3 Best Practices for Teaching English Language Learners

By Kathleen L. Gallagher, Ph.D.
I once did an experiment where I followed around an English language learner (ELL) for an entire day in an attempt to see school through their eyes. The student was well-behaved, responsible when working independently, committed to getting good grades–but surprisingly, was never required to speak a single word in class. It got me thinking, “How common is this, and how can we allow our ELLs, who need the most practice and feedback on language, to become essentially invisible in the classroom?”
There is a “silent” stage that many ELLs go through when learning a new language; however, they often can get stuck in it for anywhere from two to 10 years. If these students have been in school for more than six years and are not progressing towards English competency, they are classified as long-term English learners (LTELs). Unfortunately, LTELs are a growing demographic that schools have always faced but, until recently, had been unable to detect and support effectively.
The newly enacted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) makes tracking ELLs’ progress a top focus for schools across the nation. States now have standardized criteria for designating students as ELLs and a process for reclassifying them as “no longer needing extra language instruction.” In California, ELLs take the California English Language Development Test (CELDT) yearly to track their progress towards reclassification. Once students are reclassified, the law requires states to monitor former English learners for four years (increased from two years) to ensure limited English proficiency is no longer impacting their learning.
With new requirements and increasing dropout rates among EL students, educators in our school and across the country are rapidly working to transform ELL programs by putting a larger focus on active teaching and getting these students to speak English in authentic academic contexts.

Reclassification Before Fourth Grade

Baker Elementary is a Title 1 school in San Diego Unified School District. Our students are predominately Spanish-speaking; 62% are ELLs and 43% do not speak English at home. This last figure represents our greatest challenge: How are students supposed to learn a new language when they often do not get enough practice speaking it?
It is our vision to reclassify students before they reach the fifth grade so they are confident enough in their English to remain actively engaged in learning through middle school, high school, college and career. We believe if a student who entered our school in kindergarten leaves still classified as an ELL, it is a direct reflection of our school and the work of our teachers and administration.
If we take the time to teach students English in elementary school, language barrier challenges are less likely to arise. If students enter middle school already reclassified, we dramatically decrease their dropout rate and create a path to success. Here are three of our keys to keeping students on track for reclassification and out of LTEL status.

  1. Create an engaging learning environment where students have many opportunities to improve their language learning. In many schools, young ELLs are expected to simply “catch on” to the language and successfully learn to read, write, comprehend and speak English without any formal language instruction. In other settings, ELLs are pulled into language ability groups and taught language skills isolated from academic learning contexts.

We believe that teachers must understand how language develops, teach language explicitly at levels that are accessible to a range of learners, and provide many opportunities for students to practice their language learning in real academic contexts.
To make this model work better for both ELLs and native English speakers, our teachers have revamped their instructional approaches to include multiple entry points to academic discussions throughout every lesson. All students learn a concept in English, then the teacher utilizes a range of language scaffolds to encourage students to elaborate on concepts in both English and in students’ native languages. In partner conversations, ELLs feel empowered and confident to participate, while more advanced ELs, reclassified students, and bilingual students get to use their native language to assist others in developing deeper understanding.

2. Empower students to take ownership of their learning. Encouraging them to make connections between languages deepens their understanding and helps them to learn at an accelerated rate. Our ELLs know that it is their responsibility to ask questions of either their teacher or their peers if they don’t understand what to do or how to say something in English. When teachers support students in taking ownership of their English learning, it has positive impact on both effort and achievement.
3. Differentiate instruction. Individualized tutorials ensure students are working on the “just right next step” in their learning. To enable teachers to work with individuals and small groups, we adopted web-based tools to make independent learning more personalized. We use Learning Upgrade because it supports students using native languages, gives every ELL unlimited access to differentiated lessons in math, and continually evolves in its alignment with 21st-century learning targets.
Another online tool we use for differentiated instruction is Achieve3000. With digital curriculum, students can learn at their own pace and focus on areas where they need extra help. We’ve found that using individualized, web-based programs help our students move faster up the reclassification scale.

Keeping ELLs from becoming LTELs is all about taking the time to plan rich lessons that engage students in authentic, content-focused learning; empowering students to take ownership of their own learning; and differentiating instruction so each child can work at a level that’s right for them.
This blog is part of the Supporting English Language Learners Series with support from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For more, stay tuned for the culminating podcast, infographic and publication.
For more, see:

Dr. Kathleen Gallagher is the principal of Baker Elementary in the San Diego Unified School District. Dr. Gallagher is available for questions via email at [email protected].

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