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Effective Instruction for LD or At-Risk English-Language Learners

Current Challenges

Extensive discussions with practitioners revealed that many current attempts to merge content area instruction with English-language development instruction are not well implemented. Current classroom practice typically fails to provide sufficient time for teaching English or sufficient opportunities for students to use oral language or to develop English writing skills. There also appears to be a tendency to over-emphasize conversational language use and to devote insufficient effort into building students' command of the abstract language required by many academic content areas.

It is important to distinguish between the separate goals of language development and academic improvement. Our research indicates that increased language use in the classroom does not lead to increased academic improvement. In some studies, greater use of sophisticated language constructions in content-area classes was found to limit students' cognitive and academic growth. Because of limited and inconclusive research, we do not yet know which form of student engagement (e.g., speaking, listening, reading, writing, content activities, or a combination of these) provides more overall benefit for English-language learners. Further research needs to help clarify the link between academic growth and language learning.

How is research being used to guide practice?


We found only nine valid experimental studies for all academic areas in grades K-8. Currently, there is a limited empirical research base to guide practice. Although many articles and reports claim to describe effective practice, few provide the type of data necessary for firm conclusions.


Recommendations For Practitioners

We conclude that an effective English- language development program must include a balance of three components: (1) development of proficiency in "natural" language or conversation, (2) traditional emphasis on grammar and syntax, and (3) development of academic or decontextualized language.

Teachers should use instructional approaches identified in the effective teaching research (e.g., Brophy & Good, 1986) and modulate them for English-language learners.

Educators need to improve the way they merge content area instruction with English-language development instruction and provide both sufficient time for teaching English and sufficient opportunities for students to use oral language and writing. Key instructional practices for English-language development include introducing sets of no more than four to seven new vocabulary words per lesson, using visuals for reinforcement, using cooperative learning and peer tutoring, and making strategic use of the native language by allowing students to organize their thoughts in their native language before risking an English response.


For Researchers

The greatest need in future research of English-language learners (particularly in the area of special education) is for well-designed and valid intervention research. Existing studies are vague or unclear regarding how teaching methods were implemented, the level of implementation achieved, the language of instruction, and many other "context" variables that provide a rich picture of intervention research.


This document was prepared for the Keys to Successful Learning Summit held in May 1999 in Washington, D.C. Keys to Successful Learning is an ongoing collaboration sponsored by the National Center for Learning Disabilities in partnership with the Office of Special Education Programs (US Department of Education) and the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (National Institutes of Health). 

Authors: Russell Gersten, Scott Baker, Susan Unok Marks, Sylvia B. Smith, Eugene Research Institute, University of Oregon

The purpose of this initiative is to translate research and policy on learning disabilities into high standards for learning and achievement in the classroom, and to take action at the local, state and federal levels to ensure that all students, including those with learning disabilities, are afforded the highest quality education.

Keys to Successful Learning is supported by a coalition of national and regional funders as well as a broad range of participating education organizations.

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