 percent of all preK–12 students are considered English language learners. Projections indicate that by 2015, more than 50 percent of all students in K–12 public schools across the United States will not speak English as their first language (Pearlman, 2002).

The accountability requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 add a new dimension to this challenge because ELLs are included in the law's testing requirements. Their test scores may be factored into the determination of whether a school is making adequate yearly progress (AYP).

Although ideology often trumps evidence in this area, amid the conflicting claims research has established a number of straightforward strategies that educators can use to meet the academic, linguistic, and cultural needs of English language learners.

What We Know

A review of effective instructional strategies for linguistically and culturally diverse students reveals that many of these strategies are simply extensions of approaches that work well with all students. For example, sound principles and practices of classroom organization and management—such as small instructional groups—seem to work well for ELLs (Garcia, 1991).

One key to successfully working with ELLs is to view them as a resource in the classroom. According to Zehler (1994), these students can offer information about other countries and cultures; new perspectives about the world, different societies, and belief systems; and opportunities for exposing native English speakers to other languages.

In addition, many researchers support the use of scaffolding strategies to help ELLs organize their thoughts in English, develop study skills, and follow classroom procedures. To provide meaning, scaffolding uses contextual supports—simplified language, teacher modeling, visuals and graphics, and cooperative and hands-on learning. According to Diaz-Rico and Weed (2002) and Ovando, Collier, and Combs (2003), English language learners show progress when their content-area teachers consistently use these supports as they deliver instruction. These researchers identify the following scaffolding approaches as effective.

Keep the language simple. Speak simply and clearly. Use short, complete sentences in a normal tone of voice. Avoid using slang, idioms, or figures of speech.

Use actions and illustrations to reinforce oral statements. Appropriate prompts and facial expressions help convey meaning. Pointing to the chalkboard while asking, “Please come up and complete the math problem” is more effective than repeating commands or directions.

Ask for completion, not generation. Ask students to choose answers from a list or to complete a partially finished outline or paragraph. Encourage students to use language as much as possible to gain confidence over time.

Model correct usage and judiciously correct errors. Use corrections to positively reinforce students' use of English. When ELLs make a mistake or use awkward language, they are often attempting to apply what they know about their first language to English. For example, a Spanish-speaking student may say, “It fell from me”—a direct translation from Spanish—instead of “I dropped it.”

Use visual aids. Present classroom content and information whenever possible in a way that engages students—by using graphic organizers, tables, charts, outlines, and graphs, for example. Encourage students to use these tools to present information.

Educators Take Note

A final key component of serving the needs of English language learners is establishing strong relationships with families. Educators sometimes view low levels of parental involvement as a lack of parental interest in the education process. However, non-English-speaking families often have no means for communicating with the school. They may also have different cultural expectations regarding the appropriate relationship with their children's school. Therefore, schools need to make additional efforts to engage these families.

Boothe (2000) emphasizes the importance of inviting immigrant families to participate in meaningful activities in school, such as classroom demonstrations of their culture (food or clothing, for example) or awards ceremonies acknowledging their children's accomplishments. Schools also need to clearly state their expectations for both parents and students, especially to families newly arrived in the United States. Whenever possible, schools should translate all written communications to families into these families' native languages.

Smaller school districts may not have the resources to translate their written communications into numerous languages. However, many translation resources are available on the Internet at no cost, including and

In addition, schools should identify bilingual contacts in the school and community as well as foreign language instructors in local colleges and universities who might be willing to provide translation support. Research indicates that establishing partnerships between bilingual families and non-English-speaking families encourages family involvement in school (Epstein, 1998; Moll, Amanti, Neff, & González, 1992). Additional translation and interpreter resources are available through local organizations such as intercultural institutes, social service agencies, and state bar associations.

Although none of these communication solutions is perfect, schools that adopt them demonstrate their willingness to communicate with the families of all their students. Using these tools to reach out to families is an important step in including ELLs in the school community and promoting their achievement.


Boothe, D. (2000). Looking beyond the ESL label. Principal Leadership, 1(4), 30–35.

Diaz-Rico, L. T., & Weed, K. Z. (2002). The cross cultural, language, and academic development handbook (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Epstein, J. (1998). School and family partnerships: Preparing educators and improving schools. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Garcia, E. (1991). The education of linguistically and culturally diverse students: Effective instructional practices (Educational Practice Report 1). Santa Cruz, CA: National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning. Available:

Kindler, A. L. (2002). Survey of the states' limited English proficient students and available educational programs and services, 2000–2001 Summary Report. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs.

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & González, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect home and classrooms. Theory into Practice, 31(2), 131–141.

Ovando, C., Collier, V., & Combs, M. (2003). Bilingual and ESL classrooms: Teaching multicultural contexts (3rd ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Pearlman, M. (2002). Measuring and supporting English language learning in schools: Challenges for test makers. Presentation at CRESST Conference, Los Angeles, California.

Zehler, A. (1994). Working with English language learners: Strategies for elementary and middle school teachers. (Program Information Guide Series, Number 19). Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs.

Zehr, M. A. (2004, Oct. 6). Translation efforts a growing priority for urban schools. Education Week, pp. 1, 15.

Tracy Gray is a Principal Research Scientist at the American Institutes for Research (AIR), specializing in technical innovation for students with disabilities, education for English language learners, and online learning tools for teachers and students. She is the Director of the National Center for Technology. Steve Fleischman, series editor of this column, is a Principal Research Scientist at AIR;


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