Skip to main content
Usable Knowledge

Linguistically Responsive Teachers

What mainstream classroom teachers should know about teaching English learners
Illustration of abstract geometric shapes appearing to respond to one another

In schools across the United States, the presence of English learners in mainstream classrooms is commonplace. But do ordinary classroom teachers have the knowledge and abilities to support these learners? 

Researchers Tamara Lucas, Ana María Villegas, and Margaret Freedson wanted to give teachers a roadmap for effective teaching of ELs. And they knew it was critical that teacher educators better prepare future teachers to serve this growing population.

They surveyed a vast body of research about English language learning to gain a clear sense of what mainstream classroom teachers should know and be able to do in order to teach English learners well. In the paper that resulted, they distilled six principles — a linguistic foundation for the teaching of English learners in mainstream classes. Those principles are excerpted here. 

If a student is developmentally ready to learn the content of the curriculum, lack of fluency in English should not keep him or her from doing so.

Essential Understandings of Second Language Learning

  1. Conversational language proficiency is fundamentally different from academic language proficiency. It can take many more years for an English learner to become fluent in the latter than in the former. 
  2. Second language learners must have access to comprehensible input that is just beyond their current level of competence, and they must have opportunities to produce output for meaningful purposes. 
  3. Social interaction in which ELs actively participate helps spur the development of conversational and academic English. 
  4. ELs with strong native language skills are more likely to achieve parity with native-English-speaking peers than are those with weak native-language skills.
  5. A safe, welcoming classroom environment with minimal anxiety about performing in a second language is essential for ELs to learn.
  6. Explicit attention to linguistic form and function is essential to second language learning.

Three Steps to Becoming a Linguistically Responsive Teacher

"If a student is developmentally ready to learn the content of the curriculum, his or her not being fluent in English should not keep him or her from doing so," the researchers say. Classroom teachers need three types of pedagogical expertise to make it happen:

  • Familiarity with students’ linguistic and academic backgrounds. Teachers need to listen to and get to know their students, to appreciate the distinct educational journeys, schooling histories, and unique needs of individual EL students
  • An understanding of the language demands that go along with learning tasks. This involves identifying vocabulary that students have to understand in order to access curriculum content; understanding the semantic and syntactic complexity of the language used in written instructional materials; and knowing the ways in which students are expected to use language to complete each learning task. 
  • The skills to deploy appropriate scaffolding, so that ELs can participate successfully in those learning tasks. Among the many scaffolding tools and strategies teachers can use:
    • extra-linguistic supports (visual tools like pictures, maps, or videos, or data visualizations like graphs and timelines); illustrations, maps, videos)
    • supplementing or modifying challenging texts to make them more accessible (creating study guides, for example)
    • supplmenting or modifying the oral language used in your classroom to reduce the burden on ELs (for instance, by minimizing idiomatic expressions, pausing more often, or giving students lesson outlines)
    • giving clear, explicit instructions
    • encouraging students' use of home languages
    • creating purposeful activities, so that ELs have opportunities to interact with others and negotiate meaning
    • minimizing anxiety that ELs might feel in a classroom of native English speakers; setting norms and rules that prevent teasing


Schools serve as a key point of welcome for immigrant and refugee children in America, but politics and changing demographics are complicating how we assist these newcomers. In a special series, we look at the strategies and practices that best support newcomer students and their families. Read more in Welcoming Newcomers.

Usable Knowledge

Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities

Related Articles