There are approximately 5 million English learners, or Emergent Multilingual Learners (EMLs), in the United States today. Yet, even in schools where nearly the entire student body speaks a home language other than English, EMLs may feel like a minority—like their needs and unique skill sets have been discounted in favor of native English speakers.
How can district leaders give teachers the support they need to help English learners thrive? Start by creating the right conditions for English-language learning to flourish. Students need to know that they are respected and supported, that they have valuable contributions to make, and that they are an integral part of the student body.
Investing in summer programs for EMLs is one important way for districts to help their students. But what can be done to help schools better meet English-learner needs during the school year so that students can meet more of their goals?
The American Rescue Plan Act included an unprecedented $170 billion in education aid, distributed to states according to need by the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund. But knowing how to begin applying those funds to best help EMLs can be overwhelming. Here are some steps that your district can take right now to help EMLs and their teachers get the support they need.
Create a supportive environment that instills confidence in English learners.
To lay the foundations for academic success, fostering self-confidence in English learners is crucial. A study by the NWEA Collaborative for Student Growth found that self-efficacy—a key indicator of success in reading and math—was much lower among English learners entering middle school than among native English speakers. The study found that there was “a significant indirect effect on growth in math and reading for ELL students through the gap in self-efficacy in fifth grade.” A lack of self-efficacy may make it harder for these students to “catch up” to their peers, a disadvantage that could follow them through school.
To help teachers create an environment that supports agency, districts can emphasize social and emotional learning (SEL) skills, encourage goal setting among both students and teachers, and consider mentoring and advising programs for EMLs. States like Colorado and Connecticut have put ESSER funding to work in such ways.
Make sure that students enter a supportive environment each day—one in which EML students’ contributions and skills in both their home languages and in English are celebrated and encouraged. Physical environments should be supportive, collaborative, and designed around students’ needs. Classrooms should be authentic, relevant, and actively “language rich,” to support students’ language acquisition. Philosophically, students need to know they are empowered and accountable, with teachers who support, encourage, and empathize with them to achieve increasingly higher levels of learning.
Focus on building relationships—with students, between students, and between schools and families.
Students need ample opportunities to engage in structured and collaborative routines that promote dialogue and discussion and also foster relational capacity. For example, AVID Excel—an offering that promotes college and career readiness for middle school English learners—relies heavily on community-building experiences to develop and build relationships. Intentionally designed team-building activities foster emotionally supportive spaces, where individual differences are appreciated, trust is established, and agency and leadership traits evolve.
Reaching out to families is also imperative. The parents and families of students are often their greatest allies and advocates. This is no different for English learners. But language barriers, differing cultural expectations about education and norms about communication, and a lack of awareness about conventions like parent–teacher conferences or Back to School nights can make reaching out to EMLs’ families challenging. As your district considers ways to apply ESSER funding, consider including family outreach for EMLs on your priority list.
Encourage culturally responsive practices, not just in the classroom but throughout the school district. This list of steps is a great place to start. Make sure that essential documents—like calendars, emergency procedures, and contact lists—are available in multiple languages. Culturally responsive districts invest in translation and translator services to ensure an inclusive environment for all families and students.
Develop strategic lesson design and delivery.
Building a curriculum that addresses the four domains of language—listening, speaking, reading, and writing—is key, as is ensuring that EMLs are receiving targeted academic language support in content classes as well as their English-language-development classes. Strategies that can be applied on top of existing content lessons help engage English learners in both language learning and the subject-matter knowledge they need for academic growth and college readiness.
For English learners, responsive and adaptive teaching practices are paramount. But it isn’t an easy task. Teachers constantly need to listen and pick up on “bugs” in students’ language learning, so they can stop, review, and incorporate new concepts into their lessons with the entire class. Districts should emphasize diagnostic teaching, set clear objectives for both teachers and students, and make sure that teachers have the support systems they need to avoid burnout.
Opportunities like AVID Excel work to increase students’ autonomy and confidence by building their language competence and improving their academic achievement. They can be further supported by in-class structures like Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR). Scaffolded lessons give students the invaluable experience of success during both direct instruction and student-centered learning; GRR is a proven method of shifting instruction from teacher-centered to student-driven over time. The GRR structure not only increases student achievement in reading and writing, but it is also proven to improve comprehensive literacy outcomes for EMLs.
Take an asset-based approach to language.
Academic language—language thought to be specialized and complex in contrast to non-academic or social language—is often the rubric by which we judge English learners’ proficiency. But educational linguist Nelson Flores describes how traditional conceptions of academic language might work to support an underlying framework of linguistic deficiency in how we teach, assess, and treat English learners. He suggests that district leaders could adopt the idea of “language architecture” as an alternative and more equitable way to frame language learning.
Ultimately, the goal is to help students access academic rigor, success, and opportunity, and these are all abilities that can be developed and expressed through English learners’ home languages as well as a burgeoning conception of English. In fact, critical thinking skills can be strengthened precisely by bilingual students’ negotiations between their home languages and what they encounter at school. Educators should honor and utilize their students’ backgrounds and life experiences as a way to develop their linguistic skills and create greater agency in the classroom and beyond.
Just as architects have to work with agreed-upon parameters but are also given freedom of expression, so too should English learners be given the freedom to make meaning with the tools and knowledge they already possess. Flores states that, “The framework of language architecture sends students a powerful message that their home language practices are integral to the development of their academic identities…”
Find Resources and Take Action
To learn more about how your district can advance learning for Emergent Multilingual Learners, visit AVID.org.
About Dr. Sacha Bennett
Dr. Sacha Bennett is a Teaching and Learning Program Specialist at AVID Center. Sacha leads English-learner initiatives by creating curriculum and professional learning that supports multilingual scholars on their pathway to postsecondary success. She previously served as a secondary literacy coach, a teacher specialist, and a district program facilitator in a large urban school district. Sacha holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre and a Master of Science in Educational Leadership from California State University, Fullerton, and a doctorate from Vanderbilt University in Leadership and Learning in Organizations.