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English Language Learners

Academic Language and ELLs

Most scholars believe that instruction in academic English ’ done early, consistently, and simultaneously across content areas ’ can make a difference in English learners’ ability to understand the core curriculum.

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The Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences reviewed the research to formulate specific evidence-based recommendations for use by educators addressing a multifaceted challenge of providing effecting reading instruction to English language learners.

There are not enough studies that show consistent and generalizable evidence that teaching academic English to ELL students results in a better outcome. So the evidence affirming this practice is rated “low” by IES.

However, despite the lack of experimental research, the strong consensus of expert opinion is that English learners require considerable explicit and deliberate instruction to learn the features of the type of formal English used in the schools and in academic discourse. For this reason, IES included the recommendation that developing academic English is important for effective literacy instruction for ELLs.


Ensure that the development of formal or academic English is a key instructional goal for English learners, beginning in the primary grades. Provide curricula and supplemental curricula to accompany core reading and mathematics series to support this goal. Accompany with relevant training and professional development.

Level of evidence: low (primarily expert opinion)

Because there is little empirical research on the topic and primarily just expert opinion, the level of evidence is low. Two studies reviewed by the What Works Clearinghouse1 demonstrate that focused interventions in two relatively narrow areas of academic English (quality of oral narrative and syntax) are potentially effective.2 That is, evidence suggests that they lead to better outcomes in highly specific areas of formal, academic English. But because the studies address very selective aspects of academic English and only indirectly address classroom instruction, we cannot conclude that the studies affirm the effectiveness of instruction of academic English at this time.

Brief summary of evidence to support this recommendation

Despite the paucity of experimental research, the strong consensus of expert opinion3 is that English learners require considerable explicit and deliberate instruction to learn the features of the type of formal English used in the schools and in academic discourse.4 This consensus applies to the importance of teaching academic English from the earliest grades.5

How to carry out the recommendation

  1. Adopt a plan that focuses on ways and means to help teachers understand that instruction to English learners must include time devoted to development of academic English. Daily academic English instruction should also be integrated into the core curriculum.

Academic English is the language of the classroom, of academic disciplines (science, history, literary analysis) of texts and literature, and of extended, reasoned discourse. It is more abstract and decontextualized than conversational English. Those who are knowledgeable about academic English know, for example, that some words used in everyday conversation, such as fault, power, or force, take on special meanings when used in science.

Most scholars believe that instruction in academic English-done early, consistently, and simultaneously across content areas-can make a difference in English learners’ ability to understand the core curriculum and that its importance increases as children enter the upper grades.6 But even in the primary grades, instructional time should focus on the explicit instruction of academic English.7 Recent correlational research supports this position.8

English learners do not need to master conversational oral English before they are taught the features of academic English.9 In reading, knowledge of academic English helps students gain perspective on what they read, understand relationships, and follow logical lines of thought. In writing, knowledge of academic English helps students develop topic sentences, provide smooth transitions between ideas, and edit their writing effectively. Reading, discussing, and writing about texts needs to be a central part of the English language development instruction dispersed throughout the day.10

Many teachers may be unaware of the features of academic English11 and thus do not instruct students in the features required to succeed in school.12 The Panel feels that the best way to promote the development of academic English is to use a curriculum with a scope and sequence aimed at building academic English. Unfortunately, the Panel knows of no existing curricular materials that have solid empirical support for this purpose. That is why it is important to select published materials carefully and to devote considerable thought and planning to how these materials will be used effectively in the classroom.

It is also unfortunate that few resources provide guidance to districts in teaching academic English to English learners. Some preliminary frameworks and guidelines-developed by Feldman and Kinsella,13 Girard,14 Dutro and Moran,15 Snow and Fillmore,16 Diaz-Rico and Weed,17 and Scarcella18 -list topics to address when focusing on academic English, such as adverbial forms, conditional sentences, prepositions, words that express relationships. But these are not designed for regular use by teachers in the classroom or as an instructional manual.

Teachers will need extensive professional development and support in using curriculum materials effectively to teach academic English.19

  1. Teach academic English in the earliest grades.

Instruction focused on academic English should not wait until students are able to read and write in English. Before English learners are reading, the development of age-appropriate academic English-morphology, syntax, vocabulary-can be accelerated orally through planned and deliberate daily instruction.20

Focused instruction in academic English can also build on students’ work with text. For example, when English learners read expository text that includes academic language, teachers should discuss the text and the language in structured ways.21 Instruction should also focus on teaching English learners to use specific features of academic language related to tense agreement, plurals, and proper use of adjectives and adverbs.22 Students need practice in using these features in the context of meaningful communication (both oral and written).23 They also must learn to use language accurately in a range of situations-to tell stories, describe events, define words and concepts, explain problems, retell actions, summarize content, and question intentions.24

Note: For students entering school, attention in the first year of instruction must also be devoted to informal, social language. For example, newcomers (English learners who have recently arrived in the United States) benefit greatly from immediate instruction in social language (Hi! What’s up?) and survival language (Help! Fire!).25
  1. Provide teachers with appropriate professional development to help them learn how to teach academic English. In the opinion of the Panel, professional development needs to be ongoing and to entail a specific and manageable number of key features and principles. Basic features of English morphology, syntax, and discourse need to be addressed carefully and gradually so as not to overwhelm teachers.

Professional development should also include extensive practical activities, such as analyzing texts used by students for academic English instruction, determining features of language that students need to complete specific oral and written assignments, and designing “student-friendly” explanations. Professional development should also give teachers opportunities to practice teaching academic language with feedback.

  1. Consider asking teachers to devote a specific block (or blocks) of time each day to building English learners’ academic English.

Experts agree that English learners require time each day when the primary instructional goal is developing academic English (as opposed to mastering the academic content).26 A recent observational research study found that students’ growth in English language proficiency was much higher in classrooms where a separate block of time was devoted to ESL or English language development.27 So, in addition to the better integration of teaching academic English in the context of academic content such as reading or mathematics, the Panel also suggests that there be specific times during the day when the primary instructional focus is on English language development and that some of the time be devoted to academic English. We are aware that this recommendation extrapolates from only one study and that this study looked at all English language development instruction, not only academic English instruction. So, this should be considered as merely a recommendation based on our opinion.

We believe that devoting specific blocks of time to academic English has three distinct advantages. First, it increases the time English learners have to learn the language. Second, instruction spaced throughout the day provides better opportunities for deep processing and retention. Third, during English language development time, the focus is clearly on language. When teachers try to merge English language development with academics, it becomes easy to lose track of the dual objectives and focus more on teaching reading or mathematics or science than on teaching academic English. The obvious exception is writing instruction, a natural fit with teaching academic English.

It is easy to overlook academic English and to allow teachers and students to communicate in informal English. For this reason, it might be a good idea for administrators to structure specific blocks of time each day to ensure its instruction. For example, in kindergarten, the instruction of academic English can be routinely incorporated into the instruction of storytelling and vocabulary development at specific times each day. As Saunders, Foorman, and Carlson28 have shown, providing specific blocks of instruction in English language development leads to gains in measures of oral language proficiency. In later grades, specific blocks of time dedicated to the development of academic English can be scheduled, for example, in reading and writing instruction and in the instruction of vocabulary in all subject matter. Scheduling regular blocks of time for the instruction of academic English should not only guarantee an increased focus on academic English in the classroom. It should also make teachers more diligent in structuring instructional activities that require the use of academic English and in monitoring their students’ development of academic English.

Possible roadblocks and solutions

  1. Some educators may want to cushion their English learners, believing that academic English is too hard for them to develop or that the expectations are too demanding.

Many teaching approaches still advocate giving English learners highly simplified, informal texts that are easy to read but not challenging. The problem with regularly giving English learners a diet of familiar reading material is that the academic texts of assessments and most content areas remain unfamiliar. Informal, narrative texts tend to be familiar, but reading these texts does not lead to proficiency in academic English. In academic writing crammed with facts, the content is often unfamiliar to English learners.

The focus on developing academic English can come after a challenging text has been read and discussed, so that the vocabulary and meaning are clear. Then the teacher can come back to the story and focus on the aspects of language that may be problematic for English learners (sentence construction, word usage, prepositions) in the familiar text. Language-focused activities will have more meaning for English learners if they already have a general understanding of the material in the text.

  1. There may not be enough time in the instructional day to provide English learners with sufficient instruction on the features of academic English.

This problem is particularly relevant when English learners enter the upper grades with little knowledge of academic English, limited reading ability, and large educational gaps. Teachers need to be aware that many features of academic English can and should be included during the block of time devoted to reading instruction. Virtually all students would benefit from activities that teach them how to build complex sentences through sentence combining-and how to use words such as however and but to build an argument. Thus, a partial solution to the time problem is to include daily academic English instruction as part of the core reading instruction delivered to all students, including English learners and native English speakers.

  1. Many teachers fail to link vocabulary instruction to instruction on proper language usage.

Even when English learners know word meanings, they may be uncertain about how to use new words appropriately. As knowledge deepens, words have to be used with the appropriate number (goose, geese), tense (is, are, was), and word form (fun, funnier, funny). Systematic instruction in usage and language conventions needs to be a core feature of English language development, and many of the words used should be the same words students are working with during their reading lesson. Teachers should model appropriate syntax, word order, and tense agreement and have students practice these skills with new vocabulary words. Teachers should be careful and explicit about pointing out or modeling appropriate use, as students use new vocabulary in the context of sentences that should, over time, become more complex and grammatically correct.

Note that instruction in the proper usage of words is very different from correction of any and all errors a student makes in word usage. In the Panel’s view, error correction needs to be focused on the instructional target of the lesson. If the instructional focus of the vocabulary lesson is on word forms such as success, successful, and succeed, teachers should correct errors in word forms but ignore other errors. For instance, in the learner’s sentence, “The boy is very succeed on mathematics,” teachers should point out that the correct word is successful but should not focus on the incorrect use of the word on. In restating the sentence, the teacher might emphasize correct usage by saying “Yes, the boy is very successful at mathematics.”

Gersten, R., Baker, S.K., Shanahan, T., Linan-Thompson, S., Collins, P., & Scarcella, R. (2007). Effective Literacy and English Language Instruction for English Learners in the Elementary Grades: A Practice Guide (NCEE 2007-4011). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from
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