What Do English Learners Need?

by Valentina Gonzalez


I have to admit that when I first began my role as an ESL teacher years ago, I didn’t know much about ELs other than through my own experiences. My experience growing up as an English learner helped me form my beliefs about language acquisition and helped me as I worked with ELs in my general education classroom.

But the year I left the general education classroom and moved into the role of an ESL teacher who supported all grades, co-taught, and pulled newcomer students out for intense English instruction, I realized that I needed to learn more and do more. I was seen as the ESL/EL specialist on my campus, and that meant a lot to me. The students were counting on me to support their language development and to support their teachers. I had to step up my game and FAST!

It made me realize that I had to meet some serious needs in order for our English learners to succeed.

So, what do our English learners need?

  • Educators who believe in them
  • Advocates who stand up for their rights
  • Cheerleaders who rally around them and celebrate their successes
  • Books that reflect each of them
  • Resources that support their learning

EDUCATORS who believe in English Learners will set high standards!

Students who are learning English as a second (or third!) language are cognitively capable of learning academic content and language together. As their educators, we have to let them know that we believe in them, that we know they can succeed, and that we are going to support them. We want to be sure that our standards are high for all of our students. No watered-down curricula. They can acquire content with the necessary linguistic accommodations.

We have to dispel the misconception that English learners need work that is below grade level, or that they are not capable of learning content until they have learned English. I once visited a classroom where I saw kids learning, talking, and collaborating in groups…until I noticed one student sitting alone. He was coloring a letter and twirling a paperclip. The teacher later told me that the child was new and didn’t know English. My heart broke because I realized the lost opportunity for this child to learn from his peers in lieu of doing a task that was so much below his cognitive ability.

ADVOCATES will stand up for their rights!

It’s important to know your local policies and state laws regarding English learners. Come to a deep understanding of them, and be prepared to share them with colleagues in an effort to ensure ELs are receiving equitable education. Attend educational meetings that involve EL students. If an EL is being considered for special education, speech, or other services, ensure that you are included in the scheduling meeting to act as the voice for the student.

One thing I did as an EL teacher is set up a meeting with the principal before the school year started. I wanted to share our ESL team’s vision and goals with her for our ESL team. And I wanted to ensure that we were valued and supported. This talk was super important, as it set the tone for the entire year. We needed to make sure that our ESL teachers were valued as language specialists, seeing students regularly and co-teaching in classrooms not being used at substitutes, making copies, or covering cafeteria duty.

CHEERLEADERS will celebrate their successes!

Shine a bright light on EL successes! Whether success is big or small, be sure to highlight it and make it known. If a student showed growth in reading, share that success with the student and the parents. If a child made progress on state testing, make a big deal of it! Celebrate success! Recently, we noticed that one of our students (who entered as a junior high newcomer knowing no English) graduated in the top 10 of the class! You better believe we celebrated this success!

BOOKS should reflect who they are!

Our students need to see themselves in the books they pick up in our classrooms. If you are a classroom teacher, take a look at the books in your room. Do they reflect the students who walk in those doors each day? Would your students be able to find themselves between the pages of the books on the shelf?

If the answer is yes, awesome! If the answer is no, you may consider taking action. Our students benefit greatly from feeling a sense of belonging. When we read about characters who are like us, we realize that we are not alone in this world. We make connections. English learners need this type of validation just as much as any other student.

At the campus or district level, we can look at the books on our library shelves and begin to reflect on them as well. Do they match the diversity of our student demographics? How inclusive are they? Take action!

RESOURCES will support their learning!

Beyond the books on our shelves, English learners need resources that support them both linguistically and academically. When we stop to consider our students and their needs while making decisions about instructional materials, we can begin to incorporate students’ assets into instruction. One way to support their learning is to include resources in many languages. Imagine moving to another country let’s say France, for example and sitting in a classroom filled with French books and resources when all of the sudden you see a book in English. Your eyes light up, and you begin to smile. You feel comfortable. You feel that your primary language is being valued.

We can also provide resources that have been adapted yet still meet grade level standards. Newsela and Newsinlevels are two sites that offer leveled texts. Rewordify is another one that simplifies any text that we copy and paste. If we provide all students the same instruction and the same resources, then our instruction is meeting the needs of only some students. This short video by Larry Ferlazzo sums up differentiation quite concisely.

As educators of English learners, we have an important responsibility to fulfill in promising our students that we will support them and never give up!


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