Introduction to the English Learner Pathway

The purpose of the English learner Pathway in the Oregon Literacy Framework is to enhance the activities and resources associated with effective instruction for English learners (ELs) across K-12. Throughout the professional development materials, you will find a special icon English Learner Icon English Learner Icon beside selected Key Concepts. This clickable icon indicates more information specifically related to concepts around adolescent literacy is available. This information may include informational text, resources, or links for further information. In the introduction that follows, we define major concepts related to ELs, and describe briefly some of the main topics in the Oregon Literacy Framework that include additional information to support ELs in schools.

Many terms have been used to refer to children who enter school speaking a language other than English: limited English proficient (LEP), English as a second language (ESL), English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), second language learners, language minority students, English language learners, and English learners. The most common terms currently used are Limited English Proficient (LEP), English language learners (ELLs) and English learners (ELs). Generally speaking, all of these terms—ELL, EL, and the others—describe students who come from language backgrounds where a primary language other than English is used and whose proficiency in English is not yet sufficiently developed where they can profit fully from English-only instruction (August & Hakuta, 1997, p. 15). In the Oregon Literacy Framework, the term English learner (EL) is used to refer to this group of students.

Although more than 450 different primary languages are used in homes in the United States, in more than 80 percent of these homes Spanish is used as the primary language (Capps, Fix, Murray, Ost, & Passel, 2005). Oregon mirrors the national average, with approximately 79% of ELs speaking Spanish as their native language. Moreover, in Oregon, as in many other states, the EL population has increased substantially. For example, in 2001-2002, only 8 percent of students in public schools received EL services. By 2008, more than 19 percent of students received EL services. In high poverty schools, as many as 30 percent of students or more may be receiving EL services (Baker, et. al, 2006).

The main concern with ELs is their low academic performance. For example, in the 2009-2010 academic year 42 percent of ELs in grades 4th and 8th met or exceeded the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (OAKS) compared to 80 percent of English-only students. (See OAKS at the ODE website.)

Two important factors should be taken into account when considering the academic performance of ELs: individual differences in their English language proficiency, and socioeconomic status (August & Shanahan, 2006). Some English learners may have the same reading proficiency level as their English only peers, but lower academic language proficiency. Other ELs may have strong English language skills in social settings (e.g., the language spoken daily with peers outside of school), but poor reading skills, and poor academic language skills (i.e., see definition of academic language below). For ELs (and other students), low academic performance in reading, language, and other areas (e.g., mathematics) is also strongly associated with poverty. At the national level, for example, 59 percent of ELs qualify for free and reduced lunch prices (a common measure of poverty, NCELA, 2008), and academic performance for these students is below the performance of ELs who do not quality for free and reduced lunch.

There is substantial need for policies and practices designed to improve the academic performance of ELs nationwide and in Oregon. These practices should be developed and implemented within the context of a school’s overall model of service delivery (e.g., a schoolwide model), which may be organized around a Response to Intervention (RtI) approach. There is credible research evidence for conceptualizing and delivering services to ELs in the context of a schoolwide approach. For example, substantial evidence indicates that many formative assessments currently used as part of a comprehensive reading program for students whose native language is English can also be used with English learners (see the special considerations on assessing English learners in the Progress Monitoring professional development section). Moreover, research evidence supports grouping ELs and English only students together in the early elementary grades for instruction targeting the acquisition of foundational reading skills. At the same time, however, it is critical to provide ELs additional instruction related to literacy development that may not be essential for English-only students. For example, as their status as ELs would dictate, ELs need additional vocabulary instruction compared to English only students, and this instruction should also focus on words that are very familiar to English only students (e.g., concrete nouns, like, chair, chalk, face). The Vocabulary professional development section provides additional resources and activities on how to help ELs build their vocabulary knowledge.

We have also included an additional module on the development of academic language. Although ALL students should receive academic language instruction, this need is acute for ELs. We define academic language as language that includes (a) words that occur frequently and uniformly across a wide range of academic material (e.g., title, chapter, paragraph); (b) words whose meanings change in different content areas (e.g., form, process); (c) words that appear in specific academic contexts (e.g., mean, median, mode), (d) words that are important in comprehending connected text (e.g., adjectives, prepositions, adverbs), and (e) grammatical and syntactic awareness. Although research in this area is scarce, experts in the field recommend teaching academic language within the context of literacy and other content areas (August & Shanahan, 2006; Gersten et al., 2006). The professional development section on Academic Language includes activities on how to build academic language within the literacy block.

For schools providing native language reading instruction (i.e., reading instruction in the EL’s native language), we have included activities that can enhance the quality of instruction. In general, if schools are providing native language reading instruction in an alphabetic language such as Spanish, this instruction should focus on the five core components of reading (i.e., phonemic awareness, understanding of the alphabetic principle, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) identified by the National Literacy Panel (2000; Jimenez & O’Shanahan, 2009). Moreover, the same effective principles of instruction that are used in teaching reading in English can be used in teaching reading in other alphabetic languages. These principles include (a) explaining and modeling the academic objective or task, (b) providing students with many opportunities to practice applying learning objectives and tasks in small groups and individually, (c) effective error correction (e.g., correcting errors immediately following a model, lead, test procedure), (d) scaffolding, and (e) judicious review (see the professional development section on Characteristics of Effective Reading Instruction for the use of effective instructional principles to teach reading). For additional information on the type of bilingual programs currently being used throughout the country, see the link to Moughamian, Rivera & Francis, 2009, Instructional Models and Strategies to Teaching English Language Learners which can be found within the Academic Language section.

Finally, we have added activities and resources on how to (a) make informed instructional decisions for ELs using formative assessments and progress monitoring, (b) group ELs strategically during small group instruction, and (c) use effective instructional strategies that increase EL opportunities to speak English and use newly learned vocabulary. We have not covered all the needs of ELs, and our intention is to continue building this pathway as more research-based practices and resources become available.