Breaking the Cycle of Limiting English Learners’ Potential

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This week on the Heinemann blog, we’re sharing a series on Language in the Classroom. The series was inspired by an article published by NPR on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016, on the ways we teach English Learners in our country. While the NPR article was specific to English Learners, our hope is to use that as a jumping off point to broader topics of language instruction in the classroom. Each day this week we will feature articles, excerpts and insights directly from Heinemann authors and affiliates that further the conversation surrounding language diversity in the classroom, the challenges it presents, and what we know works.  


Breaking the Cycle of Limiting English Learners' Potential

adapted from No More Low Expectations for English Learners.

By Julie Nora and Jana Echevarria


Too often English Learners (ELs)—the students in our schools who are in the process of learning English —are described by what they cannot do: they cannot speak English, they are not prepared for mainstream classrooms, they do not understand the culture of schools in the United States, their parents don’t speak English and cannot help them with their schoolwork, they do not do as well academically, and so on. Even the official term limited English proficient consigns these students’ academic identity into a negative label of diminished capacity. These feelings are only increased by standardized tests and teacher evaluation, and we become trapped in a cycle of limiting potential. Of course, there are real challenges in teaching English learners in a language they have not yet mastered. Teachers need to use a variety of strategies to scaffold instruction. Many teachers of ELs have good intentions but lack specific knowledge on the complexities of teaching grade-level contents and language. There are many well-intentioned teachers whose teaching practices unintentionally communicate low expectations and deny English learners access to the education we want for them and that they deserve. Keep in mind, we deny English learners access when we:

  • Don’t give students access to mainstream classes
  • Mistake effort with language development
  • Don’t give students opportunities to use the language while they are learning the language
  • Do not incorporate explicit language teaching with content instruction
  • Limit our teaching to basic skills
  • Focus solely on vocabulary
  • Ignore the progression of language development
  • Ignore the need to learn about and affirm student identity
  • Don’t communicate with their families
  • Insist on English-only policies
  • Over-identify EL students for special education
  • Under-identify EL students for special education

All learners, English speakers, and ELs, benefit from explicit language instruction to engage in the higher-order thinking required to learn new content. When teachers focus on cursive or vocabulary in isolation, they decontextualize the language learning which increases the likelihood that ELs will disengage. We may recognize some of our own teaching in the list above. That may feel uncomfortable and make us want to disengage, but these kinds of conversations require a willingness to be vulnerable – to question whether our instruction is increasing our English learners’ access to academic opportunity or diminishing it and to ask for help when we’re not certain or feeling overwhelmed. 


julienoraJulie Nora is Director of the International Charter School (ICS) in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Prior to leading ICS, Julie worked as a teacher of ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) in K-12 settings and as an applied researcher at the Education Alliance at Brown University.

janaechevarria Jana Echevarría, Ph.D., is Professor Emerita at California State University, Long Beach where she was selected as Outstanding Professor in 2005. She has taught in elementary and secondary in special education, ESL, and bilingual programs. A founding researcher of the SIOP Model, Dr. Echevarria's research focuses on effective instruction for English learners, including those with learning disabilities. Her publications include over 60 books, book chapters, and journal articles. She has presented her research in the U.S. and internationally, including at Oxford University (England), Wits University (South Africa), Harvard University (U.S.), Stanford University (U.S.), University of Barcelona (Spain), and South East Europe University (Macedonia) where she was a Fulbright Specialist. Currently she serves as the ELL expert for the U.S. Department of Justice on the Lau v. SFUSD case.

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