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How to help if English language learners are struggling in school

By Julie Rawe

At a Glance

  • It can be challenging to learn a language while learning to read, write, and do math in that language.

  • Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what kind of support an emergent bilingual needs to thrive in school.

  • Teachers and families can work together to find out if a child is struggling with a language barrier or something else, like a learning difference.

It can be challenging for kids to learn a language at the same time they’re learning how to read, write, and do math in that new language. But with the right support, English language learners (ELLs) can thrive in school. (ELLs are also called English learners or emergent bilinguals.) 

Sometimes it’s hard for schools to figure out what kind of support a child needs. Is a child struggling because of a language barrier? Or because of some other reason, like a ?

Just like some native English speakers, some ELLs have learning and thinking differences. and are common examples of these kinds of differences.

Keep in mind that it takes time to learn a new language. Most kids need five to seven years to become fluent. They tend to pick up conversational skills first. Academic language comes later.

If an ELL is struggling in school, here are four key questions to ask:

  1. Has the school tested the student for vision or hearing problems? Are there other factors to consider, like lack of sleep, food insecurity, stress, or trauma?

  2. Is the student getting support in their home language with core content like reading and math?

  3. Is the student showing the typical ups and downs of learning a new language?

  4. Is the student showing signs of learning and thinking differences in English and in their home language?

Learn more about these topics — and ways families and teachers can help.

Dive deeper

Support in a student’s home language

In some schools, core content like reading and math is taught only in English. Kids may work with an (ESL) teacher, but ESL tends to avoid using a student’s home language.

In other schools, a bilingual or helps kids build English skills and continue to develop other skills in their home language. 

Research shows that dual-language programs do far better at closing the achievement gap between ELLs and native English speakers than English-only programs.

Dual-language programs are also culturally sustaining. This means teachers put students’ cultures at the center of classroom learning. This approach also helps teachers see kids’ home language skills as strengths. 

Watch an expert explain how schools need to help students overcome language barriers.

Want more detail? Read the memo from the U.S. Department of Education.

English language skills

Learning a new language is hard work. All students will struggle with certain concepts at times. But if the school has an effective ELL program, many students’ struggles with English can be solved with a little extra time and attention from teachers.

Best practices include:

  • Having kids practice English during each school day

  • Using pictures to help kids connect new words to their home language

  • Introducing English words with similar words in their home language (called cognates)

Keep in mind that many students learning a new language go through a “silent period.” They’re learning but not yet speaking the new language. Some kids may try to avoid using their home language at school. This can make it harder to figure out how much support they need to read and write in English. 

It helps when teachers ask families about kids’ literacy skills. Does the student know how to read and write in their home language? Or are they learning these skills and English at the same time?

See 10 things teachers should know about their ELL students .

Learning and thinking differences

In the United States, 1 in 5 people have learning and thinking differences like ADHD and dyslexia. This doesn’t mean they aren’t smart. But it might mean they need to do things in a different way or need extra support to build skills like learning how to read.

Some teachers don’t know how to assess kids’ skills in their home language. So if a child does poorly on a reading test, it can be hard to tell if the trouble is with their reading skills or their English language skills. 

But asking the right questions can help teachers dig deeper. It also helps to avoid unwanted outcomes like:

  • ELLs getting identified as having a learning disability when they actually need more support in learning English. This may be more likely to happen to older students.

  • ELLs having learning disabilities that get overlooked. This means they go without the support they need to make progress in school. This may be more likely to happen to younger students.

Kids in bilingual programs are more likely to be correctly diagnosed with a learning difference. That’s because bilingual teachers can tell if kids are struggling with a skill like reading in their home language as well as in English.

It helps to interview the family about when the child started walking and talking. Ask when the child started going to school and if there have been any gaps in their schooling. Also ask about social skills and activities like playing, watching TV, or helping out at mealtime.

Learn more about learning and thinking differences .

Questions to ask before an evaluation

To see if a child has a disability and needs services, schools use a series of tests called an evaluation. Families can work with schools to make sure this testing is needed and that the results are accurate.

Here are questions to ask before evaluating an ELL for special education:

  • Did more than one staff member observe the child in person before the school decided to evaluate for a disability? Was the child observed in more than one setting, like their regular classroom and their ESL class?

  • Did the child get extra help before the school decided to evaluate? What kinds of did the child receive and for how long? Did the ESL teacher help with these interventions?

  • Does the school have evidence that the child is struggling for reasons other than a lack of English skills? 

  • Has the school interviewed the parents to ask about factors that can affect learning, like the child’s education history, developmental milestones, and medical history? Have other family members struggled with learning?

  • Has the evaluation team, including an ESL teacher, considered testing the child in their home language and English? Will the team use a variety of evaluation methods to get a whole picture of the ELL student?

  • Will a trained ESL or bilingual professional help conduct the evaluation and be part of the team that shares the results?

If the school doesn’t answer “yes” to all of these questions, ask why the school isn’t following these best practices.

Learn more about special education and evaluations .

Ways families and educators can work together

Parents and caregivers: You can help your child in school even if you aren’t fluent in English. If your child is struggling, here are three things you can do:

  • Ask the school to provide an interpreter for school meetings. If the school can’t provide one, bring a friend or an interpreter from a community group. Because you’ll be talking about your child’s skills, try not to have your child be your interpreter.

  • Talk with your child’s teachers. This includes your child’s ESL teacher. Ask how your child is doing compared to other kids with a similar education background and English skill level. Ask the school to include the ESL teacher in every important meeting or evaluation testing.

  • Speak and read to your child in your home language. Studies show that kids who can read, write, speak, and understand their home language learn English more easily. Kids can transfer their knowledge of their home language to help them learn English vocabulary. Explore 10 places to find free books for kids , including books in Spanish and other languages.

Educators: You can support your ELL students in many ways that don’t involve special services or accommodations. If a student is struggling, here are things you can do:

  • Use culturally responsive teaching to create a welcoming classroom. Learn about your students’ culture and language and represent them in your classroom displays and academic materials.

  • Support students’ use of their home language. Let them show what they know in the way that is easiest for them, which may include using their home language. Free tools like Google Translate can help.

  • Coordinate efforts with the ESL teacher and other school workers. This includes working together on instruction and intervention.

  • Partner with families of ELLs and ask them to share their concerns. Welcome them to your classroom in ways that value their culture. For example, ask them to share an interesting part of their cultural history or traditions or a few words in their language that all students can learn, like “Hello” and “Thank you.”

Related topics

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