Back-to-School Success for English learners

By Lise Ragan

As we return to school for another academic year, how can we, as educators, understand and best support the English learner (EL) students in our schools so that we give them the best chance for school success, graduation, and a bright future? Here are a few ideas to consider.

1. Use Asset-Based Thinking.

Asset-Based Education focuses on the students’ abilities and strengths, rather than what they “lack.” As students understand what they have to offer, they can focus on their abilities to accomplish tasks in any subject area. This approach sets the stage for increasing the child’s academic potential.

Thinking about our English learner students as “emerging bilinguals” rather than “limited English proficient” is a beginning for transforming our thinking about these students to an asset-based model. Thinking and believing that “Every student is a Scholar,” a core tenet of our HMH Family Engagement program, is another important step that both educators and families can do, working together as partners, to build students’ confidence and set high expectations.

2. Actively and effectively engage the families of your EL students.

More than 50 years of research supports the importance of parental and family engagement for improved student achievement, better school attendance, and reduced dropout rates. As I outlined in the white paper published this year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, “EL Academic Success through Effective School-Family Partnerships,” schools can eliminate the potential barriers to effective interaction and engagement of immigrant and EL families–including EL families’ lack of knowledge of the school system—through implementation of a research-based family engagement action plan.

Through our research, we have found that one of the key ingredients of a successful action plan is “Learn Together Workshops,” in which school personnel, adult family members, and EL students come together to collaborate, learn, and work together with a common goal: academic success for their students.

Asset-based thinking is important as educators develop a plan to develop and sustain effective collaboration with families of English learners. As Lydia Breiseth, Kristina Robertson, Susan Lafond say in their Guide for Engaging ELL Families: Strategies for School Leaders (Colorin, Colorado): “Engaged ELL parents bring a level of dedication and wisdom regarding their children to the school community that will take your breath away.” The results for students, their families, and the school can and will be extremely rewarding.

3. Re-think Homework.

Just as you differentiate instruction in the classroom, teachers of English learners should differentiate homework. These are some of the questions to think about as you create homework assignments this school year that work for EL students, too. These suggestions, and more, are included in the online professional development module on Differentiated Homework Course Crafters developed as part of the HMH Family Engagement.

What are my expectations for satisfactory completion of the assignment?

What do I expect from my students? Have I clearly communicated those expectations and made sure my EL students understand? Have I provided examples or models?

What background knowledge is essential for understanding and completing the assignment?

What cultural understanding or information or “common knowledge” do students need to know to comprehend and do the assignment?

What does the homework assignment require in terms of English language skills?

In addition to content area knowledge, what academic English language skills are required for English learner students to complete the assignment: reading, writing, listening comprehension, and oral language skills? How do I need to prepare students with less than proficient language skills to successfully complete the homework?

What resources or tools do students need to complete the assignment?

Have I provided everything students need to complete the assignment? If an activity requires special materials (shoeboxes or craft supplies), do my students and their families have these on hand, at home? If the assignment requires Internet research, do all families have a home computer and Internet access?

What outside support is available to help students complete the homework?

Do students and their families know how to reach me with questions or concerns? Do my students and their families know about free after-school and community help, such as tutoring, or free online resources, such apps, YouTube videos, and online courses?

Here’s to a successful new school year for all of our students!

Read my white paper, Back-to-School Strategies for Improving English Learner Academic Success, on the HMH Family Engagement Forum.