Stanford University Study Identifies Effective Instruction for English Learners


Stanford University professor, Claude Goldenberg, takes a "serious look at the research" on educating English Language Learners (ELLs) in American Educator's Summer 2013 issue.  Dr. Goldenberg identifies "three important principles" that are likely to be effective and are based in the research: "1) Generally effective practices are likely to be effective with ELs [English Learners]; 2) ELs require additional instructional supports; 3) The home language can be used to promote academic development."  Goldenberg also adds a fourth principle that ELs need to have "early and ample" opportunities to practice and develop proficiency (p. 5).   

Effective instructional features include: "clear goals and objectives; appropriate and challenging material; well-designed instruction and instructional routines; clear instructions and supportive guidance as learners engage with new skills; effective modelling of skills, strategies, and procedures; active student engagement and participation; informative feedback to learners; application of new learning and transfer to new situations; practice and periodic review; structured, focused interactions with other students; frequent assessments, with reteaching as needed; and well established classroom routines and behavior norms" (p.5).  But the author cautions that the above mentioned features are likely not enough for ELLs to surmount the challenges that face them and are only a foundation for effective teaching.  

Goldenberg explains that the extra supports often suggested and implemented are termed sheltered instruction but that there is little evidence that shows sheltered instruction improves academic outcomes.  He does mention the following as having benefits to learning: building on student experiences, presenting content familiar to ELLs, utilizing graphic organizers and displays, and showing videos on a topic of study along with texts to support vocabulary comprehension.

Regarding using student's home language in school he states there is consensus that bilingual education produces superior reading outcomes in English compared with English immersion.  Importantly, there is consensus that teaching students in the home language supports students in learning their home language, thus assisting them in becoming bilingual.  Goldenberg cites a couple of studies that show improvement in English reading comprehension when the teacher reviews vocabulary in the home language before reading in English and when the teacher reviews the reading in the home language post-reading.

Goldenberg closes his article with cautious optimism given what he has identified as a small but growing research base and interest in studying what works for English Learners in schools.

Note: Goldenberg has particular requirements for what he has determined is "empirical research" on English Language Learners and many studies that the reader may be familiar with may not meet his requirements for research rigor.  Therefore, those studies would not be identified as evidence.

Reference: Goldenberg, C. (2013, Summer). Unlocking the research on English Learners: What we know - and don't yet know - about effective English instruction. American Educator, pp. 4-38.

Tricia Gallagher-Geurtsen
Tricia Gallagher-Geurtsen


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