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Beyond Vocabulary Lists: Strategies for Helping Newcomer English Learner Students Develop Academic Language

By Rosie Santana and Kelli Scardina | September 13, 2019

Rosie Santana
Rosie Santana is a senior advisor in equity and school improvement at Education Northwest. Her focus in providing technical assistance in the areas of literacy, English language learners, and equity.

Starting a new school can be challenging. You don't know any of your classmates or teachers, let alone the layout of the building.

Now, imagine being the new kid in class and, in addition to dealing with all these unknowns, having to learn new content that is not taught in your home language.

This is the situation newcomer English learner students face; they must navigate new social structures, school systems, and cultural dynamics—while learning new content in English, a language they may not know or understand.

Putting Research Into Practice

A new video from REL Northwest provides four research-based strategies teachers can use to help newcomer English learner students develop the requisite academic vocabulary while learning new concepts in English.

Kelli Scardina
Kelli Scardina is a senior advisor in equity and systems improvement for emergent bilingual students at Education Northwest. She focuses on designing and facilitating professional learning, coaching, and consulting for technical assistance.

These strategies are based on Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School, a practice guide from the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC).

The video, which was filmed at Tigard High School in Tigard, Oregon, brings the WWC recommendations to life.

Combining Language and Content Learning

For example, the video underscores the importance of having newcomer English learner students learn academic language while using academic language.

Put another way, students must have opportunities to apply language.

This represents a shift from teaching language and content separately (an approach that tended to emphasize vocabulary lists and memorization).

Prioritizing Student Autonomy and Prior Knowledge

The strategies illustrated in the video take an asset-based approach.

Specifically, they show teachers ways they can allow students to use their knowledge of their home language to inform their English language development.

In addition to building on what students know, the strategies seek to set them up for success in the future.

Simply stated, the strategies serve as tools students can use as they work toward independence, and these tools can help them succeed in school—and beyond.