Foundational Research

Special Report: Supporting English Learners

EL special report

Defining the Opportunity

Nearly three out of four classrooms include at least one English language learner. English learners represent the fastest growing student population in the United States.

Instruction for English learners needs to simultaneously build English language fluency and subject-level mastery. This is challenging, both for EL students and the schools and teachers that support them.

While EL students often develop conversational English skills quickly, it takes up to seven years to develop full academic proficiency. Many district-level educators think their schools are unprepared to give EL students the support required to develop proficiency. Most teachers agree, saying they lack high-quality instructional materials to address students’ language and academic needs—particularly in secondary education. These challenges amplify when serving highly mobile families, as schools may serve students for only a few months or years of their academic journeys. 

The struggle in finding high-quality resources to support EL students has a stark impact on achievement. Today, just one third of EL students reach basic proficiency on national exams in math and reading—half the rate as their non-EL peers. The dropout rate for EL students is double the national average. In addition, these outcomes have a significant impact on district performance, finances, and community standing. The achievement gap between EL and non-EL students has remained constant for nearly two decades. 

To deliver strong outcomes for all students, districts need highly effective, easy-to-implement resources. There are four best practices for designing resources to do this, each of which help achieve the dual goals of establishing English language fluency while simultaneously reaching grade-level mastery across each subject.

  1. Accelerate Comprehension with Context-Rich Instruction. English learners obtain the vast majority of new words through context and only a small number through direct instruction.9 Consequently, context-rich instruction dramatically accelerates the development of English language fluency.
  2. Unlock Subject-Level Success Through Comprehensible Input. English learners develop language and subject-area mastery when the content is comprehensible—when they understand what they’re seeing, hearing, or reading. There are three ways to maximize the comprehensibility of instructional content.
  3. Leverage Direct Instruction for Academic Vocabulary. Direct instruction is essential to learning academic vocabulary, as the definitions are often too technical or abstract to learn through context alone.
  4. Cement Mastery Through Output. When developing language skills, practicing words is as important as learning them. English learners cement mastery through regular, varied output.


These strategies outline the path to offering highly effective instruction to support English learners. By combining these strategies, districts simultaneously build English learners’ language fluency and subject-level mastery.

Doing this well gives English learners the foundation needed to excel in school and beyond, while also raising districts’ performance and community standing. This can be a challenging, time-consuming task for a district to accomplish alone, but it can be simpler and more efficient by joining forces with a partner committed to building a path to success for all students.