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Professional Opinion

4 steps to fluency and mastery in education for ELLs

How educators can meet the needs of this diverse and growing student population
Ramon Namnun is principal of the High School of World Cultures, one of three schools housed in the James Monroe Educational Complex in the Bronx, offering instruction for new arrival students within New York City Public Schools.
Ramon Namnun is principal of the High School of World Cultures, one of three schools housed in the James Monroe Educational Complex in the Bronx, offering instruction for new arrival students within New York City Public Schools.

Editor's note: District Administration welcomes the insights and opinions of educators and administrators on all topics. If you would like to contribute a guest column, please contact Tim Goral at tgoral@promediagrp.com.

Without question, the fastest-growing student population in the United States is English language learners. Nearly 3 out of 4 classrooms include at least one English language learner and just one-third of these students reach basic proficiency on national exams in math and reading. That’s half the rate of their non-ELL peers.

Further, the dropout rate for ELL students is double the national average and the achievement gap with non-ELL students has remained constant for nearly two decades.  

This challenge is evident within our school, the High School of World Cultures in the South Bronx in New York City. We have students arriving from 30 different countries who speak up to 13 different languages and who have been in the United States for less than six months.

It is particularly difficult to address their individual language needs while also providing them with the tools and resources they need to graduate.

ELL students often develop conversational English skills quickly but it can take up to seven years to develop full academic proficiency.

Compounding the issue is that many districts are unprepared to provide ELL students the support required to achieve proficiency. And most teachers feel that they lack the high-quality instructional materials they need to address students’ language and academic needs, particularly within secondary education.

These challenges are amplified when serving highly mobile families, as schools may enroll students for only a few months or years of their academic journey. Yet, the stakes are high.

Incorporating high-quality resources to support ELL students can have a stark impact on whether they succeed. At High School of World Cultures, we have been able to pinpoint four best practices for evaluating ELL resources.

With an effective curriculum, ELL students can achieve the dual goals of establishing language fluency while reaching grade-level mastery across each subject. When the curriculum addresses the needs of these students, English language fluency and grade-level mastery across each subject is achievable.

Using content-rich instruction to accelerate comprehension  

In high school, English language learners absorb the vast majority of new words through context, and only a relatively small number through direct translation instruction.

Consequently, context-rich instruction can dramatically accelerate the development of fluency. Context-rich instruction—which might include visualizations, text, audio and active learning opportunities—offers multiple ways of demonstrating the meaning of an unfamiliar word or concept.

This can also include leveraging familiar examples to activate prior knowledge by connecting the new word to a familiar concept. The power of context is strengthened through personalization, such as by offering tailored support and individualized feedback throughout the learning experience.

These approaches give students with multiple chances of assigning meaning to words, understanding the material and expanding their vocabulary.  

Unlock subject-level success through comprehensible input

English language learners develop language and subject-area mastery when the content is comprehensible—when they understand what they are seeing, hearing or reading. We have found three effective ways to maximize the comprehensibility of instructional content.  

1. Attention to vocabulary. With both text and speech, content is comprehensible when students can understand at least 85 to 90 percent of the words used. This requires careful attention to the vocabulary used as well as to the supports students have available.

2. Context-rich instruction. Context-rich instruction broadens comprehensibility by offering multiple ways to understand the meaning of a word or concept. If text initially proves incomprehensible, an image can provide the context essential to understanding it.

If an image still isn’t enough, a relevant example, interactive simulation or alternative explanation can all increase a student’s understanding of the word or concept.

3. Literary scaffolds. Specific literary scaffolds are essential to closing the comprehensibility gap. This means including structured reading activities, guided notes, audio support, dictionaries, native language translations and active reading strategies, among others.

These supports are particularly important for emerging language learners, who more frequently recognize fewer than 85 percent of the words used during instruction.

Leverage direct instruction for academic vocabulary

Direct instruction is essential to learning academic vocabulary as definitions are often too technical or abstract to learn through context alone.

For English language learners, effective direct instruction requires something more than a dictionary. A combination of accessible definitions, contextualized reinforcement and explicit review provides English language learners with the clarity and exposure they need to retain academic vocabulary.

With that in mind, effective interactive instruction strategies include:

  • coming up with student-friendly definitions
  • visual aids
  • examples of using the words in a familiar context
  • asking questions to help students think critically about the meaning of the words
  • opportunities to compare and contrast words and repetition to reinforce the target words.

Cement mastery through output

Practicing vocabulary words is just as important—if not more so—as learning them, and English language learners cement mastery through regular, varied usage. This output is most effective when it includes matching exercises, short answers, essays and discussions.

A balance of output facilitates syntactic processing, productive experimentation and the automatization of skills. Output also provides the opportunity for important feedback, which creates a natural mechanism for English language learners to validate, revise and reinforce their understanding through trial and error.

Many English language learners require additional support to generate grade-level responses—particularly for short answers, discussions, essays, reports and other open responses. These supports can include controlled release, guided examples and scaffolded writing assignments, among others.

Seizing the opportunity

These strategies outline the path to highly effective ELL instruction. Given the diverse backgrounds of our students, it often takes many of them more than four years to graduate from high school. But, ultimately, about 85 percent of our students do eventually graduate.

This can be a challenging, time-consuming task, but we believe that other districts, by combining these best practices, have an opportunity to build English language learners’ fluency and subject-level mastery simultaneously.

Doing this well provides these new English language learners with the foundation they need to excel both in school and beyond, while also increasing district performance and community standing.


Ramon Namnun is principal of the High School of World Cultures, one of three schools housed in the James Monroe Educational Complex in the Bronx, offering instruction for new arrival students within New York City Public Schools.