Finding Materials to Support English Learners Successfully

Districts increasingly are reaching out to us for assistance in finding materials to support English Learners (ELs).  Some districts are seeking comprehensive materials with strong support for ELs; others are seeking materials specifically designed to support EL students’ language acquisition. Learning List has reviewed both types. In January, we wrote about seven trends we have observed in materials’ support for ELs. This article discusses the types of supports to look for when seeking materials to support ELs successfully.

As part of Learning List’s review process, we identify each material’s supports for English Learners (ELs). We provide a high-level overview of the material’s EL adaptions in our Academic Inventory and a detailed narrative about the level of support for ELs in the “Adaptions for Special Populations” section of our Editorial Reviews. The types of EL supports we look for when reviewing materials fall into the following five categories:

Academic Vocabulary Support—An instructional material supports the development of academic vocabulary when it includes instructional strategies specific to task, such as pre-teaching vocabulary or lessons that teach academic vocabulary in and out of context. In other words, the material supports the students’ real-world use of academic vocabulary. Frequently, materials that provide the best support for ELs include tools that support students’ independent understanding of the content, such as multilingual glossaries, photo glossaries and embedded definitions.

Language Acquisition Support—The material supports language acquisition if it includes instructional strategies to support oral language development specifically identified for English Learners. Materials that best support language acquisition also include ongoing opportunities for purposeful, interactive, collaborative work and intentionally planned opportunities for students’ use of oral language. 

Translation Support—Tools for translation support are most often present in digital materials; however, it is not uncommon for publishers to provide print materials in the first language. The level to which translation support is provided varies in both scope and type. For example, some materials provide the full text of material and all resources in both English and Spanish, while others translate only part of the core content. Most often, translation is provided in Spanish, though some materials provide translation in multiple languages. Some digital materials also provide the opportunity for students to copy and paste content into a translator. Most digital materials provide audio support and closed captioning to support understanding.

Reading Support—Levels of reading support varies significantly across content areas, with more frequent supports in ELA materials, and more support available in the elementary grades than the secondary grades. Reading supports are most commonly found in digital materials and range from full text read aloud to students being able to select the portions of the text to be read. Although it is less common, some materials provide the opportunity to adjust the level of reading material based on levels of English proficiency.

Instructional Support—Levels of instructional support vary greatly across publishers. It is not unusual to find that materials provide no specific supports for ELs. Most often, materials provide general instructional strategies, such as “place students in small groups” or “preview content” under the heading of adaptions for ELs. Materials that provide strong support for ELs include instructional strategies specific to the level of English proficiency, strategies that reflect research-based best practices for ELs, and intentionally scaffolded lesson design. 

After identifying the supports each material provides for ELs, Learning List determines whether to “tag” the material as supporting EL students. Our determination is based on the degree to which our reviewers[1] think the material’s tools and strategies allow EL students to access and learn from the material in a manner that is equivalent to their native English-speaking peers.

Materials with specific and relevant adaptions are more likely to provide the support ELs need to be successful. Learning List continually monitors the instructional research in this area and evolves our rubrics and reviews to reflect best practice.


[1] Learning List’s Director of Editorial Review, 68% of elementary certified reviewers, and 50% of all reviewers are ESL or Bilingual certified.