Supporting Academic Achievement in English Language Learners

By — Diversity in Education Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of July 1, 2006 there are 4.6 million English language learners (ELLs) in U.S. schools. The National Association of Education consistently finds that ELLs are significantly behind in reading and math, which challenges educators and raises questions about how to improve academic achievement in this population.

Why Is It Important To Support Native Language Development?

It is often assumed that since the ultimate educational goal for ELLs is to develop a high level of English language proficiency, there is no reason for the first language to be supported. Parents of ELLs are often asked to speak English at home to enhance the development of the second language and to facilitate academic achievements. However, it has been observed that in a variety of language and academic achievement tasks, ELLs taught bilingually have higher scores on English measures than ELLs taught only in English (e.g., Slavin & Cheong, 2005; Thordardottir et al., 1997). This finding suggests that supporting children’s first language enhances second language development (MacSwan & Rolstad, 2005).              
Much of the misunderstanding about second language acquisition comes from the notion that developing literacy in the native language confuses ELLs. In fact, research suggests that literacy in a native language is a short cut to literacy in a second language:
Learning how to read and write in the native language, which is better developed than the second language, is easier for the child.
  • Literacy skills in the native language, such as phonological awareness, letter identification, reading comprehension, and word naming, predict and readily transfer to literacy skills in the second language (e.g., August & Shanahan, 2006; Dickinson et al., 2004).
  • By stimulating reading and writing in the home language, parents can help children advance in English (Kohnert et al., 2005).

What About Kids With Language Disorders or Learning Disabilities?

There is a common misunderstanding that supporting two languages is problematic for ELLs with language or learning disabilities. Parents often hear that learning two languages confuses the child and delays English language development, causing parents to stop using the native language in favor of English. Currently, there is no scientific evidence to support this notion. Learning two languages may take longer for ELLs with disabilities in comparison with ELLs developing typically, but it is due to their disability and not to the use of two languages. Research indicates they are no different in performance from monolinguals with the same disabilities (Genesee, Paradis, & Crago, 2004).
  • There is no evidence that depriving children from their native language has any benefits to the acquisition of English, and in fact, it has many negative effects on the native language and communication within the family (Restrepo, 2003; Restrepo & Kruth, 2000).
  • Effective daily communication is critical for a child’s self-esteem and social-emotional status (De Houwer, 1999).
  • The native language forms an integral part of cultural identity. Depriving a child of the ability to become bilingual and bicultural can continue to have negative repercussions (LaFromboise, Coleman, & Gerton, 1993; McCardle et al., 1995).
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