English Language Learners (ELLs) in Today’s Public Schools

The twenty-first century brings many new issues and challenges for teachers in public schools.  We are faced with new paradigms for educating our youth for the roles they will have in our ever-evolving society.  Students today must learn to be proficient communicators, collaborators, creators, and critical thinkers.  The jobs of tomorrow will require twenty-first century skillsets that go well beyond traditional rote learning and memorization that schools have relied on for generations (The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, n.d.).

While all students are facing new challenges, one particular group needs particular attention from teachers, administrators, and policy makers.  According to Plank (2011, para. 5), "English-language learners, or ELLs, are nearly 11 percent of the K-12 population, and about 80 percent of these students speak Spanish, with the rest speaking a wide variety of other languages. In California, more than half the children now entering public schools come from households where the first language is not English."  While ELLs were once only concentrated in certain regional areas and cities, we now find that almost all teachers in public schools will have ELLs in their classrooms.  While the population of ELLs continues to grow, professional development for today's teachers has not kept up with this need (Professional Development for General Education Teachers of English Language Learners, n.d.). 

To be sure, ELLs can prove to be an enormous asset to society and the workplace.  Students whose emerging bilingualism is nurtured and who are also well-versed in twenty-first century skills will be able to help businesses with global markets and our country with issues such as national security and diplomacy.  Going further, research is beginning to show that nurturing bilingualism may lead to better brain development for our ELLs (Bhattacharjee, 2012).

While the benefits are clear, the process will be more difficult.  Teachers, administrators, and policy makers must consider many factors so that our ELLs will reach their full potential.

The first thing to consider is what it is like to be an ELL today.  While all students in public schools may face certain difficulties in their social and academic lives, these issues are magnified for ELLs.  The ways that public schools are traditionally set up can be a hindrance for nurturing ELL's linguistic, social, emotional, and cognitive development. 

One striking example is the culture of high-stakes testing in our schools.  An ELL's lack of English proficiency makes understanding test directions difficult.  Compounding this is the fact that these types of tests may be completely foreign for students who come from other cultural backgrounds and countries.  A large amount of stress is put on all students (including ELLs) to perform well and help their schools meet AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) as defined by NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and related legislation.  In his work on the Affective Filter Hypothesis, Krashen (as cited in Schütz, n.d.) notes that stressful classroom environments only hinder the learning of language and content by language learners.  Learners who feel anxiety often "clam up," both in terms of taking in new input and producing the output needed for continued learning of both language and content.  Our high-stakes testing environment may be doing far more harm than good for these students.

Another factor to consider is the culture shock and other social issues that ELLs face.  Imagine yourself transplanted into a foreign culture with peers of your own age, such as at a school.  You might feel scared, confused, and overwhelmed by your new surroundings.  The social issues facing all students in schools today can be magnified for our ELLs, who are typically perceived as "different" by their peers.  Bullying and social ostracism are commonplace.  ELLs are not usually aware of how to get help with these social issues, and will often be hesitant to ask for help.  Added to this is the fact that large numbers of our ELLs live in poverty, with their basic needs such as food and shelter not being met.  In this situation, the potential ostracism from their peers only hinders ELLs' language development further.  Language learning is comprised not only of academic content knowledge (referred to as CALP-Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency), but also as the communicative, social language, and interaction that occurs among peers (BICS-Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills). BICS and CALP (Haynes, n.d.) work together to scaffold ELLs' ongoing learning of both language and content.

While the difficulties facing the large numbers of ELLs in our school are clear, teacher education and professional development has lagged behind the demand.  Teachers of all grade levels and content areas from K-12 may have ELLs in their classrooms, but the vast majority of these teachers have not taken a class in how to make content accessible and comprehensible to ELLs.  Teacher education programs must prepare teachers in how to help ELLs develop both linguistic and content area knowledge, as each of these areas cyclically builds off of the other.  Targeted professional development for teachers should be continuous and should also address things like cultural sensitivity and awareness.

There are some specific things that teachers can do right now to help their ELL students.  First, teaching practices must align with research-based theoretical viewpoints on language acquisition.  One example is that an over-emphasis on error-correction can do more harm than good.  Focusing on task-based and project-based learning instead of a lock-step and linear approach is helpful.  Kumaravadivelu (2006) notes the evolution of methodology in teaching ELLs over the past two decades.  Most methodology for teaching ELLs now focuses on task-based learning, in addition to the focus on communication skills.  Teachers should learn to be more eclectic and holistic in their approaches, instead of focusing on one given method all of the time. 

Teachers can help ELLs to gain higher levels of language proficiency in both BICS (casual language with peers) and CALP (content area, academic language).  BICS can be developed through encouraging social interaction with peers, such as on the playground, in sports, and in other activities.  ELLs can be paired with a helpful "buddy," which can help to ease the ELL into social activities/language, while also giving the "buddy" a chance to further develop leadership and social skills.  CALP can be developed through direct instruction on content area vocabulary.  For example, students can create a "personal thesaurus" to use during classes such as Science and Social Studies.  This can help when content-area vocabulary is necessary for performance in the content area, but the English vocabulary needed for it is above the ELL's proficiency level.  Most importantly, teachers must be flexible and willing to modify instruction and assessment, based on the specific needs of the ELL.  One very helpful tool for making academic content more comprehensible for ELLs is the SIOP model (The SIOP Model, n.d.).  The SIOP model is research-based, and takes into consideration motivating factors such as an ELL's learning style, interests, preferences, and background.

A few additional tips can help teachers using the SIOP model.  First of all, teachers should consider using multicultural literature that would fit into the content area and/or grade level being taught.  The themes found in stories from various cultures and backgrounds may be universal for all students (both ELLs and otherwise).  When selecting multicultural literature, teachers should work to find qualities that go beyond "surface level" culture and into a deeper understanding of the culture (Banks, n.d.), so as to help further cultural awareness and sensitivity for all students.  When working with ELLs, building on prior knowledge is key.  Tools such as KWL charts can really help to scaffold learning for all students, but are especially crucial in helping ELLs make meaningful connections with content knowledge.  Similarly, graphic organizers and other tools for scaffolding student writing can help ELLs reach higher levels of proficiency and better organize their thoughts.  Technology can also be helpful in this regard.  A wide variety of tools can be found via a simple online search.  Three useful websites for resources are www.colorincolorado.org, www.everythingesl.net, and www.manythings.org

Beyond the classroom walls, there is also help available for teachers and families of ELLs.  Collaboration, communication, and networking are critical.  Teachers should seek outside resources, such as help/advice from colleagues, translators, district specialists, special education and gifted education personnel, and administrators.  If administrators, like many teachers, are not well-versed on the needs of ELLs, teachers can help to raise their awareness.  Many conferences and publications focus on teaching ELLs, most notably TESOL (TESOL International Association, n.d.).  Finally, it is absolutely crucial that teachers and administrators communicate with and involve parents, families, and the community.  Families of ELLs face the same problems as their children, and may be hesitant to become involved.  Reaching out to them and helping them become more comfortable can go a long way.

As we move further into the twenty-first century, teachers will need to adapt their practices in many ways.  Being aware of the issues ELLs face and the ways to help ELLs succeed will continue to be a large part of this change.  The population of ELLs in the U.S. continues to grow, and is no longer limited to particular parts of the country or to the inner city.  ELLs can be found everywhere and are in need of services.  As a profession, we must consider how we can best help our ELLs to succeed, grow, and become the most responsible and productive members of society.  Nurturing ELLs' cognitive, academic, linguistic, and social skills will benefit all of us in society, in the long run.


Banks, J.A.  (n.d.).  Multiculturalism's Five Dimensions.  Retrieved April 29, 2014, from http://www.learner.org/workshops/socialstudies/pdf/session3/3.Multiculturalism.pdf

Bhattacharjee, Y. (2012, March 17). Why Bilinguals Are Smarter. The New York Times. Retrieved April 29, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-benefits-of-bilingualism.html?_r=0

Haynes, J. (n.d.).  Explaining BICS and CALP.  Retrieved April 29, 2014, from http://www.everythingesl.net/inservices/bics_calp.php

Kumaravadivelu, B.  (2006). TESOL Methods: Changing Tracks, Challenging Trends.  TESOL Quarterly, 40(1). 59-81.

KWL Chart.  (n.d.) Retrieved April 29, 2014, from http://www.eduplace.com/graphicorganizer/pdf/kwl.pdf

Plank, D.N.  (2011).  ELL Assessment - One Size Does Not Fit All.  Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/08/31/02plank.h31.html?tkn=PRTFZA1PfGCZdtyYIf5tUTMjnSStQaSM3F7M&cmp=clp-sb-actfl

Professional Development for General Education Teachers of English Language Learners. (n.d.).  Retrieved April 29, 2014, from http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/PB32_ELL11.pdf

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (n.d.). The Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Retrieved April 29, 2014, from http://www.p21.org/

TESOL International Association. (n.d.). TESOL International Association. Retrieved April 29, 2014, from http://www.tesol.org/

Schütz, R. (n.d.).  Stephen Krashen's Theory of Second Language Acquisition.  Retrieved April 29, 2014, from http://www.sk.com.br/sk-krash.html

The SIOP model (n.d.) Retrieved April 29, 2014, from http://siop.pearson.com/about-siop/index.html