Raising the Bar for our English Learners

by Marcy Voss

I recently gave a workshop for teachers of English learners and had an interesting conversation with one of the participants. This teacher had immigrated with her family to the United States when she was in middle school. Though she’d had Algebra in her home country, her new school placed her in a remedial math class. She weathered through the boring work, but her high school-aged brother eventually dropped out because he became frustrated when the instruction he received was not matched to his advanced learning needs. 

Marcy Post

As I observe classes with English learners, I find that far too often we, as teachers, doggedly focus on language acquisition to the exclusion of challenging, rigorous content and instruction. When we do this, we easily fall into the trap of seeing English learners through a “deficit-based lens” (Valencia, 1997), zeroing in on what they lack (English) and not on their many strengths. Jessica Landers (2019) notes that she often hears her students confess that they feel somehow “less than” their native-English-speaking or American-born peers. Though we promote equal educational opportunity for all, many of our English learners are getting an inequitable education and are not encouraged to reach their potential. 

So, what do we do? This is far less complicated that it seems.

First, we change our mindset and look for students’ strengths.

We can do this formally when we do our initial assessments of English learners. When we gather data regarding students’ language proficiency, we also need to gather data about their previous education, their ability (through native-language assessments, as well as non-verbal means), and their less obvious instructional needs (through anecdotal information such as parent/student interviews). Educational decisions then need to be based on these multiple criteria.

We can also look for students’ learning strengths informally in the classroom. One way of doing this is by observing students’ learning rates through dynamic assessment. Dynamic assessment involves assessing student performance on a skill, providing instruction on that skill, and then assessing the student’s acquisition of that skill. This is best accomplished in a one-on-one teacher/student session. However, using a whole group pre-assessment prior to a lesson and group evaluation afterward also provides valuable information on student learning. Dynamic assessment allows the teacher to assess the speed and degree to which mastery has occurred so that students with advanced learning rates can be recognized and learning needs can be addressed.

Next, we can challenge students through opportunities for high-level thinking in class instruction.

We can plan lessons to incorporate the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, encouraging students to analyze, evaluate, and create. We can offer opportunities for students to engage in problem and project-based learning, which requires them to use critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills. We can ask questions that require students to look for patterns, trends, and big ideas. We can encourage students to see topics from multiple perspectives and make connections with other events or ideas. None of this type of instruction is at the expense of language learning. Teemant, Hausman, & Kigamwa (2016) found that when teachers used higher order thinking, their students made significant gains in both language arts achievement and English proficiency.

Finally, we can encourage our English Learners to find and hone their talents.

When we note a strength, we should point it out to our students and encourage them to develop it. Sometimes this just means saying things such as, “I noticed you really have a talent for detailed artwork. Have you thought about taking art as an elective?” or “You seem to really enjoy music. Would you be interested in joining the band?” to help point students in the direction of support for their interests or talents. Other times it may mean giving students an opportunity to use their talents in the development of a class activity or project, such as allowing them the freedom to select their project or to incorporate art, music, or drama into their presentations. We can also have conversations with our students about their learning ability, encouraging them to take advanced courses, join academic clubs, and enter competitions. 

This approach to raising the bar for our English Learners is not rocket science. We just need to find out what our students need, match instruction to their learning needs, structure our lessons so that students learn to think and solve problems, and help students identify and hone their talents. We have the knowledge to do this. We just need to apply it!



Lander, J. Seeing Their Strengths (2019). Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/dec19/vol77/num04/Seeing-Their-Strengths.aspx

Teemant, A., Hausman, C.S., & Kigamwa, J.C. (2016). The effects of higher order thinking on student achievement and English proficiency. INTESOL Journal, 13(1), pp. 1-22.

Valencia, R. (Ed.) (1997). The evolution of deficit thinking: Educational thought and practice (Stanford series on education and public policy). London: Falmer Press.



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