Time, Support, and a Focus on Growth: What English Learners Need to Be Successful


Barbara Gottschalk

“Marco is struggling in class.  He tries, but he has missed so much information since first grade.  What suggestions do you have for me, Barbara? Please help me with materials to put information into his head quickly. . .”

This is from an email I once received from a colleague, desperate to help one of her students, who was learning English. As my school’s English as a second language teacher, I was pleased she was reaching out to me for advice, but worried that she actually thought I had materials that “could put information into his head quickly.”  Of course, I had no magic worksheets. Wouldn’t everything be easier if I did?

Marco had been in the English language learner program since kindergarten.  My colleague claimed he was a “slow learner,” but of course, he wasn’t. She was just describing the process of acquiring academic English proficiency.  Widely-accepted research in my field says it can take from five to seven years for English language learners to reach proficiency, and research I’ve done at my own school confirms this.

Last year, sixteen fifth grade English learners demonstrated a proficient or advanced level of English, even though over half of them demonstrated only low intermediate or basic levels of proficiency when they left kindergarten.  In other words, these were the students whose lower elementary teachers would’ve considered “low” or “at risk.” They weren’t “low” or “at risk” – they were simply still learning English.

In her report “Ensuring Equity for English Learners through Common Core State Standards,” Becky Corr acknowledges the misconception that high standards are too rigorous for English learners to master. I’ve seen that throughout my career, watching educators wring their hands over English language learners not passing standardized tests.

The real question we should be asking, though, is how we, as educators, can help students reach English proficiency while also working to master content knowledge.

To this end, Corr also points out that schools and districts must do more to cultivate authentic partnerships between ESL specialists and content area teachers. This type of collaboration requires ample time and high-quality professional development, but the payoffs for English learner can be huge.

My colleague’s email reminded me that she firmly believes every one of her students can do better; in other words, she wants to holds them to high standards regardless of the first language they learned to speak.

When I responded to her, I communicated that it’s important to have a growth mindset. English learners might need more time and ample instructional support, but they have the potential to master rigorous academic standards, just like their peers.

Acquiring English language proficiency is an arduous process, but when we focus on growth over achievement, in both the short and the long term, we’ll see that well-supported English learners are successful over time.

So what about Marco, the student my colleague wrote about in her email?  It took him seven years, but he reached academic English proficiency last school year. You can see his growth in the chart below.


What made the difference for Marco?  First, his teacher wisely reached out for help when she realized the limits of her expertise—great things can happen for students when their teachers work together.

She also learned that acquiring academic English proficiency takes time, but she still held high expectations for his progress toward proficiency.  Interesting, states will also be held to high standards for English learners progress toward proficiency – the Every Student Succeeds Act, which will be implemented at the beginning of the 2017 school year, requires states to include this indicator as part of their accountability system. This policy is realistic yet rigorous, and it aligns with research in the field.

Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed time and again the temptation to let students “off the hook” – to lower standards for learning while students are also trying to learn English.

That would be a huge disservice to those students, but also to our profession. It’s our responsibility, as educators to do what we can to help every student succeed, and we cannot vary our definition of success from student to student.

English learners like Marco don’t have a realistic shot at success without teachers who believe in their ability to learn at high levels. That deep support is the first step in an admittedly long but worthy journey to master English while also mastering high standards.

Click here to read more about what states, schools, districts, and educators can do to ensure equity for English learners.

Barbara Gottschalk teaches English as a second language at Susick Elementary in Warren Consolidated Schools, a public school district in suburban Detroit, Michigan. She is an America Achieves fellow and a Michigan Teacher Champion.