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Helping Your English Learner Students Succeed: Evidence-Based Practices for Educators

Pacific | July 20, 2019

Stock photo of teacher in classroom with children

Within the Pacific region's school systems, there are a large number of English learner (EL) students, or students with limited English language proficiency. While English is used as the language of instruction in REL Pacific's jurisdictions, each jurisdiction also has an official language, or languages, other than English that usually act as the students' home language (Burger, Mauricio, & Ryan, 2007). Often, children do not receive exposure to English until they begin formal schooling. The connections between a student's first and second language can often make or break a student's success as an English language learner. For example, research shows that students with a higher proficiency in their first language, or the language learned at home, tend to have a better chance at achieving higher proficiency in their second language (which, in the Pacific region, is often English), and likewise, the lower the comprehension skills that a student possesses in their first language, the lower the comprehension and achievement rates are in their second language (Kar-mamuk-Han & Siegel, 2016). Therefore, it is important for educators to understand the imperative classroom support that English learner students require surrounding not only English as their second language, but also regarding their first, home language.

In the classroom, educators can take several steps to ensure that EL students achieve success. Research indicates that the following best practices support EL students and encourage success:

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Best practices for Teachers

    • Hiring teachers who speak the same language as their students may enhance positive student outcomes. The higher the proficiency a teacher has in a student's first language, the higher their students' achievement and proficiency are in their second language (Dixon et al., 2012).
    • Assisting learners in making connections between their first and second languages, such as noting similarities and differences between the languages, can aid students in comprehension (Thomann, 2012).
    • Through encouraging the practice and conversation in both a student's first and second languages, educators can support positive school outcomes for students' learning in their second language (Prevoo et al., 2016).
    • What Works Clearinghouse Practice Guide for Teachers identifies four recommendations that address what works for English learners in the classroom (Baker et. al, 2014). They include:
      1. “Teach a set of academic vocabulary words intensively across several days using a variety of instructional activities.
      2. Integrate oral and written English language instruction into content-area teaching.
      3. Provide regular, structured opportunities to develop written language skills.
      4. Provide small-group instructional intervention to students struggling in areas of literacy and English language development.”

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Home Literacy Practice

    • By encouraging families to have a strong home literacy practice, which can include high levels of parent involvement and support, teachers can help foster student proficiency in both their native and learned languages (Dixon et al., 2012).
    • Factors that encourage a strong home literacy practice can include parents reading with their children in both their first and second languages and supporting ongoing oral practice (Dixon et al., 2012).

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Curriculum Adjustment

  • An important part of adjusting the curriculum to fit students' needs is determining the readability of materials, as more complicated language can result in lower levels of comprehension for English Learner students (Eslami, 2014).
  • In addition, teachers can become more involved in curriculum development by developing original reading materials, as they are generally more aware of their students' needs and can alter the curriculum accordingly (Aziz, Fook, & Alsree, 2010).
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Varied and Culturally Sensitive Testing Procedures

  • When teachers use graphic supports, including pictures, bold type, and written cues on test papers, they can help students understand materials with more ease (Guzman-Orth, Lopez, & Tolentino, 2007).
  • Because second language learners can have a higher level of anxiety in the classroom, teachers may consider providing accommodations, such as allowing dictionary or glossary use or allotting a longer amount of time for test taking if necessary (Sanchez et al., 2013).
  • Another strategy includes using alternative testing strategies that are embedded in classroom activities, such as portfolio analysis or observations (Sanchez et al., 2013).

These best practices, and the resources included below, can be used to help educators better support their English learner students throughout the Pacific region and beyond. If you have any questions or would like to learn more, please check out these resources and references below, and feel free to email us at

*REL Pacific resources related to English language learner best practices:


Abedi, J. (2002). Standardized achievement tests and English language learners: Psychometrics issues. Educational assessment, 8(3), 231–257. Available from: S15326977EA0803_02.

Abella, R., Urrutia, J., & Shneyderman, A. (2005). An examination of the validity of English-language achievement test scores in an English language learner population. Bilingual Research Journal, 29(1), 12–144. Available from

Arellano, B., Liu, F., Stoker, G., & Slama, R. (2018). Initial Spanish proficiency and English language development among Spanish-speaking English learner students in New Mexico (REL 2018–286). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, and Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest. Retrieved from

Aziz, A., Fook, C. Y., & Alsree, Z. (2010). Scientific Structural Changes within Texts of Adapted Reading Materials. English Language Teaching, 3(4). doi:10.5539/elt.v3n4p216

Baker, S., Geva, E., Kieffer, M., Lesaux, N., Linan-Thompson, S., Morris, J., Proctor, C., & Russell, R. (2014) Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School. Retrieved May 21, 2019, from

Burger, D., Mauricio, R., & Ryan, J. (2007). English language proficiency assessment in the Pacific Region. Issues & Answers, 14. Retrieved from

Dixon, L. Q., Zhao, J., Shin, J., Wu, S., Su, J., Burgess-Brigham, R., Gezer, M. U., & Snow, C. (2012). What We Know About Second Language Acquisition. Review of Educational Research, 82(1), 5–60. doi:10.3102/0034654311433587

Eslami, H. (2014). The Effect of Syntactic Simplicity and Complexity on the Readability of the Text. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 5(5). doi:10.4304/jltr.5.5.1185-1191

Gersten, R., Baker, S., Shanahan, T., Linan-Thompson, S., Collins, P., & Scarcella, R. (2007, July). Effective Literacy and English Language Instruction for English Learners in the Elementary Grades. Retrieved April 10, 2019, from

Goodrich, J. M., Lonigan, C. J., & Farver, J. M. (2013). Do early literacy skills in childrens first language promote development of skills in their second language? An experimental evaluation of transfer. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), 414–426. doi:10.1037/a0031780

Guzman-Orth, D., Lopez, A. A., & Tolentino, F. (2017). A Framework for the Dual Language Assessment of Young Dual Language Learners in the United States. ETS Research Report Series, 2017(1), 1–19. doi:10.1002/ets2.12165

Prevoo, M. J., Malda, M., Mesman, J., & Ijzendoorn, M. H. (2016). Within- and Cross-Language Relations Between Oral Language Proficiency and School Outcomes in Bilingual Children With an Immigrant Background. Review of Educational Research, 86(1), 237–276. doi:10.3102/0034654315584685

Sanchez, S. V., Rodriguez, B. J., Soto-Huerta, M. E., Villarreal, F. C., Guerra, N. S., & Flores, B. B. (2013). A Case for Multidimensional Bilingual Assessment. Language Assessment Quarterly,10(2), 160–177. doi:10.1080/15434303.2013.769544

Shum, K. K., Ho, C. S., Siegel, L. S., & Au, T. K. (2016). First-Language Longitudinal Predictors of Second-Language Literacy in Young L2 Learners. Reading Research Quarterly, 51(3), 323–344. doi:10.1002/rrq.139

Thomann, H. (2012, December). Dual Language Educator License: Highlights of Competencies, Knowledge, and Skills. Retrieved from Educator%20License%20Organized%20by%20TESOL%20Teacher%20Standards%20copy.pdf


Laura Ostrow

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