English language learners: Q&A with Sharon Vaughn

Learn more about William McKenzie.
William McKenzie
Senior Editorial Advisor
George W. Bush Institute

One of the most significant challenges in states like Texas and California is making sure their large number of immigrant students receive a...

One of the most significant challenges in states like Texas and California is making sure their large number of immigrant students receive a quality education. The work often involves dealing with students with limited English skills and equipping them with the tools to learn at grade level.

In this interview, Dr. Sharon Vaughn explains her research into what can most help students whose native language is not English.  Vaughn is H.E. Hartfelder/Southland Regents Chair at the University of Texas at Austin,  where she is executive director of the Meadows Center for Preventing Risk. Vaughn also is a Bush Institute fellow in education. 

You have looked extensively into the educational progress of English language learners. What strategies work best, especially in a subject like reading?

Successful schooling for English language learners (ELLs) is essential to the success of the families and future of Texas.  I have been invested in identifying research-based practices that improve outcomes in literacy for English language learners for over 25 years.

What are some of the best strategies for these learners?  Remembering that effective instructional practices in reading and writing that are effective for all learners are also effective for ELLs.  We want to hold the same high expectations for ELLs that we hold for every student in the classroom.

Building vocabulary and concept knowledge through language development is essential to enhance the background knowledge of ELLs. That equips them to read and understand the increasingly rigorous texts in English language arts, social studies, and science.  Even math word problems require students to read and comprehend text.

Here are some ways educators can enhance vocabulary and concept knowledge, too:

*Word-building comes from wide reading (e.g., reading a range of text types). The more reading and the greater the range of reading, the better for vocabulary building. Also, increase the amount of text read and the range of topics covered.

*Along that same line, integrate word knowledge throughout the day.  Consistently use previously taught vocabulary and concepts to reinforce words students are reading and encourage students to use the new words they are learning.

*Maintain word walls and point to new words on the wall as you use them and recognize students when they integrate key words into their responses and discourse.  Building vocabulary and background knowledge will be the foundation for more successful reading, learning and comprehension.

When you talk about building vocabulary and concept knowledge, does this mean using more academic language or conversational language? The reason I ask is how do educators get English language learners – or anyone learning a second language, for that matter – up to speed in a second language if the words or reading are too formal?

You are so right to wonder about how someone can acquire a second language merely through vocabulary or concept knowledge development.  There is so much more to language proficiency.

I was thinking about students who are English language learners in our schools who have limited proficiency in English and need to improve their proficiency and knowledge. I was not thinking about students who come to school and speak absolutely no English. While there are some students who come to school knowing no English – these do not represent the majority of English language learners. The majority have some proficiency in English.

So, for those who have some limited English, does academic language matter more than conversational language?

Both conversational language and academic language matter a great deal.  Enhancing proficiency in English for students who are acquiring English as a second language requires that we provide many opportunities to practice and expand oral and written language proficiencies.  This includes conversational language.

However, conversational language alone will not adequately prepare learners to understand the increasingly complex ideas that are part of instruction and texts as they progress in school.

Furthermore, there are many words and concepts used in school that do not occur frequently enough in conversational English so that students can learn their meaning without instruction.  

Without being instructed in these words and concepts, English language learners could be deprived of more advanced understandings.  For example, in a math problem, we might indicate that there were several “more” items included in one of the baskets than in another basket.  An English language learner may not have a complete understanding of the term “several” or “more” and thus have difficulty solving the problem.  

However, it may be not that they lack the math capability but that the meaning of several as a “few” is not in their language proficiency in English.  Additionally, they may not understand that the term “more” in this problem.

These sound like important building blocks. How does a state with a large number of English language learners spread these concepts to enough districts? Texas and California, for example, have a significant number of students with limited English skills.

For states to make the progress needed with English language learners, teachers need to integrate instructional practices that promote language, vocabulary, and literacy development into their daily routines. This requires a state plan that assures research-based practices for English language learners are part of the daily instructional routines of all teachers.  

These practices will be maximally beneficial when they are used by all teachers across the content areas.  For example, all students benefit, but particularly English language learners, when math, social studies, science, and English Language Arts teachers integrate vocabulary and language development into their lessons.

Teachers who integrate oral and written English language instruction into all content-area instruction benefit all learners too but particularly those who are English language learners.  Opportunities to develop writing and oral communication skills can be part of all instruction across all content areas.  Furthermore, schools that provide targeted small group instruction in reading, writing, and language development for students are also likely to yield beneficial outcomes.

Is this approach for English language learners one of the top 10 must-haves for a district? If so, how do you get a district to follow it? This is not easy work.

Any district that has English language learners – yes, this is one of the top 10 must-haves for the district.  The main way to get the district to follow it is to have the leadership team for the district PRIORITIZE implementation of these practices across grade levels and content areas.  They can provide professional development and instructional guidance to teachers to assure that it is part of their daily practice. They include monitoring of these practices in their evaluation.