Literature Review: Supporting the Academic and Social Needs of English Language Learners

Supporting the Academic and Social Needs of English Language Learners

Written by: Alexa Harward



This literature review discusses the anxiety faced by English Language learners, as well as how teachers can best support their academic and social needs by providing different strategies. The United States is on the rise for immigration. Because of this, there is also a rise in non-English speaking students enrolling in schools. Unfortunately, teachers are assessed on how well their students perform on high stakes tests. Teachers needs to ensure that they are equipped with the ability to teach students of all cultures in order for them to perform well in class and on tests. Teachers of all age groups should be understanding of all the different cultures to ensure that these newcomers are accommodating to a new place without assimilating to a new culture. There are specific things that can be done to help with the already stressful process that these students are going through.

Language Stress and Anxiety Faced by English Language Learners

Students usually express anxiety when faced with learning a new language. Anxiety is described as a state of apprehension and a vague fear. Anxiety experienced by English Language Learners negatively influences student performance and language acquisition and has been found to be one of the most highly examined variables in all of psychology and education. Students as young as five years old can already feel the pressure of education in the classroom (Hashemi, 2011), and can not afford to have the stress of assimilating to a new culture and trying to learn a new language while doing so. Teachers play a crucial role in a students education when learning a new language.

Understanding and Supporting the Educational Needs of ELL’s

There are specific things that can be done in the classroom by the teacher so that ESL students can learn to their full potential (Hilliker, 2018). The first specific is to use visuals. Providing students with visuals is giving students an additional way to access information that they might not have language proficiency to understand in its written or spoken form. Another specific is to use repetition. Using repetition enables ESL students to acquire new vocabulary, concepts, and sentence structures. The third specific is to give off clear and concrete instructions. This can be done orally or written, using familiar vocabulary, keeping it concise, and providing models and examples of the specific task. Something else teaching can do so that students are learning to their full potential is to build background information before lessons. Teachers should be aware of the biases in the classroom, and be able to identify background knowledge students might need before the lesson starts. One last thing that teachers can do in the classroom is to be sensitive to all cultures. Taking the time to learn some different cultural differences that might cause issues in the classroom can go a long way in building relationships with students.

Use a SIOP Model in the Classroom

SIOP stands for Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol. It is a way for teachers to organize their instructional practices to teach foreign and second language learners, (Kareva, 2013). This model includes features that promote subject content and language development. There are eight different components of this model, which include lesson preparation, building background, comprehensible input, strategies, interaction, practice and application, lesson delivery, and review and assessment. Studies were done in three different types of classroom settings, including immigrant students, bilingual students, and English speaking students. Research showed that there was significant improvement in achieving the learning outcomes in all settings.

Bridging the Achievement Gap Through Explicit Vocabulary Instruction

Because immigration is on the rise in the United States, both legally and illegally, academic achievement gaps are continuing to widen. This gap ranges from students as young as four years old, all the way up to the university level. As a part of using a SIOP model in the classroom, pre teaching vocabulary is essential in the language development of ESL students, (Gibson, 2016). Implementing educational practices in the classroom where students are learning vocabulary, being taught cognitively and metacognitively, and using computers are all effective strategies. Different examples are pictorial vocabulary teaching, fill in the blank, storytelling and matching activities, and word play activities. These activities were found to be appropriate for all grade levels.

Unfamiliar Accents Negatively Affect Comprehension

In this article written by Yu-Lin Cheng, an experiment was conducted to EFL learners. Students were asked to see how well they could translate four audio files, all in an unfamiliar English accent. This experiment focused on two phases, the first phase to establish accent impact, and the second phase to identify predictors for success in reducing accent impact. In the first phase of the experiment, 75 students were chosen, as 50 were assigned to the experiment, and 25 were the control group. Based off of the results, participants showed that unfamiliar accented English negatively affects EFL listening comprehension. In the second phase, the 50 participants from the experiment were given the four audio files to try and recreate them as best as possible. Results showed that other variables predicted participant success in reducing accent impact. Students should be exposed to accents, native and non-native, and perform accent imitation to expand phonological-phonetic learning.

English learner students should engage in content that is easy for them to understand, (Cheng, 2018). The teacher, especially of primary aged students, or any student who is new to the language, should speak in a way where the students can comprehend what is being said. In component three of SIOP teaching, teachers should use speech that is appropriate for students language proficiency. Talking in an unfamiliar accent is not going to help the students become fully proficient when they are trying to learn that language. Although, this research says that the students should be exposed to non-native accents to succeed.

Vocabulary, Morphological Awareness, and Syntactic Knowledge is key to Comprehension

In this article, written by Gottardo, Mirza, Koh, Ferreira, and Javier, a study was done to examine the subcomponents of listening comprehension. Second language learners from Spanish speaking backgrounds, aged 9-13, completed tasks that tested their vocabulary, morphological awareness, syntactic knowledge, word reading, and reading comprehension in English. Students having syntactic knowledge is crucial in order for comprehending sentence structure, and reading comprehension, (Gottardo, 2018). Research evidence showed that having knowledge of syntax allows the student to determine the main idea and the general meaning of the sentence. Also, having this knowledge allows the reader to relate ideas within a sentence or across sentences. Syntactic knowledge is also crucial in listening comprehension. Research showed that syntax was directly correlated with reading comprehension, but not when phonological processing and working memory were controlled.

Being a primary school teacher, I do a lot of work with syntax in my grammar lessons. Students having knowledge of noun-subject-verb agreement is crucial in order to have higher reading comprehension. In first grade, we introduce a few grammar terms such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, and conjunctions. Some EL students struggle with this. In their home language of Spanish, the noun comes before the adjective, while in English, it is completely opposite where the noun comes after the adjective. Understanding the structure of a sentence helps the student to increase their reading comprehension in the English language. A lot of the time, students struggle with sentence structure. For example, instead of asking, “Can I go to the bathroom?” students will ask “I can go to the bathroom?”

Teaching Pragmatics

Pragmatics is a key discipline to be taught since it gives people the opportunity to be able to feel secure in every situation they may face in target language, (Herraiz- Matrinez, 2018). This article focuses on teaching pragmatics in English to non-English speaking students. This article, written by Herraiz-Martinez, goes through ways of helping fifteen 10-11 year old ELL students achieve pragmatic fluency in apologizing. Students went through five different activities in order to master the act of apologizing. These activities included understanding what an apology is and how to apologize, a collaborative and interactive task, a computer assisted activity, learning while playing, and recording their voice using avatars. In the first activity, students were provided with real life situations and suggestions in order to deal with apologies. In the next activity, students were given picture flashcards and different kinds of apologies, and they had to match the best apology with the picture. Then, students used technology to listen to different situations, and match the best apology with the short story. Then, students are given a specific amount of time to create sentences that had to do with apologies where they are trying to compete with each other to get the highest score. Last, students are able to record themselves apologizing to different situations and hear themselves speaking through an avatar character. Results showed that the learners were able to expand their knowledge on apologies in the different languages while working with technology to increase their pragmatic competence.

Confusingly enough, there are many “unspoken rules” to the English language. Students already have the stress of learning a new language, and making sure they are speaking grammatically correct, using the correct word order, and also making sure that they can understand the social use of the language. Once example comes to mind. One teacher sarcastically responded to an EL student with the phrase, “Thank you very much,” where the student who was not familiar with English responded with, “You’re welcome very much.” I could not help but feel sorry for that student, as they were not aware of the sarcasm in the teachers voice. Teachers need to make sure that they are always being direct with their students.

Automaticity of Learner Performance Becomes More Frequent Over Time

According to information-processing accounts of skill acquisition, learner performance becomes more automatic over time and with practice, requiring less attention, time, and cognitive effort, (Rodgers, 2011). This article focuses on a study that was done with 85 university level English learners of Italian. Each student was given an efficiency level, and completed a picture identification task, as well as a picture description task. This study was done to define and measure automaticity. This study measures the comprehension and production of verbal morphology. Students first participated in a vocabulary pretest where their knowledge of six different verbs was tested. Then, students participated in a proficiency test where they read sentences in Italian, and had to fill in missing parts of the sentence, given a word bank. Students were then given a beginner, intermediate, or advanced title, based off of their proficiency score. Then, students completed a picture description test where they had to tell the correct conjugation of the verb that was drawn in the picture card. Lastly, students identified the same set of pictures, to which the given sentence referred to. The results of these tasks proved that verbal morphology becomes automatized with increasing proficiency in the second language.

The idea of automaticity reminds me of students memorizing their sight words, and other high frequency words. Reading these words in books should be an automatic pattern or habit. Automaticity is reached when students are learning, practicing, and then acquiring the knowledge and skills. Unfortunately, a lot of sight words are not able to be sounded out letter by letter, ie: the, here, all, out. With practice on memorizing words, students will start to read them automatically in different texts. Another example is math addition and subtraction fact fluency. This is a North Carolina standard that students must be taught in the first grade. The more they practice, the better they will get with responding to simple addition and subtraction equations between 1 and 20. This will also get them ready for third grade when they start to memorize multiplication facts.

Analysis of Semantic Transfer

It is believed that second language learners tend to map second language lexical forms onto the existing semantic content of their first language translations rather than creating a separate semantic network for the second language, (Boran, 2018). This study examines the way Turkish second language learners translate semantic content of their first language into their home language. This study included nine participants who responded to three semantic tasks to see if words could be used interchangeably, be put into sentences, and then participate in a forward translation task. First, students were given ten pairs of English words that have different meanings in English, but have the same meaning in Turkish. Then, they had to fill in the sentences with the correct word, given a word bank. Last, students had to take the English word and put it into a Turkish sentence. The results showed that students struggled with differentiating if words were interchangeable, but were able to put the words into a sentence. Then, students struggles highly with forward translating the word pairs.

While looking at the data in the article, I was able to see a direct correlation with the English learners in my classroom. Although this study was done on young adults, primary aged students seem to have the same struggle as the Turkish students. My students struggle with the semantics of language, trying to decode specific words in their heads, but are mostly able to put the correct word in a sentence. This reminds me of an activity that I do with my students. When given a word bank, students are able to fill in sentences, but when you ask them to translate a given word into their language, it is difficult. I think if this experiment was done on elementary aged students, the researchers would find the same results as the young adult Turkish students.


Reading and learning about different types of applied linguistics opened my eyes to look at different types of language from all ages of students. Because I am a primary school teacher, and have such an elementary teacher mindset, when I think of an EL student, I think of an elementary aged Spanish student that lacks English skills and struggles with learning and acquiring a new language. While reading, I was making connections to my students, and thinking that if that study was done on them, the results would probably be about the same. It is crazy to think about how important and slightly confusing phonetics and pronunciation, syntax, pragmatics, morphology, and semantics are in the English language, and that there are small things that teachers can do to help this lengthy process of learning new content.

All of the standards that have to be taught to first grade students are hard enough, and students having to learn all of the standards in a language that is not their home language is also difficult. Poor pronunciation from an instructor can negatively affect the listening comprehension of a student. This is obvious, but I think is sometimes overlooked in the classroom. The importance of having syntactic knowledge is crucial for comprehending sentence structure, and reading comprehension. I also did not realize how students connecting something as small as learning how and when the appropriate time to use an apology was helping them increase their pragmatic competence. Also, the effects of having high understanding of verbal morphology can help students increase their proficiency in their second language. Lastly, students struggle with semantics of analyzing if words are interchangeable. “Teachers need to give encouragement and praise for what ELLs can do instead on dwelling on all that they can’t yet do by providing frequent opportunities for their success,” (Haynes, 2014).



Cheng, Y.-L. (2018). Unfamiliar Accented English Negatively Affects EFL Listening Comprehension: It Helps to Be a More Able Accent Mimic. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 47(4), 899–911.


Gottardo, A., Mirza, A., Koh, P. W., Ferreira, A., & Javier, C. (2018). Unpacking Listening Comprehension: The Role of Vocabulary, Morphological Awareness, and Syntactic Knowledge in Reading Comprehension. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 31(8), 1741–1764.


Herraiz-Martínez, A. (2018). Technology and Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT): Exploring Pragmatics. International Journal of Education and Development Using Information and Communication Technology, 14(2), 38–61.


Rodgers, D. M. (2011). The Automatization of Verbal Morphology in Instructed Second Language Acquisition. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching (IRAL), 49(4).


Boran, G. S. (2018). A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Semantic Transfer by Turkish Learners of English. Novitas-ROYAL (Research on Youth and Language), 12(1), 16–26.


Kareva, V., & Echevarria, J. (2013). Using the SIOP Model for Effective Content Teaching with Second and Foreign Language Learners. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 1(2), 239–248.


Ferlazzo, L. (2014, March 15). Response: 'Respecting Assets That ELLs Bring To A School Community'.


Hilliker, E. (2018, August 30). 5 Things English Learners Need From Classroom Teachers.


Gibson, C. (2016). Bridging English Language Learner Achievement Gaps through Effective Vocabulary Development Strategies. English Language Teaching, 9(9), 134–138.


Hashemi, M. (2011, December 27). Language Stress And Anxiety Among The English Language Learners.