Tod Johnston

Personalizing Learning for English Language Learners

Discussion created by Tod Johnston on Nov 11, 2016

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 4.5 million English language learners (ELLs) in U.S. schools make up 9.3 percent of the total student population—and the population is growing.



Unfortunately, English language learners underperform across grade levels in both reading and math. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, Getting Smart’s Supporting English Language Learners with Next Gen Tools cites evidence that, with the right supports, bilingual students can thrive. In fact, the report states, “Studies show that within 4 to 5 years, bilingual students typically outperform their peers in one language classrooms.”


The report goes on to list personalized learning as a promising strategy for better ensuring that English language learners “work with language as comprehensible input.”  Adopting a personalized pedagogy enables English learners to work at the correct level and at the correct pace, but not in isolation. A combination of learning techniques—including blended approaches, small group instruction, and project-based learning—can provide students opportunities to progress as learners and develop language through collaborative, authentic work with peers.


Ensuring that English language learners have the opportunity to excel in a personalized environment hinges on knowing them as learners. Formative and interim assessments, such as MAP, inform exact competencies and define the right level for instruction. But it is important to go beyond data on academic knowledge and skills and get to know your students as people. By investing time and energy getting to know English learners’ backgrounds, cultures, native languages, and interests, teachers are positioned to tailor instruction and activities to make sure they are relevant and meaningful. Beyond this, English language learners can feel a greater sense of belonging in a community; the classroom belongs less to the teacher and more to the students.


NWEA professional development trainer Virginia Williams compiled a list of 7 strategies for teachers to scaffold instruction for English language learners. Tips range from specific to language, such as “understanding first language syntax,” to more general techniques that are beneficial to all learners, like providing plentiful opportunities to engage in “academic discourse.” In line with the principles of personalized learning, her strategies all require a teacher to consider the needs of individual students when planning classroom activities.


While personalized learning holds great promise for all students, it can be particularly powerful for English learners who are too often left behind by a "one size fits all" instructional approach. Their background, experiences, and language competencies can serve as unique opportunities to personalize instruction and help them thrive.


Join the discussion below by responding to the questions: As you use MAP data to place ELL students on the learning continuum, which of the ideas from Virginia Williams' blog can you adopt? How can you adapt and personalize instruction for your English Language Learners?