How to help English learners succeed in school

We have probably all heard that English-language learners struggle in schools, and there’s certainly evidence that this is the case in Las Vegas and elsewhere.

The Clark County School District recently published its five-year strategic plan, Focus: 2024. In it, the district reports that the proficiency level of English-language learners is just 21.3% in English language arts and 21.7% in mathematics.

But to effectively address the achievement gap, we need to first change the narrative on how we speak about English-language learners, and give value in the classroom to multilingualism. That means taking a long, hard look at some of the most common myths about these students.

As an assistant professor of education, I have trained hundreds of teachers who teach language or work with English-language learners over the past seven years. While my job is focused on teaching about strategies for the classroom and language acquisition, I often find myself tackling misconceptions that people have about learning and teaching a language. That’s important because it influences how we teach.

The first misconception is that learning a new language confuses the student. In the classroom, teachers often notice that their English-language learners are generally quieter or need more time to answer questions. But that doesn’t mean they are confused. When learning a new language, we need more time to process for meaning. And it’s common for language learners to go through a silent period in the classroom as they adjust to the new language and setting. This process is perfectly normal and should be acknowledged and embraced when teachers plan their lessons.

Another common misconception is that teachers should not use other languages in the classroom. Too often, teachers are told to only use English in an attempt to create an immersive experience for the students. But it’s paramount to explain the task to the student in their language, then help them to make connections to English. For example, English and Spanish share over 25,000 cognates, or similar words, that teachers can purposefully use to teach both the content and the language.

The final, and most common misconception, is that children learn new languages better than adults.

It is remarkable when we see babies starting to speak and quickly learn a language. But multiple factors are often ignored when comparing children with adults. The first is the amount of time exposed to the new language.

Children are learning a new language all the time, and while they do this, they receive positive reinforcements from their family, friends and teachers. Adults, on the other hand, typically learn a language by taking a class once or twice a week without any further input outside of class. Their exposure to the language can be minimal, and removed from any real-world context. In fact, adults have multiple strengths they bring into learning another language. For one, they already know a language, and can transfer many of these language skills into the second language.

These misconceptions can negatively influence the way we teach and view English-language learners. When we come in with preconceived notions about the process of language learning, we can neglect some of their needs as language learners.

Giving students more time to process information, and acknowledging this as part of learning a language, means teachers can plan for this in their lessons. Additionally, being able to teach students using multiple languages and language resources means that teachers are building a bridge between content and culture. Finally, understanding that adults can learn a language means that we can have high expectations with our high school newcomer students — we must recognize that they can learn the language and succeed in school.

It’s time we rethink what it means to be an English-language learner and shed the many misconceptions we’ve been told over the years. Without such a shift, the achievement gap will stay where it is, or worse.

Our students deserve better.

Vanessa Mari, Ph.D, is an assistant professor of teaching English as a second language at Nevada State College. A former English high school teacher in Puerto Rico, she has worked as an English language fellow in Perú and is a current Fulbright Scholar in Uruguay.