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The ERIC/OSEP Special Project

OSEP, Ideas that Work

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Development funded by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs


Separating English Instruction from Content Instruction Benefits English Language Learners

Teachers of English-language learners face a challenge in finding the right balance between language growth and academic growth. A recent synthesis of research findings, funded by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs, helps them to do just that.

Conducted by Russell Gersten and Scott Baker of the University of Oregon, the study used a series of professional work groups with practitioners and researchers to learn and understand "promising and productive practices" as well as recurrent instructional problems in teaching English-language learners.

Many teachers try to help students learn English through instruction in content areas. A good program for developing solid skills in students who are learning English focuses on the development of and proficiency and fluency in English; it will vary the lesson between the teaching of English language development and the teaching of content or concept acquisition. "When cognitive demands are high," the researchers report, "language expectations are simplified." And conversely, when language learning becomes the focus, "cognitive demands are intentionally reduced so that students can more comfortably experiment with extended English-language use."

Because of the double demands on these students, language instruction should include strong visuals such as semantic and story maps to make the abstractions of language more concrete. It is also important to give students "frequent opportunities to use oral language in the classroom," both in conversational English as well as in academic discourse.

The study also reported other findings with instructional value for teachers of English-language learners who want to improve the skills of their students. The complete report on the study can be found in the Summer 2000 issue of Exceptional Children.

The research synthesis reported here was supported by a grant from the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education, (Grant #H023E50013, directed by Russell Gersten). For more information, see Gersten, R., & Baker, S. (2000, Summer). What we know about effective instructional practices for English-language learners. Exceptional Children 66(4), pp. 454-470.


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Last updated: December 11, 2001

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