Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Improving ESL Instruction

Anthony Jones

Unfortunately, many educators are failing to provide their ESL students with the strengths and skills necessary to thrive in today’s academic climate. In many instances, this results from a fundamental lack of understanding of the ESL student’s specific needs. Often, an initial incorrect diagnosis of the child’s abilities can lead to years of poor instructional practice, which impede the student’s intellectual development. In order to change this, educators must collaborate with language specialists to develop long-term plans designed to cultivate ESL students’ second language acquisition within the context of their primary language.

Academic failure among ESL students is disproportionately high when compared to students in the general population (Garcia & Ortiz, 1988). This has much to do with initial misdiagnoses of ESL students when they enter the classroom. Often, language-minority students are misidentified as having learning difficulties or speech and language disabilities (Fueyo, 1997). As a result, they may be taught with inappropriate strategies by teachers unprepared to teach them because many of these teachers do not understand second-language acquisition (Ortiz & Yates, 1983). This poor practice often compounds the problems for ESL students. They are thrust into unfamiliar situations that have not been designed to benefit them. Instead of becoming proficient in the classroom, they begin down a long road of spotty instruction that does not address their needs as second language learners. Marginalized and forgotten about, these are our lost students who are often not given a chance to succeed in the classroom.

One way to combat this is by developing long-term strategies designed to cultivate the language learning process over a multi-year period. For some students, it can take five to ten years to acquire a second language for schooling purposes. According to Collier, “it is a complex process [and] the main reason it takes so long is that native speakers are not standing still waiting for ESL students to catch up with them” (Collier, 1995). Thus, there are no quick fixes for ESL students. Instead, teachers must collaborate with language specialists to ensure that their strategies target students’ specific academic needs over the course of their entire academic career.

Many of these strategies must be rooted in the student’s primary language. According to Collier, “many, many studies have found that cognitive and academic development in first language has an extremely important and positive effect on second language schooling” (Collier, 1995). One of the reasons for this is that literacy skills developed in the first language not only are easily transferred but also are crucial to academic success in the second language (Collier, 1995). Thus, in order to best serve ESL students, educators must familiarize themselves enough with students’ first languages that they can base their curriculum within it. By enhancing students’ first language skills, they will then pave the way for second language transference in the future.

Again, the crucial point here is that ESL instruction is a long process that must be planned over a student’s entire academic career with many of the strategies rooted in a bilingual approach. This type of planning is extremely difficult; however, the results in student achievement are well worth the time and effort. In fact, studies show that “after 4-7 years in a quality bilingual program, students typically reach and surpass native speakers’ norms in the second language across all subject areas. Furthermore, bilingually schooled students typically sustain this achievement and outperform monolingually school students in the upper grades” (Collier, 1995). Thus, a correctly executed bilingual approach not only helps ESL students gain academic proficiency, it also has the potential to allow them to surpass their native speaking peers—an incredible achievement for students and the educators who have the foresight and patience to implement such a plan.

Many public schools across the nation are failing their ESL students. Often, this happens as a result of misdiagnosis of these students academic needs, which leads to poor instruction. Educators must combat this by collaborating with language specialists to develop long-term plans aimed at second language acquisition through a curriculum that utilizes students’ first languages. Such planning requires a multi-year, bilingual approach that the entire school must embrace. For this reason, it’s necessary for administrators to take the initiative and tackle the problem of ESL students’ widespread failure by implementing school wide directives for change. Anything less does not meet the needs of our language minority students.


Garcia, S., & Ortiz, A. (1988). Preventing inappropriate referrals of language minority students to special education. New Focus, 5: Occasional Papers in Bilingual Education. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse.

Fueyo, V. (1997). Below the Tip of the Iceberg: Teaching Language-Minority Students. Teaching Exceptional Children. September/October 1997, 61-65.

Ortiz, A. & Yates, J. (1983). Incidence among Hispanic exceptional: Implications for manpower planning. Journal of the National Association of Bilingual Education, 7(3), 41-53

Collier, V. A. (1995). Promoting academic success for ESL students: Understanding second language acquisition for school. Jersey City, NJ.

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