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English Learner Questions? Ask a Researcher

Real teacher questions about EL instruction, answered by specialists

April 26, 2018
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In a series aimed at closing the gap between research and practice, Usable Knowledge has partnered with Digital Promise on a project that collects questions from educators across the country and poses them to experts at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The series, called Ask a Researcher, offers evidence-based guidance on classroom dilemmas, with questions sourced from Digital Promise's League of Innovative Schools and beyond. (You can submit a question here.)

Here, we share excerpts of questions and answers on English learning.

Q: What type of academic vocabulary instruction is most effective for EL students?

For emergent bilinguals (or ELs), research shows that vocabulary instruction — explicit teaching and guided practice to expand students’ knowledge of the meanings of words — must be conducted consistently across all instructional formats. But different instructional formats are useful in teaching different kinds of words, says Paola Uccelli.

Classroom-level instruction is useful for teaching academic vocabulary — not just discipline-specific, content-based words, but cross-disciplinary, all-purpose academic words such as "interpret," "analyze," "therefore," or "however."

Small-group instruction, offering a chance for deeper discussion and usage of vocabulary, is where educators can also provude support with basic vocabulary words, such as household items and terms for family members — words whose meanings EL students already know in their home language, but which they need to label in English. The best model is one that focuses on everyday vocabulary and academic vocabulary at once, rather than prioritizing the basic words.   

One-on-one instruction can help students enhance their word recognition skills and their word reading fluency. It's important to remember that even in a case where word recognition skills (for example, sounding out words) are just emerging, the teaching of word meanings cannot be overlooked. Vocabulary knowledge supports both more efficient word recognition skills and better text comprehension.

Across all instructional formats, it's important for teachers to provide explicit instruction of unfamiliar words, to recycle words continually so students have the opportunity to practice, and to expose students to words using multiple formats. Word knowledge is incremental, and learners continue to accumulate knowledge about a new word over time, by finding and using the newly learned word in an increasing variety of contexts. Read the complete answer here.

Q: How can school leaders model acceptance of bilingualism, and understand it as a right for students?

While schools must provide a well-designed, well-resourced bilingual program to help students develop their English skills, they also need to understand how critical it is to support students' home languages, says Asil Yassine. Bolstering a student's home language can support academic achievement overall. And language is tied to identity; to ignore a student's home language is to ignore a fundamental part of his or her culture.

Employing faculty and staff who speak students' home languages can be a key way to develop relationships with EL students and therefore to deepen their learning.

It's also important to listen to and partner with families, who can help teachers and school leaders clearly see the relationship between language, identity, and community. Attending home visits, participating in cultural celebrations, and spending time at a neighborhood recreation center can all help deepen these partnerships. Read the full response here.


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.

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