What Research Says About Teaching English Learners

By Justin Lim on November 16, 2009

Sometimes, picking out the students who are English learners is not as easy as one would expect. Some of you may have noticed that the long-term ELs in your classes blend in with the general population seamlessly, except when it comes to formal writing. If you've experienced this, then you're not alone. Here is what the most recent research says:

Although most students easily acquire conversational speaking skills, they often lack the sophisticated vernacular that is necessary to be successful in an academic setting (Bailey, 2007). This problem is even more pronounced among ELs, who on the norm, are able to progress from beginning to intermediate levels more rapidly, but struggle to reach full language proficiency (Goldenberg, 2008).

While educators and classroom texts commonly use academic language, aside from formal writing, students seldom do so because they can viably participate using conversational English. Classroom teachers often fail to hold students accountable for using academic language during classroom interaction, because their main focus is normally lesson content.

So what should we do about it?

In order to acquire academic language, students need opportunities to use high-use sophisticated words in speech and writing. Specifically, daily activities must be structured in a way that keeps students accountable for correctly using newly introduced terminology (Feldman & Kinsella, 2004). Structured pairing is ideal because cognitive growth develops through social interaction (Feldman, 2002). Furthermore, pairing allows less confident students to regularly participate with peers in a safe environment (Kinsella & Feldman, 2005). 

For further details on how to implement structured paired activities, check out one of my previous posts on engagement routines or watch it in action here. I also strongly suggest explicitly teaching words from the AWL (Academic Word List), which is a research based developed list of high-usage academic words (Coxhead, 2000).

Last year, I made a concerted effort to use these routines as the primary instructional strategy in two of my READ 180 intervention classes. On average, my students increased their reading comprehension scores (by lexile) by approximately 3.7 grades in a 35-week period. Their CST ELA scores also saw significant improvement, where the majority of the students went from Far Below Basic and Below Basic to Basic and Proficient. If you would like to know more about the significant factors and student results you can download this short research prosectus.

Giving students the tools they need to practice academic language is a challenge and a process. In the end though, it's what they need to develop long term success.

Warm regards,

Justin Lim

Rosemead High School

El Monte Union High School District


Bailey, A. (2007). The Language Demands of School. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Coxhead, A (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34, 213-238.

Feldman, K.  (2002). “Engaged Literacy Learning: Strategies to maximize Student participation.” New York: Scholastic Red

Feldman, K., and Kinsella, K. (2004) “Narrowing the language Gap:  The Case for Explicit Vocabulary Instruction.” New York: Scholastic.

Goldenberg, Claude. “Teaching English Language learners: What the Research Does – and Does Not Say,” American Educator, Vol. 32 (Summer 2008), 8-23, 42-44.

Kinsella, K., and Feldman, K. (2005). “Structures for Active participation and Learning.” New York: Scholastic Red.


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