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Problem to Solve

Why did I leave school? In most classes they give you lists of words to memorize and worksheets to complete. You see students in regular classes reading interesting books. Not us. Teachers say: When you learn English, you will be able to read. But that didn’t happen during the three years I spent in school.”

–17-year-old from El Salvador

In the United States, more than one third of all English Learners are enrolled in the secondary grades, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.


Most secondary English Learners (65 percent) have been schooled entirely in the United States. They are often labeled “long-term,” a reference to the length of time they have been enrolled in school—more than 6 years—without meeting their state’s achievement standards to be reclassified out of the English Learner subgroup.


Traditional theories of language acquisition, still dominant in the United States, state that the process of learning language is linear. In other words, a student must first learn English grammar and vocabulary, structure after structure, and word after word, focusing on accuracy and fluency—before they can move into learning deeply about other subjects. 


As a result of this traditional view, a lot of “drill and kill” occurs in English as a second language classes. Rather than emphasizing the learning of rigorous subject matter in English, the focus is commonly on grammar, pronunciation, and translation.


The result of this outdated approach: English Learners fall behind in content area subjects such as language arts, math, science, and social studies. Furthermore, English Learners are segregated from their non–English Learner peers, thereby removing their access to quality content and key English-speaking peer interactions that are critical to students’ development of content knowledge.

English Learners in the United States may go down very different paths during their schooling.


Pablo is a 15-year-old high school student.

Path 1

In a school that uses old approaches to teaching English Learners, Pablo volunteers to answer a question. His teacher corrects his use of “grammar.” She instructs the class simply to learn certain “vocabulary” and to mimic others.

Feeling no connection to this new language and without the opportunity to meaningfully interact with others and explore what new concepts and terms mean, Pablo has trouble learning both the new language and the content he must learn to keep up in all other classes.

He feels devalued and does not volunteer to participate in class again. He is soon removed to remedial classes for English Learners, where he spends most of his time completing banal worksheets.

Pablo never graduates from high school and works only part-time jobs.

Path 2

In a school that applies research-based approaches to teaching English Learners, Pablo feels welcomed.

His teachers appreciate that he comes into the classroom with valuable experiences and knowledge, which they consider assets that can be built upon. They are prepared to support him with critical dialogic interaction and metacognitive strategies that encourage him, orally and through reading and constructing texts, to develop the ability to express his ideas.

While he is developing a new language through talking about his own ideas with peers, his “imperfect English”—to be expected at times—is accepted as just part of his journey to full proficiency.

Above all, what his teachers value is that Pablo is making sense of ideas and understanding the ideas of others. They guide him to focus on the central ideas being presented in subjects such as math, science, social studies, and others, and to establish logical links across those ideas, such as connections, similarities, and differences.

In short, at this school, Pablo is intellectually engaged. Every day he develops a greater ability to communicate worthwhile ideas, understand, value, and respond to the perspectives of others, articulate interests, and learn more about the topic at hand.

He advances in all his classes, graduates, and goes on to college and a successful career.

In the United States, when we bring new people into our society and into our schools, we have two things to do. Clearly, we want them to acquire the societal language. And we want to give them access to subject matter content. These two things are not the same. They often quarrel with one another. When we set up those instructional arrangements, we focus on ‘let’s get the language in,’ as if that will give students access to the content. We are dealing with the content such that someone who isn’t yet able to work in that language cannot yet access the content and subject matter they need.”

– Guadalupe Valdés, Professor Emeritus, Stanford Graduate School of Education

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VI, and the Equal Opportunities Act of 1974, public schools must ensure that English Learners can participate meaningfully and equally in educational programs.

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