A limited proficiency in English still remains a major barrier to educational success for millions in public schools, and many schools are under-resourced and teachers are under-prepared to support English language learners (ELL). A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that schools need to devote more resources to help English learners. Most importantly, the report dispels the idea that English learners need to discard their native language to learn English. So what aren’t teachers doing now, and what will be able to help these students overcome the language barrier? We look at a few modern approaches that K-12 schools are doing to better reach and teach English learners in mainstream classrooms.

Use project-based learning to give them language relevance and context
Project-based learning can be a challenge for teachers to plan and design, but it is extremely valuable to the English language learner in K-12. Collaborative group work is a key element. Teachers should explore ways for students to produce/present a project in groups, or to create smaller activities (e.g., labs, team builders). Project-based learning opens up opportunities for the student to practice vocabulary and to be supported by their peers during the process. It will be up to you to create the culture for collaboration by planning ahead. In advance, make sure you consider the skills each student needs in terms of language, ways they can demonstrate listening and speaking, and how you assess their progress at the end of the project.

Experiment with technology apps and tools to increase student engagement
For English language learners, student motivation and engagement can be vastly changed with the integration of technology in the classroom. Storybird is a mobile app being used in 400,000 classrooms, enabling students to build stories with pictures and images. It aligns with the Common Core State Standards, and motivates students to practice their writing skills. News ELA and News in Levels are two recent apps designed to increase reading comprehension related with current events. There are also several great tools out there to help facilitate project-based learning. Novare and Project Foundry are web-based platforms where students can manage and showcase their projects.

Develop a bilingual developmental program to increase English proficiency
There are three common types of ESL programs in U.S. schools today: tutoring outside of class, sheltered English instruction, and bilingual development. It is difficult to single out one approach, since the results vary among different ELL populations. However, a recent series of studies by Stanford University found that students in bilingual programs had higher scores in language and math, which grew faster than those in sheltered programs (where English learners are grouped together by their language proficiency level and taught in a separate classroom). Recommended Reading: Stanford Research on Two-Language Instruction

Find creative ways to help them remember new vocabulary
Repetition is an essential part of helping students learn and retain new words or concepts. So when possible, combining multiple methods to teach the same vocabulary. Use different types of resources, combining text, audio, and visual media, so they will easily recognize and master new words. For example, Bingo is one of the most effective and versatile games used by ESL instructors for younger learners. Also, try out creative activities to have them practice. Use brainstorming techniques to assess their comprehension; for instance, have students think of words to describe weather and create a mind map of related terms.

Introduce authentic materials to engage students in a lesson
There’s several places on the web that teachers turn to for ESL materials, worksheets, quizzes, and other lessons. However, they have their limitations. Using authentic materials will expose English language learners to real-world applications, increasing their confidence and overall success. Authentic materials are those that are created in the student’s native language and cover a wide variety – photographs, food menus, newspaper articles, video blogs, TV shows, and movies. At the lowest level of an ESL program, teachers rely on brief materials to help bring context to new vocabulary words, for instance. For more intermediate and advanced students, you can rely on longer pieces such as a five-minute TV news segment or even whole TV episodes.