Policies and Practices to Promote English Language Learner Academic Success

BY LAURA BAECHER | English language learner (ELL) students comprise the fastest-growing segment of the child population[i] and form the majority student population in all of the largest US cities.[ii]  They are also some of the most academically vulnerable children in US schools, with drop out rates that exceed any other pupil population[iii] and scores on reading and mathematics that consistently fall below the national average.[iv] Across the country, educators, scholars, and policy-makers struggle to define and enact solutions that can meet these students’ needs and lead to their academic success.

What does the extensive research literature tell us about the school factors that matter most for ELL students? Which levers would best close the achievement gap?

The research record is fairly clear: there are numerous school factors that influence an ELL student’s prospects, for better or worse.  Here I touch on four of the most critical ones over which we can exert control: (1) the amount of time students spend participating in targeted English development each week; (2) the choice of instructional model used (dual-language, pull-out, push-in); (3) the degree of collaboration between English as a Second Language (ESL)-certified teachers and content teachers; and (4) school leaders who understand the research base for educating English language learners.

ELLs Need Instructional Time Focused on English Language Development

Meaningful English acquisition requires ELLs to (1) interact with target language speakers on a daily basis; (2) participate in structured activities that enable them to practice vocabulary, grammatical forms, and extend their discourse; and (3) receive targeted feedback on their use of language.[v] It is clear that “effective English language development provides explicit teaching of features of English (such as syntax, grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and norms of social usage) and ample, meaningful opportunities to use English.”[vi] When teachers can focus more exclusively on English language skills, and tally more minutes in English language development blocks, ELLs learn more English.[vii]

Dual Language Programs Provide Maximum Academic Benefit to ELLs

It is true that targeted English practice is critical, but research clearly shows that dual-language programs provide the best context for this to take place.[viii] Dual language programs in the US are classrooms made up of half native speakers of a foreign language and half native English speakers.  In these contexts, ELLs develop literacy skills in their first language but also learn English and receive subject content in English.  So-called “immersion” programs, which plunge ELLs into all-English environments, require them to learn to read, write, and negotiate academic subject matter in a foreign language.  This is devastating to ELL literacy and academic development, setting ELL children back years from their monolingual peers, a gap that almost never closes. A true investment in ELLs would capitalize on their greatest asset (their first language) and would, simultaneously, involve native English speakers in rigorous acquisition of a second language.  Neurolinguistic research has demonstrated the brain’s extended capacity among bilinguals,[ix] and classroom-based research has a half-century of data showing the long-term success that learning initially in one’s first language, and then in two languages, confers.[x]  Cummins’ concept of “common underlying proficiency” illustrates how we transfer skills gained in our first language to the acquisition of our second.[xi]

However, in the US, dual-language models only serve a small percentage of ELLs.  This stems from an insufficient number of trained teachers or interested parents, sizeable linguistic communities, and also a persistent bias for English-only classrooms.  Much more common than dual language programs are “subtractive” models, whose aim is to reduce the use of the first language and supplant it with English.  ESL “push-in” and “pull-out” models are the most common in elementary schools, in which ESL teachers remove children from the main classroom periodically, or provide language support within the classroom. Push-in/pull-out instruction can indeed be effective when coupled with strong collaboration between classroom and ESL teachers, but such positive situations are the exception rather than the norm.[xii]

Teachers Must Collaboratively Plan and Teach for ELL Academic Success

Program model is less important than collaboration between content-area and ESL teachers.[xiii] In a year-long participatory investigation of elementary ESL and classroom teacher collaboration across push-in/pull-out contexts, Fearon[xiv] found that teacher expertise and the quality and consistency of collaboration between ESL and content/classroom teachers is more important than the ESL program model. When ESL teachers and classroom teachers plan and teach together, they can create linguistic goals to accompany content-learning goals, thus enabling ELLs to move forward towards grade-level mastery while acquiring academic English.  When collaboration is not in place, ELLs are often lost in the mainstream classroom and receive only disconnected and disjointed English language instruction.

Unfortunately, many schools provide more barriers than supports to collaboration.  There is a pervasive lack of allocated, common planning time,[xv] lack of understanding on the part of administrators that collaborative teaching for ELLs is crucial,[xvi] and an inferior status of the ESL specialist in relation to the classroom teacher.[xvii]  Furthermore, because many ESL teachers work across multiple grade levels, they are stretched too thin to coordinate grade-level planning. ESL teachers and content teachers also occupy different power positions within their schools, lack common technical language for lesson design, and differ in instructional goals. These factors often increase resistance to collaborative teaching on the part of the ESL specialist.[xviii]  Given this reality, their collaborations require institutional support and encouragement.[xix]

School Leaders Play Key Role in the Success of ELLs

The three research findings above point, finally, to this: effective learning for ELLs requires wise and determined school leadership.  For instance, Theoharis and O’Toole[xx] describe two highly successful school reform initiatives that required ESL and content teachers to work closely together.  The process by which this was achieved looked different in the two locations: in one school, the teachers acquired dual licenses (ESL and elementary generalist), and in the other, the administration supported inclusive teaching models. The crucial factor in both cases was that each school had a principal who was highly motivated and committed to the success of ELLs in their buildings.  Positive examples suggest that the level of regard given by school administrators to the professional knowledge and status of ESL teachers affects their ability to secure consistent and meaningful instructional time with ELLs.

The sad truth is that few teachers view their school leaders as supportive of developing or monitoring the success of collaborative teaching, and most wish that administrators knew more about best instructional practices for ELLs.[xxi]  Even when school leaders wish to support ELLs, very few have personal or pedagogical experience with linguistically diverse students.[xxii] Such lack of knowledge is a causal factor in our schools’ failure to nurture ELLs’ academic success.

Need for Policies to Support ELLs

Although the federal government requires states to provide some type of programming to meet the needs of ELLs, this instruction varies across states, districts, and even schools. Some states require a particular number of instructional minutes of targeted English language development (ELD) based on language proficiency, while others leave the specific time allocation up to schools.  For example, the state law in New York mandates that beginner ELLs receive 360 and advanced ELLs receive 180 minutes of instruction per week, while in other states there is no set time requirement. Such varied laws are well – intentioned, but they are clearly insufficient to close the achievement gap between native speakers and English Language Learners. There is an urgent need for attention to the school factors that are hindering ELLs’ success.

The academic success of English Language Learners requires not only new policies but also a increased focus in our schools and in our schools of education on ELL pedagogy. In order for our ESL teachers to be able to successfully support their English learners, several things must happen:

  1. Teacher preparation programs should emphasize the possibility that any given school may well include English learners. This is a tall order: faculty in schools of education would need to learn more about ESL pedagogy and the necessity of collaborative teaching, in order to prepare the next generation of teachers for our classrooms.
  1. Policy makers should insist that all existing teachers receive professional development on teaching English learners, and that schools themselves be transparent about the instructional time spent on English language development. Policies to protect the rights of ELL students could include monthly reporting on instructional minutes spent by students in targeted English language development and time spent in collaboration.
  1. Administrators need to know and understand how to support English learners. Such support could include creating a master schedule in which ELLs are a priority; ensuring that teachers’ caseloads are manageable; and creating common planning time and instructional goals based on the needs of the students.
  1. Teachers must play a role in creating more flexible and transparent co-planning schedules. They can engage with technology platforms that foster quick and ready access to ELLs’ progress, and encourage the use of the structures of transparency to ensure that ELLs receive the optimal amount of instructional time.

These four research-based changes would not solve all of the problems our English Language Learners face, but they would go a long way towards making America’s schools a more powerful vehicle for closing the achievement gap.

Laura Baecher is an assistant professor of TESOL at Hunter College School of Education. She teaches courses for PreK-12 teacher candidates in the MA TESOL program, and supports the placements of student teachers at sites in the New York City public schools. Her research focuses on examining the work of practicing ESL teachers, increasing the quality of school experiences in TESOL teacher education, and involving a collaborative partnership of faculty, teacher leaders, and teacher candidates to advocate for English language learners.



[i]. Donald J. Hernández et al., “Young Hispanic Children in the 21st Century,” Journal of Latinos and Education 6(2007).

[ii]. Jennifer Sable et al., Characteristics of the 100 Largest Public Elementary and Secondary School Districts in the United States: 2008-2009 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 2010), accessed May 19, 2014, http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2011/2011301.pdf

[iii]. Jorge Ruiz-de-Velasco et al., Overlooked and Underserved: Immigrant Students in US Secondary Schools (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2000), accessed May 19, 2014, http://www.urban.org/publications/310022.html

[iv]. Rachel B. Slama, “A Longitudinal Analysis of Academic English Proficiency Outcomes for Adolescent English Language Learners in the United States,” Journal of Educational Psychology 104(2012).

[v]. Zenaida Aguirre-Muñoz, and A. Amabisca, “Defining Opportunity to Learn for English Language Learners: Linguistic and Cultural Dimensions of ELLs’ Instructional Contexts,” Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR) 15(2010); William Saunders et al., “English Language Development,” American Educator, Summer 2013.

[vi]. Claude Goldenberg, “Teaching English Language Learners:  What the Research Does–and Does Not–Say,” American Educator, Summer 2008, 43.

[vii]. William Saunders et al., “Is a Separate Block of Time for Oral English Language Development in Programs for English Learners Needed?”The Elementary School Journal 107(2006).

[viii]. Wayne P. Thomas, and Virginia Collier, School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students. NCBE Resource Collection Series, No. 9 (Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, 1997).

[ix]. Ellen Bialystock, “Bilingualism: The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent,” Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 12(2009), doi: 10.1017/S1366728908003477

[x]. Fred Genesee et al., “English Language Learners in U.S. schools: An Overview of Research Findings,” Journal of Education for Students Placed At Risk 10(2005).

[xi]. Jim Cummins, Language, Power, and Pedagogy: Bilingual Children in the Crossfire (Clevedon, UK: Multlingual Matters, 2000), 186.

[xii]. Angela B. Bell, and Laura Baecher, “Points on a Continuum:  ESL Teachers Reporting on Collaboration,” TESOL Journal, Special Issue on Teacher Collaboration in TESOL 3(2012).

[xiii]. Lynne T. Díaz-Rico, and Kathryn Z. Weed, The Cross-cultural, Language, and Academic Development Handbook: A Complete K-12 Reference Guide, 3rd ed. (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2006); Marie Dove, and Andrea Honigsfeld, “ESL Coteaching and Collaboration:  Opportunities to Develop Teacher Leadership and Enhance Student Learning,” TESOL Journal 1(2010); Margo Gottlieb, Assessing English Language Learners: Bridges from Language Proficiency to Academic Achievement (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2006); Patricia Hoffman, and Anne Dahlman, “Together We Are Better,” Essential Teacher 4(2007), accessed May 19, 2014, http://test.tesol.org/s_tesol/sec_document.asp?CID=1787&DID=9385; Edie L. Holcomb, Asking the Right Questions: Tools for Collaboration and School Change (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2009); Andrea Honigsfeld, and Maria G. Dove, Collaboration and Co-teaching: Strategies for English Learners (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2010); Anne Walker et al., (2004), “’Not in My Classroom’: Teacher Attitudes towards English Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom,” NABE Journal of Research and Practice 2(2004).

[xiv]. Katherine Fearon, “A Team Teaching Approach to ESL:  An Evaluative Case Study” (Masters thesis, Kean University, 2008).

[xv]. Marilyn Friend, “Co-teaching:  A Simple Solution that Isn’t Simple After All,” Journal of Curriculum and Instruction 2(2008).

[xvi]. George Theoharis, and Joanne O’Toole, “Leading Inclusive ELL: Social Justice Leadership for English Language Learners,” Educational Administration Quarterly 47(2011).

[xvii]. Sophie Arkoudis, “Negotiating the Rough Ground between ESL and Mainstream Teachers,” The International Journal of Bilingual Education 9(2006); Angela Creese, “The Discursive Construction of Power in Teacher Partnerships:  Language and Subject Specialists in Mainstream Schools,” TESOL Quarterly 36(2002); Angela Creese, “Supporting Talk? Partnership Teachers in Classroom Interaction,” International Journal of Bilingual Education & Bilingualism 9(2006).

[xviii]. Greg McClure, and Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor, “Pushing Back against Push-in: ESOL Teacher Resistance and the Complexities of Coteaching,” TESOL Journal 1(2010).

[xix]. Sophie Arkoudis, “‘I Have Linguistic Aims and Linguistic Content’:  ESL and Science Teachers Planning Together,” Prospect 15(2000); Sophie Arkoudis, “Negotiating”; Creese, “Discursive Construction”; Angela Creese, Teacher Collaboration and Talk in Multilingual Classrooms (Clevedon:  Multilingual Matters, 2005); Creese, “Supporting talk?”; Chris Davison, “Collaboration between ESL and Content Teachers:  How Do We Know When We Are Getting It Right?” International Journal of Bilingual Education 9(2006); Bonnie English, “Who Is Responsible for Educating English Language Learners?  Discursive Construction of Roles and Responsibilities in an Inquiry Community?” Language and Education 23(2009).

[xx]. Theoharis and O’Toole, “Leading Inclusive ELL.”

[xxi]. Friend, “Co-teaching”; Thomas E. Scruggs et al., “Co-teaching in Inclusive Classrooms:  A Metasynthesis of Qualitative Research,” Exceptional Children 73(2007); Christine S. Walther-Thomas, “Co-teaching Experiences:  The Benefits and Problems that Teachers and Principals Report over Time,” Journal of Learning Disabilities 30(1997).

[xxii]. Sonya D. Horsford et al., “Pedagogy of the Personal and Professional: Toward a Framework for Culturally Relevant Leadership,” Journal of School Leadership 21(2011); Gayla Lohfink et al., “Growing Effective CLD Teachers for Today’s Classrooms of CLD Children,” Action in Teacher Education 34(2012); Patricia Gándara et al., Listening to Teachers of English Language Learners: A Survey of California Teachers’ Challenges, Experiences, and Professional Development Needs (Santa Cruz, CA: Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, 2005); Cady Landa, Cultural Proficiency in Education: A Review of the Literature Focused on Teachers, School Leaders, and Schools, Paper 143 (Boston, MA: Gastón Institute Publications, 2011), accessed May 19, 2014, http://scholarworks.umb.edu/gaston_pubs/143; Augustina Reyes, “Reculturing Principals as Leaders for Cultural and Linguistic Diversity,” in Preparing Quality Educators for English Language Learners: Research, Policies, and Practices, ed. K. Téllez, and H. C. Waxman (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006); Elsy F. Suttmiller, and M. L. González, “Successful school leadership for English language learners,” in Preparing Quality Educators for English Language Learners: Research, Policies, and Practices, ed. K. Téllez, and H. C. Waxman (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006).

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