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Stanford research points to how schools can support English learners

February 25, 2016
By Brooke Donald
A new Stanford report outlines ways schools can support English language learners. (Photo: Steve Debenport/iStock)
A new Stanford report outlines ways schools can support English language learners. (Photo: Steve Debenport/iStock)
An Understanding Language report highlights six high schools that are doing exceptional work to help ELLs succeed. Webinar March 21.

A new report from researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education suggests there are specific practices that schools can put in place to help students whose primary language is not English reach their full potential.

Further, the report finds that these practices not only help English Language Learners (ELLs), they lift all students.

New education standards have created new challenges for ELLs yet most schools do not have a good idea of how they can support these students, who number nearly 4 million and represent about 10 percent of the student population in school districts across the United States.

The researchers studied six U.S. high schools with strong college and career outcomes for ELLs. They noted that all of the schools shared certain values that guided daily actions and decision-making and they all incorporated specific design elements and instructional practices that allowed ELLs to thrive.

The report — Schools to Learn From: How Six High Schools Graduate English Language Learners College and Career Ready — was released by Understanding Language, a language and literacy initiative at Stanford GSE aimed at supporting educators shifting to the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards. It was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

"These visionary schools employ a myriad of innovative and effective research-based practices to shift the goalpost for ELLs toward higher learning," said Tina Cheuk, one of the report's authors. "The schools provide promise and hope to all educators striving to make sure every student can reach his or her potential."

Five of the schools that were studied are in New York City. They are: High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies; It Takes a Village Academy; Manhattan Bridges High School; Marble High School for International Studies; and New World High School. The sixth school is in Massachusetts: the Boston International High School and Newcomers Academy.

Teams of researchers conducted site visits, observed classrooms, interviewed principals, teachers, students and parents, and reviewed documents outlining key practices and messages of the school.

"These schools share a deep commitment that all their students will be prepared for college and careers, and have coherent structures and practices implemented … around their vision and values," said co-author Maria Santos.

Conditions for success

The researchers said all six schools hold a mindset of continuous improvement, responsibility is shared throughout these schools for students' success, and the schools cultivate positive respect for and pride in students' home cultures and languages.

The schools also implement design elements and institutional practices such as shared leadership, ongoing and intentional language and literacy assessment and multicultural and multilingual staffing.

For example:

  • School staff members often are immigrants and former ELLs, speak students' home languages, and have significant travel experience;
  • A guidance team typically works closely with students and their families through conversations, meetings and home visits, and connects families to outside resources related to health, housing, employment and community services;
  • Students own their growth and progress. They revise their own work, present their learning through portfolio presentations in front of an audience, and work collaboratively on project-based learning tasks;
  • Teachers are in charge of their own professional learning, which is tailored to their particular needs;
  • The schools organize their schedules to be creative and flexible to meet the needs of students, and they may incorporate block schedules or weekend tutoring.

"There is no one 'magic formula,'" co-author Martha Castellón said. Cheuk elaborated, "Schools are living, breathing and evolving complex systems, and all of the factors we observed work together in an interwoven way to support the outcomes we see."

The reported noted that schools are legally required to provide ELLs with an educational program that is based on sound educational theory, is implemented effectively with sufficient resources and personnel, and is regularly evaluated.

"These schools, however, far exceed the legal standard and constantly push the expectations and outcomes for their students," co-author Rebecca Greene said.

The report is intended to help guide educators in other schools when coming up with a plan to address ELL achievement, and help reshape the national conversation on how best to educate ELLs. It includes in-depth case studies on each school, including the questions asked by researchers in interviews and other documents.

"We invite audiences to dive in and be inspired and empowered by these schools' stories of success," co-author Diana Mercado-Garcia said.


The authors will host a public webinar on March 21 to discuss the report and answer questions. To participate in the webinar, contact Rebecca Greene at for details.

The full list of authors is, in alphabetical order: Martha Castellón, Tina Cheuk, Rebecca Greene, Diana Mercado-Garcia, Maria Santos, Renae Skarin, and Lisa Zerkel. A direct link to the paper is here.