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Instructional Strategies that Support the Success of English Language Learners

— State: Rhode Island Department of Education
Updated on Mar 13, 2010

Although the average time needed to acquire social English skills is two to three years, acquisition of academic English proficiency, essential for full academic parity with English-speaking peers, usually takes five to seven years. Students with strong academic or primary language backgrounds will typically transition more quickly (approximately four to five years). Conversely, students with weak academic or primary language backgrounds may take up to eight to ten years to reach full academic parity. Students who enter high school as new arrivals to the United States have a particularly difficult time accruing academic credits while attempting to gain the necessary academic English proficiency. A student arriving at age 16, with no prior exposure to English, will not be likely to reach full English proficiency or academic parity before graduation. This should not be viewed as a problem per se, as many university and technical colleges offer English as a Second Language (ESL). The goal in high school should be to provide for accelerated English literacy development while providing the key concepts and skills necessary to graduate and move into postsecondary preparation programs or pre-employment career-related education.

While it is important to keep realistic timelines in mind when considering how long support may be needed, there is evidence that the process can be accelerated to some degree if adequate support is provided and innovative methodologies are used. Successful bilingual/ESL support programs around the country are taking students from beginner to near native English proficiency and academic parity with grade-level peers within four to six years.

Short-Term Action Options

Make sure that English language learners have access to English-speaking peers

Teachers can facilitate English access by assigning and rotating English-speaking “peer buddies.” Peer buddies can assist in vocabulary acquisition by using dual language dictionaries or thematic picture dictionaries to create a context for conversation. They can also help recent arrivals adjust to the school culture or re-explain difficult “teacher talk.” Using several peer buddies over time allows for wider participation and sharing in both the privilege and responsibility of assisting the newcomer.

Teachers should not force production of English before students are ready

Avoid overcorrection of attempts to speak English, as this likely will lead students to be self-conscious about their speech and to practice less. Teachers should instead continue to model clearly spoken, correct English for their students without interrupting the normal flow of the conversation.

Utilize various sources of literature to inspire learning and literacy

For English Language Learners who have reached a second- or third-grade reading level in English, illustrations or comic books can provide an excellent supplemental literacy development tool. Search for text that is at an appropriate reading level, while equivalent in content and student interests for their chronological age. Children can often guess the meanings of unfamiliar words by looking at the illustrations; therefore, less time is lost looking up new words in dictionaries.

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