How To Keep ELD Rewarding

The true success of English Learners won't always shine through in the form of perfect test scores.

By Judith Smith Meyer

Teacher with young student

The Predicament

Reality for teachers of newcomer English Learners (ELs) in the NCLB world, is that our students are measured by the same assessments as everyone else. My ELs take exactly the same state language arts test as gifted native speakers who could score “advanced” in September. No matter how strong their instruction, and even if students are socially fluent from conducting peer relations in English, they are unlikely to acquire adequate academic language to score “proficient or higher” on state tests. If they begin learning English after age 14, they are also less likely to pass the high school exit exam. 

We see growth and learning take place in our classrooms every day. Even with value-added scoring, which assesses growth from one year to the next, our students rarely demonstrate mastery at the levels we are all aiming for them to achieve. It's easy for secondary ELD teachers to get discouraged when school assessments and accolades focus only on standardized test results. 

What to Do?

What’s an ELD teacher to do when spirits get low? The best place to look is where teachers always go when fatigue, furloughs, and frustration get us down: to the learners themselves.

Staying connected with my students’ realities reminds me how far they have come. Here are three ways I keep strong the moral rewards of teaching ELD at the secondary level:

1) Act Out Life

You can imbue oral language curriculum with humor, compassion, and relevance. I put my early speakers in mixed-level trios to create skits that reflected their experiences as newcomers. Preparation for the dialogues included literary analysis vocabulary about characters, conflict, and plot. Our classroom community grew stronger when we laughed out loud together as groups depicted eating cold cereal dry, or their first grocery shopping trips with mom before anyone in the family spoke a word of English.

They also portrayed bullying connected to early English language experiences. Miguel’s group acted out the time he was blamed and punished at school for something he didn’t do because he couldn’t defend himself in English. I was startled at the recognition his classmates expressed about this issue.

Remembering how well these kids can now navigate the world in English to get their needs met, refreshed my confidence about their learning potential.

2) Write A Story

To introduce my second-year high school ELs to multiple paragraph essays, I constructed a narrative assignment about their lives. The first paragraph reflected life in students’ home countries; they were eager to give concrete details! The second followed the sequence of their journey to the United States. The variety of stories they told were wide and inspiring. Finally, they answered the question, “What are the biggest differences between life at home and living here in the United States?” Adding the element of compare and contrast enhanced academic rigor and provided opportunities to explore parallel structures, all while teaching me more about important changes they’d had to make to acculturate to life here.

From cluster-map brainstorming, drafting, editing, and revision, to publication on our memoir wall, the essays demonstrated loads of language development. Most importantly though, they bore witness to the heroism of my teen ELs, which is something no standardized test can measure.

3) Keep Your Ears Open

While my 8th grade student, Mariza, has been here nearly two years, her lexile is still zero. My principal visited class to congratulate students who’ve made a year’s progress in four months; there are several. When he noticed her lack of a lexile in her records, he asked me if she had just arrived. Several of her teachers were concerned enough to pursue special education testing. However, she is the only student her case manager and our school psychologist have ever seen take the initiative to introduce her mother to each teacher at the meeting in both Spanish and English. And she does not qualify for special-ed services.

After her initial IEP, in which the focus was to increase her language skills to close any apparent learning gaps, Mariza’s mom bought her “a book for study English at home.” Recently she asked me in class, “Miss, in my English book, root ‘bio’ in biology means ‘life’ and… is it a Latin root or Greek?” I have watched Mariza grow from a silent, shy newcomer to a civic volunteer who is curious about science etymology. Ever since career day, she wants to be an architect because “I’m good at math and I like buildings.” Were I to use only numeric measures as my gauge, I might miss the fact that Mariza is one of my most highly-developed 8th grade students with abundant empathy, social grace, and life skills to promise her a fulfilling future.

For ELD teachers, knowing our students well enough to monitor their holistic growth is critical to maintaining our sense of accomplishment as educators. Check out these resources for keeping your connection to your students’ lives strong.

*Note: Names have been changed.



Differentiated for early to advanced ELS, this lesson features biographies of three significant "outsiders" who are heroes for very different reasons: Martin Luther King, Jr. Gloria Estefan, and Lou Gehrig. Pupils identify the characteristics of heroes. Extend the lesson to help them express the heroic in themselves. Transfer these ideas to bios for more contemporary artists, athletes, and civic leaders.

Interviewing Each Other

With this straightforward resource for teaching skills for how to conduct interviews, your class could create a magazine of feature stories based on interviews about classmates. Modeled for talking to elite athletes, it could easily be adapted to help ELs highlight what their classmates do best and how they learned to do it!

Who Are You From?

Personalize your EL curriculum and learn more about where each person originated with these plans for the summative assignment from a unit on family for early ELs. Move language use forward with strategies from frontloading family "related" vocabulary to conducting online research and honoring individual family histories.