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 with 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. (English language learners are also called 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 kids who are learning English 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 a student who is learning English 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.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Julie Rawe is the special projects editor at Understood.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Claudia Rinaldi, PhD is the Joan Weiler Arnow ’49 Professor at Lasell University, where she serves as chair of the education program.