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Coping with an Influx of ELL Students

Essentials on education data and research analysis

Schools and districts that serve a large number of English language learners (ELL s) have found it helpful to develop a comprehensive program that addresses the specific needs of the population they serve. But what about districts that experience a sudden influx of ELL students? In these places, no ELL program may be in place, and existing staff may not be trained or experienced in teaching students whose first language is not English.

Adapting Practices for ELLs

Generally, instructional practices that are effective for students in general are also good for English language learners. All students can benefit from clear explanations supported by visual aids, for example, and from direct instruction supplemented by opportunities for practice. However, teachers will need to differentiate instruction for ELL students to accommodate various levels of language development (Genesee, Lindholm-Leary, Saunders, & Christian, 2006).

English language learners can become good at recognizing or decoding words within a couple of years, but this does not guarantee that they will become fluent readers. ELL students can pick up conversational English rather quickly, but proficiency in academic English takes at least four to seven years. Academic English includes words like whereas and identify as well as content-area vocabulary; the words field and root take on new meanings in math class, for example. The good news? English and non-English speakers benefit from increased opportunities to learn academic English. The challenge? Many teachers, especially those who teach middle and high school, will need professional guidance in how to deliver such opportunities (August & Shanahan, 2006).

Research-Based Frameworks

Teachers need to use a comprehensive framework for delivering academic instruction. Districts should establish frameworks and instructional guidelines based on the size and characteristics of their ELL populations (Torgesen et al., 2007). For example, districts serving a large population of Spanish speakers may be able to include some instruction in Spanish for those students. Several studies have shown that first-language instruction can yield long-term benefits.

Two frameworks that have some empirical support are the Sheltered Instructional Observation Protocol (SIOP) and the Five Standards for Effective Pedagogy. The SIOP model aims to improve ELL s’ subject matter comprehension by adapting speech to their language proficiency levels using a variety of instructional techniques so that students have adequate support as they work on complex tasks. The Five Standards direct teachers to work together with students, develop language and literacy skills across the curriculum, and involve students in instructional conversations—academic, goal-directed, small group discussions (Genesee et al., 2006).

Carla Thomas McClure is a staff writer at Edvantia (, a nonprofit education research and development organization. Anita Deck (antia.deck@ directs West Virginia Parent Connections at Edvantia. To see citations of the article’s references, go to


August, D., & Shanahan, T. (eds.). (2006). Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Edvantia. (2007). Research review: What research says about preparing English language learners for academic success. Available from the Center for Public Education at

Genesee, F., Lindholm-Leary, K., Saunders, W. M., & Christian, D. (2006). Educating English language learners: A synthesis of research evidence. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Saunders, W., Foorman, B., & Carlson, C. (2006). Do we need a separate block of time for oral English language development in programs for English learners? Elementary School Journal, 107: 181-198.

Torgesen, J. K., Houston, D. D. Rissman, L. M. Decker, S. M., Roberts, G., Vaughn, S., Wexler, J., Francis, D. J., Rivera, M. O., & Lesaux, N. (2007). Academic literacy instruction for adolescents: A guidance document from the Center on Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.

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