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Summer Spike

ELL students show gains with summer school and other strategies.

New research suggests that summer school for English language learners can significantly improve their chances of success in school and their rates of graduation. It’s one of several new strategies being explored to support them.

The number of students from other countries needing to learn English grew over the last decade by about a million students, according to National Center for Education Statistics data. Now an average of 9 percent of students in U.S. public schools are ELLs and even more – about 14 percent – in urban areas.

A 2014 study indicated that work with ESL students requires a deliberative, collaborative effort involving everyone in the school who works with them along with  others in the community.

 “Integration of curriculum content, instructional strategies, assessment, cultural responsiveness, and community resources are all critical components of success.” It also calls for looping and other initiatives to allow them to work with the same teacher longer and it found that extended time after school or in the summertime also benefited them.

The research on summer school showed it both helped these students catch up, but also offered classes just for them, taught by educators familiar with the best ways to help ESL students learn.

The research showed that at a large urban school district in California the performance of ELL students improved substantially with five-week summer school classes. It markedly improved their listening, speaking and writing skills in English and performance in other subjects.

Researchers also have found that the ELL students sometimes don’t succeed and need support because teachers often are not well prepared to teach them, and, in some cases, they have difficulty adjusting to their presence in class for a variety of reasons.

Jennifer Gonzalez, a former middle school language arts teacher who now writes and speaks on topics related to literacy and specifically teaching ELL students, suggests they try delivering lessons visually because ELL students struggle to understand purely spoken lessons. She recommends group work and pre-teaching by providing students with work in advance that might prepare them for a topic.

“If you’re going to be reading a certain article next week, give ESL students a copy of it now, she writes. “If you plan to show a YouTube video tomorrow, send a link to your ESL students today. Any chance you can give these students to preview material will increase the odds that they’ll understand it on the day you present it to everyone else.”

She also suggests that using humor with an ESL student can be even more effective than with others because it helps them be more relaxed about making mistakes.

Experts also say teachers should build on the background knowledge of ELL students to increase comprehension, using things that are familiar to them to help them understand concepts. They should also find opportunities for them to use their native language skills.

“Learning something new is like stacking building blocks. The more you have, the higher you can go. It is not always apparent what building blocks ELLs come because they have these language barriers, and sometimes ELL students don't connect their previous experience with the lesson currently being taught,” says Kristina Robertson, an English learner program administrator, writing for the Colorín’ Colorado web site, which offers a wide variety of tips on teaching ESL students.

She also recommends that schools make an extra effort to connect with families of ESL students.

“ELL families are often at a disadvantage when it comes to supporting their child because of language and cultural barriers,” she says. “It can be easy to interpret ELL parent ‘no shows’ as indicating a lack of interest in education. However, very often ELL parents want their children to succeed as much as any other parent but are unable to participate t due to these barriers or their work schedules.”

Learning writing skills is important, she says, noting that it is often overlooked, although a combination of poor writing skills and unfamiliarity with English can make school work doubly hard.

Robertson has also summarizes a detailed handbook for teachers about “essential” actions schools must take to support ESL students.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

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